Many people scoff at the idea that things like video games and internet role playing games can actually be addictive. Yet, more and more healthcare professionals are recognizing the problem, and some governments, like South Korea, have gone so far as to declare it a national health concern. As of 2013, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders), officially recognizes “Internet Gaming Disorder” as a real psychological illness.
It’s easy to see how one can become addicted to drugs or alcohol, or even gambling, but how can one be literally addicted to a game?
The Neuroscience of How an Addiction Develops – Pleasure, Motivation, and Supernormal Stimulus
Addiction hijacks the brain’s natural feedback system for pleasure and motivation. Whenever we do something that increases our chances of survival, such as eat a piece of fruit or engage in sex, our brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine causes us to experience pleasure, and our brain creates a powerful link between that feeling and the behavior that created it. This neural link between the behavior and pleasure then motivates us to repeat the behavior.
Addiction occurs when we are exposed to a “supernormal” stimulus—that is, something that triggers a dopamine release that is larger than that which could be experienced naturally. Classic addictions work by chemically inducing massive dopamine releases. Gambling addiction works by playing on the dynamic between risk and reward: because it takes great motivation to take a risk, the brain releases more dopamine when it works out in order to keep us trying when it doesn’t. The greater both risk and reward are, the bigger the “high” when you win.
Pornography addiction works by providing more variety and ease of access in sexual stimulation than you would ever get from a regular partner or the occasional encounter; the brain releases more dopamine in response to novelty because it thinks that we are spreading our genes wider. Also, the attractiveness of the models is often cosmetically or even digitally enhanced, triggering an even bigger dopamine release. That, combined with the ease of access, means that this experience can be repeated again and again, at ever increasing dopamine levels, making porn a supernormal stimulus.
Internet Gaming Addiction and Its Effects on the Brain
Dopamine is also released when we set a goal and then achieve that goal. Similar to gambling, the more challenging the goal, the larger the dopamine release upon achieving that goal, since we need the extra motivation to allow us to persevere. It is this mechanism that makes Internet gaming addictive: it presents the player with goals that are just challenging enough to trigger a large dopamine release when they are achieved, but not so challenging that that high can’t be experienced again and again, like pornography.
The gaming addict is also prevented from developing tolerance, since the challenges gradually increase to always be one step beyond their current skills. And, like pornography, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMOPG’s) provide infinite variety. When these factors combine in the right person, the result is an addiction that can be every bit as powerful as the types that with which we’re familiar.
Breaking the Cycle of Internet Gaming Addiction
The process for breaking the cycle of internet gaming addiction is much the same as that for breaking any other addiction. First, there must be a period of forced abstinence, the length of which depends on the length and severity of the addiction. Then the underlying causes of the addiction have to be addressed. In this case, poor social skills are often a contributing factor. Finally, the addict must find something to replace their addiction, such as friends, sports, or a hobby.