When a gamer learns about video game addiction, the first question that comes to their mind is, “How do I stop playing video games?”
There are three ways to stop playing video games:
- Quit all forms of gaming instantly.
- Slowly reduce the amount of time you spend gaming.
- Find a competing interest that pulls you away from video games.
However, for these strategies to be effective, it is essential to understand how video games affect your brain and behavior. Let’s try to understand this.
Why Do You Need to Stop Playing Video Games?
One of the biggest mistakes we make when we realize we have an addiction is to try to drop the vice entirely. However, that does not go very well. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, up to 90% of alcoholics will have at least one relapse during the first four years after they get sober. Unlike video games, alcohol creates a biological addiction. However, video game addiction statistics are somewhat similar. More research needs to be done to estimate how often gamers relapse.
Simply putting an end to your gaming habit will not necessarily fix your life. However, you have a better chance of having a healthy relationship with video games if you figure out why you play video games. If you understand what needs video games fulfill, you will be able to find other ways to satisfy those needs.
Why Do People Fail When They Try to Quit Video Games?
What happens if you try to quit video games? You can maybe take a day or two of no gaming. However, eventually, you want to get back to playing again. That is because video games change your brain in a few fundamental ways. It is crucial to understand how video games affect your brain if you want to control your gaming habit.
- Video games increase your dopamine tolerance. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in our brain that regulates how much pleasure we feel. When you get to the point that you need to play video games for 10+ hours a day to have fun, you have developed a dopamine tolerance. In such a scenario, other activities do not feel as fun as playing a video game, and if you stop gaming, you just feel bored for several hours a day.
- Video games are challenging, and that is why a ton of gamers get addicted to it. Video games hack into a psychological pattern in our brains called the triumph circuit. This circuit makes us feel a sense of achievement when we achieve something in life. However, since video games can deliver this feeling to you so quickly, your brain will gravitate towards them rather than pursuing real-life goals to achieve the same feeling.
- Video games suppress negative emotions. fMRI studies have shown that when a person plays video games, their amygdala (the part of the brain that governs negative emotion) calms down. Many people use video games as a coping mechanism. If they were to stop playing video games suddenly, these suppressed negative emotions would bubble up. As they have no other way to manage these negative emotions aside from gaming, they naturally return to video games to cope with them.
Strategies to Stop Playing Video Games
Quitting Cold Turkey
You can drop gaming altogether. While this is the least effective strategy to overcome video game addiction, it does work for some people. However, this has a low success rate because of the way gaming affects our brains.
Instead of trying to quit gaming altogether, try to do a dopamine detox. A dopamine detox is an exercise to deprive yourself of activities that are too stimulating and fun. Delete all social media applications from your phone, uninstall all your games, and disconnect your computer and keep it somewhere that is not easily accessible.
Before starting the dopamine fast, try to find other activities to do. Try picking up a skill that involves creating something physical. Try learning a new instrument. Pick up a sport, or start a new exercise routine. Try to spend more time in nature – go for a hike or a run. You can even try to start meditating and cultivating more internal awareness. If you can come to terms with the reason you play video games in the first place, it will be easier to find ways to avoid gaming.
Dopamine detoxes are the most effective when done with someone. Have a friend do it with you. You can check in with each other for fifteen minutes a day and hold each other accountable.
It typically takes the brain about two weeks to reset itself to normal dopamine levels. If you successfully abstain for two weeks, congratulations! After this, not only will video games feel more fun, but you might also have found other activities to enjoy. However, be careful. Gaming might have served as a coping mechanism for you, and if you have not found a way to address the cause of these urges, then it is likely that you will relapse.
You can watch Dr. K’s thoughts on quitting cold turkey here:
Slowly Reducing the Time Spent Gaming
Nobody will blame you if you feel you cannot quit gaming in one go. Many people rely on gaming as a coping mechanism for negative emotions, a sense of community, and a way to de-stress.
It is easier to reduce the time spent gaming than to try to quit gaming in one go. Here is an example plan that you can follow. However, feel free to modify this to suit your pace and needs.
- Let’s assume that you spend 10 hours a day gaming.
- You can start by spending 15 minutes cleaning as much of your room as you can. You don’t have to clean the whole thing, only as much as you can in fifteen minutes. Don’t worry about being efficient with your time. Even if you pick up one shirt from the ground and put it in the laundry basket, that is good enough.
