When life isn’t going well, we find ways to escape.
One easy escape is video gaming.
A deputy principal recently told me that during COVID-19 lockdown many of his ATAR students developed an addiction to playing massive online multiplayer games. These students had lost all motivation to study.
These addictive games have become a refuge from a world where students feel no sense of purpose and direction. In these unreal worlds, students get to feel a sense of mastery, belonging and control.
The goals are clear.
The world is simplified.
The consequences are suspended.
But as English professor Ryan Van Cleave points out in The Guardian piece At war with War Craft the real world is a little bit messier. He states:
“Playing World of Warcraft makes me feel god like . . . I have ultimate control and can do what I want with few real repercussions. The real world makes me feel impotent . . . a computer malfunction, a sobbing child, a suddenly dead cell phone battery, the littlest hitch in daily living feels profoundly disempowering.”
Let’s not forget the fact we’re living through a pandemic, the sixth mass extinction of species, an unstable climate and an economic recession is biting at our heels.
These are confusing and uncertain times.
Researcher on excessive gaming Dr Olivia Metcalf states video games allow us to feel “outstanding when in real life we are probably average”.
It’s hardly surprising so many students turn to video games in an attempt to perk themselves up a bit.
The problem is playing video games won’t (and can’t) fix low confidence, anxiety, depression, a sense of dread and overwhelm. Why?
Because as Johann Hari (author of Lost Connections) states these games offer a “a parody of connection”. They can’t truly fulfil our deepest need for connection.
Now I get that you might be thinking, “But it’s just a bit of harmless fun!”
Well, not exactly . . .
The problem with modern video games
Multiplayer online games contain design features that make them highly addictive. Along with social media, I’d argue that they are a form of life destroying technology. Here’s why . . .
When you immerse your brain in an environment where you are bombarded with fast paced stimuli, your brain adapts and rewires to this.
Research from Iowa State University found children and teenagers who spend more time playing video games are more likely to experience attention problems.
Why does this matter?
Because attention is critical to the learning process. If you want to be able to learn deeply and memorise information, you need to be able to pay attention (and sustain your attention).
These games are also a massive time sink.
If the default activity is playing video games and a chunk of your day is spent doing this, what else are you doing?
Not a lot.
If you sense that your brain no longer belongs to you (but is just an extension of the video game), it’s time to get your life back. It’s time to quit video games.
Quitting video games: Why willpower isn’t enough
Telling yourself, “Don’t play video games! Don’t play video games!” won’t work. In fact, research shows this has the opposite effect (i.e. you’re more likely to play video games).
Trying to use willpower on it’s own is like swimming upstream against a really strong current. It’s exhausting. You know at some point (usually after 15 minutes) you’re going to give up. Why? Because willpower is a finite resource. It can only get you so far.
This is why you need to use your limited willpower to establish strategies, systems and rules to help you deal with your gaming addiction.
Jane’s addiction: My addictive personality
Although I’ve never been addicted to video games, I have an addictive personality. I have to be really careful with what I consume, otherwise I can spiral out of control.
I’m the person at the party who stands near the bowl of crisps and can’t stop eating them.
This is why I’ve established rules in my life to not touch or go near certain things (e.g. bowls of crisps). I’ve learnt I can’t do crisps and other processed foods in moderation. I just have to avoid them.
If I do slip up (and sometimes I do), it’s not the end of the world. I don’t give myself a hard time about it. Instead I implement strategies, systems and rules to get back on track.
Strategies, systems and rules to concur video game addiction
Here is a list of simple strategies, systems and rules that you can use reclaim your brain from video game (or any tech related) addiction:
1. Detox for 90 days
Like a smoker, you need to go cold turkey. Uninstall the game. Put away the video game console. Unplug everything. Put it in a box. No more gaming for the next 90 days.
If you’re thinking, “But what about everything in moderation?”
When it comes to addiction, moderation simply doesn’t work.
Imagine you had a friend who was addicted to smoking and they were trying to quit. You wouldn’t say to your friend:
“You can have a couple of cigarettes today but no more for the rest of the week.”
The idea of smoking cigarettes in moderation is insane.
When you’re addicted to any substance one is too many, and a thousand is never enough.
You just have to quit.
The same thing applies with video games. Every time you play a game, your nucleus accumbens lights up (this is the part of your brain that is associated with pleasure, reward and motivation).
If you pump too much dopamine into your nucleus accumbens, what happens is you overload this part of your brain. Subsequently, your brain will adapt by thinning out your dopamine receptors. This means you’ll need to ramp up your gaming to experience the same amount of pleasure. This is how addiction works. This is how things get out of control.
So again, you just have to quit.
Game Quitters recommend that you detox for 90 days.
Ninety days will give your neural circuits a chance to rewire and allow your dopamine receptors to regenerate and start working like they should. You’ll also get a clear sense of what life feels like without video games.
