The journey of a video game addict consists of three discrete phases. These phases can help us understand the severity of the addiction, but not all gamers will go through all the stages of video game addiction.
The three stages of video game addiction are:
- You play video games for several hours, and you have fun.
- You play video games for several hours, but you don’t have as much fun. However, they can help you improve your mood.
- You play video games for several hours, but you don’t have fun, and they don’t improve your mood either. Moreover, you cannot stop playing them.
Let’s understand the causes behind each of these stages, and how one can overcome video game addiction.
First Stage of Video Game Addiction
The first phase of video game addiction is quite benign. It is the phase in which video games are actively fun. You can play them for long periods and have fun throughout the gaming session. Video games are fun because when you play them, your game releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine controls the amount of pleasure we feel.
However, over months or years, as you continue to play games, your brain starts to adapt to that steady degree of dopamine release. That is due to a mechanism in our brain called homeostasis. This mechanism maintains a balanced state in our brains.
One of the ways homeostasis manifests is a biological principle called tolerance. We can understand this using the example of coffee and alcohol. The first cup of caffeine you ever have in your life will make you wired. However, if you keep consuming caffeine every morning, your body will eventually develop a tolerance to it. As a result, if you skip it on a particular morning, you will feel tired and exhausted. Consequently, when you do end up consuming caffeine, it won’t have the same effect; it won’t hype you up, it will only make you feel normal.
Similarly, if a person drinks alcohol for the first time, they will get drunk very quickly. But if they start to drink regularly, their body will develop a tolerance to that amount of alcohol. It will take more and more alcohol to feel its effects, as their body will be less sensitive to it.
Gaming is no different, however, it does not have exactly the same effect as other biological addictions. In the first phase of video game addiction, your brain has not yet acclimatized to dopamine. As a result, games still feel fun, but over time, the amount of fun you have will decrease.
Check out this video to learn more about dopamine addiction:
Second Stage of Video Game Addiction:
In the second stage of video game addiction, video games don’t feel as fun. That is because you have developed a tolerance to that constant stream of dopamine. You can often find gamers saying, “There are no fun video games out right now. I have played hundreds of hours of this one game, and I keep coming back to it because there is nothing else to play.”
Since gaming does not feel fun anymore, it does not give you a high. However, it can still help you when you’re feeling low.
Video games suppress negative emotions. The amygdala is the part of our brain that governs negative emotions. fMRI studies have shown that if we start playing games when our amygdala shows activity, it calms down. However, constant suppression can lead to the development of a condition called Alexithymia. An alexithymic person has difficulty or is unable to determine their inner emotional state. For example, when people say that they are “in control” of their emotions, one of the examples they give is that they can watch a sad movie without crying. That is not controlling your emotions. It is suppression. When people suppress one emotion, they suppress all emotions.
Check out this webinar on unsuppressing emotions:
If you’re experiencing any negative emotion; stress, frustration, anger, worry, or sadness; if you play a video game, those feelings probably fade into the background. Therefore, in the second phase of video game addiction, even though video games aren’t fun, they can still remove negative emotions.
Third Stage of Video Game Addiction
If people continue to game past the second phase, they enter the third stage of video game addiction. This stage shares a characteristic with other biological addictions — it stops taking away negative emotions. If you used to use gaming to escape emotional pain, then you will find that it will not work anymore. You will feel trapped in your gaming. It won’t feel fun, but you will not be able to stop doing it either. That is because of the way our learning circuitry is tied to our emotions.
For example, a five-year-old kid touches a hot stove and gets burned. As a result, a signal travels up his arm into his brain, which has pain receptors. These pain receptors activate in his somatosensory cortex. Since he is a child, he starts crying. When he starts to cry, his amygdala, which is the part of the brain that governs fear and negative emotion, lights up. The amygdala then makes connections to his hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. All it takes is one try, and the kid learns never to touch a hot stove again. Pain is the best teacher. While we need regular reinforcement to learn something, learning through punishment is much quicker.
However, in the third stage of video game addiction, the learning circuitry is compromised. Since the amygdala is not as active, it does not make connections to the hippocampus as efficiently. That is one of the main reasons gamers stay stuck in their gaming habit. They cannot cut back on gaming even though they logically realize that it causes problems in their lives.
Check out this video on how gaming affects learning circuitry:
Moreover, in this phase of video game addiction, dopamine exhaustion gets so bad that nothing feels fun. Dopamine exhaustion occurs when your body becomes chronically used to having a high level of dopamine from gaming. It causes problems for gamers because the activities that they would otherwise enjoy don’t seem fun anymore. Their dopamine tolerance has become so high that it has reached the point of dopamine exhaustion. Gamers attribute this to them losing interest in a particular video game, but if they try other things, those don’t seem fun either.
Gamers need to realize that they don’t find anything fun because their neurochemistry has changed. Every other activity will feel boring because of the way video games have exhausted their dopamine circuitry.
Understanding the stages of video game addiction is a crucial step to identify which stage you are on. You can use this guide to gauge the severity of your addiction and create an action plan to overcome your gaming habit.
If you’d like to learn how to stop gaming, click here.
You have to give yourself time away from gaming to allow your brain to reset. It needs to achieve homeostasis at a low level of dopamine. That can take somewhere between three weeks to two months. However, you will start to see some changes in about a week. By three weeks, you will see noticeable changes, and by two months, you should be fully back to normal.
You have to understand that before your brain resets, anything you do will be less fun. That is due to how your neurocircuitry has changed as a result of gaming. Therefore, when you start to think about gaming again, ask yourself if you went through these phases:
- Initially, video games were a lot of fun.
- They became less fun, but if you were having a bad day, they made you feel much better.
- Video games stopped being fun, and you did not know why you were playing them anymore. Even though they did not improve your day, you could not stop playing.
If you went through these phases, then your dopamine circuitry is exhausted. Understand that when you try to find alternatives to gaming, you will not enjoy anything as much, and it is not because the activities you try are boring.
Even though the third stage of video game addiction can be scary, there is hope. If you give yourself a couple of weeks or a couple of months, you will start to enjoy activities in a different way that has nothing to do with your likes or dislikes. It will be based on the capacity of your brain to experience enjoyment. You will be able to have fun without playing video games.
If you feel that your gaming habit is affecting your life, we can help. Sign up to work with a HealthyGamer Coach, trained by Dr. Alok Kanojia himself. HealthyGamer Coaches are gamers who have taken control of their life, and know exactly what you’re going through.
If you’re a parent seeking help with your child’s video game addiction, check out our Family Programs.