- After doing this for 3-4 days, try increasing this time to 30 minutes, and cleaning up more of your room. Over time, you can increase the duration spent on activities other than gaming and incorporate more things to do. These could be going for a short walk, learning a new instrument, picking up a new hobby, or meditating.
- Important Note: Don’t try to add new activities and increase the time spent on another hobby at the same time. Biting off more than you can chew will only lead to another failed attempt. Change is not a sprint; it is a marathon, and it requires patience.
Over six months, you could try increasing the time you don’t spend gaming from 10 hours a day to 5 hours a day. That is a significant improvement. Those are 5 hours in the day spent on productive activities. If you spent those hours learning new skills or pursuing your goals, that would significantly improve your confidence and quality of life.
Check out this video to learn more about dopamine reward circuitry:
It could also be valuable to see a mental health professional. Think of it as a buff — it would increase the rate at which you could overcome your video game addiction. A therapist could help you identify and work on the underlying issues that drive your gaming habit.
If you would like to learn about different mental health resources, including the Healthy Gamer Coaching program, click here.
Developing and Finding a Competing Interest
In addiction psychiatry, it is not sufficient to simply stop using the substance in question. The urges will be too strong, and the likelihood of relapse is too high. One of the most effective ways to get someone to quit a substance is to help them develop a competing interest.
A competing interest is an activity, hobby, or goal that makes you less reliant on your vice. The drive to engage in the activity or achieve a goal is so strong that it overcomes the urge to indulge in the addiction. Even though this concept originated out of substance abuse addictions, it works well for video game addiction.
Gamers get stuck in life because they feel powerless and directionless. They think that they don’t have control over their lives. They want to become accomplished individuals, but they end up being pulled back into video games, and cannot find the motivation to move forward in life. Moreover, they don’t even know which direction to move in. That can be paralyzing.
Video games give you a false sense of direction and growth. Due to our evolutionary history, progress is attractive to our brains. Video games fulfill that need, and as a result, it is difficult for gamers to engage that internal drive to achieve outside video games. However, sometimes you try to set your heart on something and accomplish it. You give it your all, and then you encounter a roadblock. The initial motivation that drove you to achieve your goal disappears suddenly. You try to push through, but eventually, you give up and stop. It is important not to treat these tries as failures. Instead, it is essential to understand why you failed.
Dr. K talks about developing a competing interest in this video:
Often, we pick arbitrary goals for ourselves. For example, a lot of gamers choose financial independence as a goal. However, that goal comes out of a desire, not a value. Desires don’t motivate you to make long-term changes in your life; values do. Desires are things that would be nice to have, but you wouldn’t have that drive to achieve them.
On the other hand, values motivate you to get out of your chair and achieve something, despite its difficulty and the suffering it may bring. That is essentially what a competing interest is — it arises out of your values, not your desires. Values make you feel fulfilled when you move in their prescribed direction.
The problem is that many gamers don’t know what their values are, which leaves them directionless. Luckily, there are some exercises that you can do to figure out what you value.
Exercises to Figure Out Your Values
- Grab a piece of paper and write 500 words about a time when you felt fulfilled. Write about it in as much detail as you can. It is vital to sit down and do this exercise with a pen and a piece of paper. While gamers are good at analytical thinking, they don’t have much practice reflecting on their thought process. Putting your thoughts down on paper will help you look at them critically. It will also prevent you from falling into the trap of editing them as you write.
- Again, grab a piece of paper and write about ten things that are wrong with the world. Write about them in as much detail as you can — this will help you clarify your values, and figure out what you care about. It is essential to do this exercise on a piece of paper because the first five things you write down will probably be things that you already know. However, the last five might be new, and you will be surprised at what you learn about yourself.
While you can try to stop playing video games in one go, or slowly reduce the time spent playing them, the most effective way to take back control over your gaming habit and your life is by developing a competing interest. Figuring out your competing interest depends on how well you can clarify and define your values. Moreover, you have to learn to differentiate your values from your desires. Your values will invoke an intrinsic sense of motivation that will come automatically, and your behavior will start to change. However, this will be a slow process, so don’t expect immediate results. Focus on developing a competing interest, and create change, one day at a time.
If you think your gaming habit is a problem, you can sign up to work with a HealthyGamer coach, trained by Dr. Alok Kanojia himself.