David ‘Hesh’ Walker. Illidan Stormrage. Sonic the Hedgehog. Now that I have your attention, please put down the controller or take your hand off the keyboard, and read on! This article will review the pros and cons of video gaming, how to recognize when it’s becoming problematic and offer some suggestions and ideas to assist with making healthy changes.
First the bad news. Some experts believe that playing video games excessively can hinder the development of the frontal lobe of the brain and impact the advancement of certain social and empathic skills. This can affect how we engage with and influence others. While the gamer is exploring a fantasy cyber world, he or she is removed from the real world and may become socially isolated.
In some studies, video gaming has been found to have negative consequences on the body by increasing blood pressure. Gaming can initiate the body’s autonomic nervous system and increase levels of adrenaline and other stress related chemical messengers. The gamers’ increased physical and mental arousal can leave them feeling tense and irritable. Since the video games are often emotionally and intellectually captivating, they can change the brain’s dopamine circuitry so that the gamer craves more and more play. Video games can also portray and teach the wrong values; for example, violence and aggression may be encouraged and rewarded. It has been suggested that such games desensitize gamers to different forms of violence.
But before we draw conclusions and vilify gaming, there is also some research highlighting the positive aspects of this popular pastime. One study found growth of new neurons in the brain regions responsible for fine-motor skills, spatial awareness, strategic planning and memory formation for those who play video games. Depending on the game being played, the benefits may include the fostering or enhancing of: reading and math skills, reaction time, pattern recognition, concentration, creativity, and problem solving. Playing video games can give an individual a sense of accomplishment and mastery and therefore improve levels of contentment. Some experts even argue that violent video games enable the player to release bottled-up aggression and frustration.
It is important to note that the research is trying to catch up to the rapid advancements within the gaming world over the past decade, so we still don’t completely understand the long term impact video games will have on our lives.
How much video gaming is too much? This is the question that doesn’t appear to have a consistent answer. Some say anything over 2 hours a day is too much. Others say over 24 hours a week is excessive. It’s hard to determine because there are so many individual differences among us and there is so much variability among games. Perhaps this question should be broken down into several. Does the amount of time spent on gaming and the type of game being played impact your well-being and other key areas of your life? Is the amount of time you spend on gaming affecting your ability to excel at school or at work? Is it impacting your ability to get a full night’s sleep? Is it constantly on your mind regardless of what you are doing? Is your number of online friends starting to outweigh your real life friends and/or is the bulk of your communication with online gaming friends? Are you experiencing intense irritability or anxiety when you are not able or allowed to play? Is the amount of time spent on gaming straining your relationship with family or significant others? Have you lost the motivation to do anything else besides play video games? If so, you likely need to make some changes.
Regardless of the contradictions and mixed messages in the research, the crucial point to remember is the importance of balance! In psychology we are moving towards a holistic or integrative approach to well-being. Develop a schedule or routine. Make sure you are getting ample sleep, eating healthy food, and exercising. Have a healthy range of positive (face-to-face) interactions, and have engaging activities to participate in. Video gaming can’t replace the benefits of communicating, exploring, playing and creating/ enhancing social connections in the real world. Spend more time with people you care about. A fun, fulfilling social life will reinforce your ability to stay connected while offline. You can’t think of any activities to do? How about: swim, bike, go to the gym, join scouts or cadets or martial arts, draw or paint a picture, read a book, volunteer, play a musical instrument, join a club at school, play sports, go for a walk or a hike, etc.
Don’t worry. Your video games can be part of the routine, but make sure they don’t dominate it. Moderation is the key.