Treat this as an experiment that could potentially change your life for the better.
2. Re-design your environment
Make it inconvenient to play video games. Uninstall Steam. Give your password to someone else (and get them to change it). Delete your gaming account. Unplug everything and get it out of the house. Do whatever it takes to make it difficult to play the game that has become all consuming.
3. Notice what’s going on inside your head
For the first few days of your detox, expect to feel a bit restless, irritable, anxious, angry, sad, lost, etc. Don’t fight or suppress what you’re feeling.
If you feel the urge to play video games (and you will), just notice it and try ‘urge surfing’. Ruth Ostrow describes this strategy in the following way:
“It’s about being mindful, acutely and consciously aware of what exactly is happening when temptations and urges strike. The neuroscience-based premise is that by fully absorbing yourself in what’s occurring, you divert attention from the craving itself and eventually recondition the brain.”
4. Fill your life with good stuff
With no video games to play, there’s going to be a big gapping hole in your life. You need to fill that hole with something. Make it something good.
“What could you do with all those hours you typically spend playing video games?”
Game Quitters have a fantastic hobby tool you can use to explore this question.
The possibilities are endless. Use this free time to develop some serious skills.
Make sure you engage in some activities that involve people, nature and/or animals. Here are some ideas:
• Physical movement (yoga, walking, dancing and lifting weights)
• Drawing/sketching different people and places (check out the Addictive Sketcher)
• Learn a musical instrument
• Take an online course (check out free or cheap courses on Udemy)
• Journaling (write out your random thoughts)
• Go for a walk with a friend or your dog
• Start volunteering for an organisation or cause
To make these activities happen, you’ll need to develop a schedule. Get yourself a diary, some post-it notes, and/or a wall calendar. Start planning.
5. Take action with the Tiny Habits approach
It’s one thing to create a plan. It’s another thing to execute that plan. I recommend taking the free online course on cultivating Tiny Habits. It’s a tiny course that runs over 5 days and only requires 3 minutes a day. This course will help you to engage in new, healthy behaviours.
6. Have an accountability buddy
You’ll need someone to keep a close eye on you. Left to your own devices, you run the risk of spiralling out of control.
You need someone in your life who is going to help you to self regulate. Someone who will check in on you and say, “Are you okay?”, “You’ve been staring at the screen for over two hours. Let’s go for a walk” or “What new hobby can you engage in right now?”
Your accountability buddy will be critical in those moments when you feel the urge to play video games. A simple phone call or text can make all the difference. Telling your buddy, “I feel like playing right now” and receiving a little pep talk can help you surf the addictive feeling.
7. Take care of yourself
Expect to experience some withdrawal symptoms when you stop playing video games. You’ll feel a bit itchy and unsettled. You may even feel like you have flu-like symptoms.
In order to feel normal again, you’ll feel like firing up that console. But resist the urge. Just know that these uncomfortable feelings will pass. It just takes time.
In the meantime, go do nice things for yourself. Drink plenty of water. Eat nutritious meals. Take yourself and the dog for a walk. Establish a sleep routine. Have a bath.
Remind yourself that every day that passes without playing video games, you are rewiring your brain and regenerating your dopamine receptors.
8. Don’t beat yourself up
If you do slip up and find yourself playing video games during the 90 day detox, don’t use this as a reason to give up on the whole thing.
Treat it as your brain malfunctioning. It happens. It’s no big deal. Humans can and do slip up.
Say to yourself, “This is a bit of a blip. A bit of a slip up. Tomorrow no more video games”.
Then ask yourself:
What can I learn from this?
What led to giving into my urge to play?
How can I avoid that happening in the future?
Learn the lesson and move on.
9. Establish strict rules for use
After you’ve detoxed for 90 days, think carefully about what you do next. Do you really want to return to those games?
Think about what you’ve enjoyed about your life without video games. Think about how far you’ve progressed with your goals over the last 90 days. Think about how you and your brain feels. Is it worth giving all this up?
If you do decide to return to video games you must establish strict rules for use, otherwise your dopamine receptors are going to go into overdrive and you’ll be back at square one.
Here are some examples of rules you could set:
• Only playing on weekends for a strict time period (one hour)
• Only playing games with clear end points (no open ended games)
• Only playing old school adventure games (e.g. Kings Quest and Space Quest)
You may also decide to set a clear rule that you don’t play video games for another 90 days. If you’re still in high school or under the age of 25, I strongly recommend you do this.
To sum up
If you know you should play video games less but struggle to cut back, it’s time to double down and take the 90 day detox. Set yourself up with everything you need to be successful. Your life (and brain) can be so much better without this life destroying technology in it.
Have you ever struggled with a tech related addiction? What helped you to overcome it? I’d love to hear what worked for you.