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Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Video Games and Addiction

When you think of video games, depending on your age, the image of yourself as a child innocently playing Mario kart may pop into your head. Or you may think of the latest Fortnite dance your nephew showed you, or of the new game your granddaughter is begging to have you get her for Christmas. 

However, these days, many video games do not have the same innocent appeal. Rather, they are being targeted for adults with mature content. Over the last two decades, there has been an increase in violence and drugs featured in video games. Many of these new games have adult themes of sex, violence, and drugs. 

Though it may feel as though these games are harmless, the content of these games shapes our perspective of substance abuse and can contribute to both the stigma surrounding those who use substances and the later experimentation of those who play them. Too much screen time devoted to these games can also affect our behavior, thoughts, and emotions in a way that will also make us more susceptible to substance abuse. 

The Role Drugs Play In Video Games 

Through evaluating the current most popular games, interesting trends have revealed that many video games feature both fictional and real drugs such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, LSD, magic mushrooms, and painkillers. Even just this exposure and normalization can affect our perception and attitudes towards substances.

Many games take it one step further and incorporate drugs directly into the gameplay. Players learn to use them for a couple specific purposes: as a power-up, a specific health power-up, or as a tool to disorient the game player. In some games, you may find that when you eat a mushroom, you gain energy and strength, or in others, you may be subject to vibrant hallucinations after finding and injecting the sought-after substance. Some games such as grand theft auto glamourize drug use and dedicate the game’s storyline towards building cocaine, heroin, and marijuana-dealing empires.

Some games seek to incorporate a more realistic and informed portrayal of substance use by giving players short-term rewards at the expense of long-term consequences. Others also seek an honest portrayal of drug use by manipulating gameplay to demonstrate the concept of physical dependence as in the Bioshock series.  Aptly named, one particular video game, Narc, gives players points for killing drug deals and references several illegal substances.

This wide array of drug use in popular video games can lead to muddled and confusing messaging about substance use as a whole. Teens who identify with their game character may find themselves more easily tempted and more willing to experiment with substances when offered the opportunity. They may not be fully prepared to handle the risks associated with drug use when in real life, they find they are playing without the guarantee of unlimited lives. 

Continued exposure to violence and risky behaviors such as substance abuse will soon impact their beliefs about these behaviors. This is especially true for teens drawn to mature-rated games. The themes in these video games are psychologically powerful and may lead to unhealthy beliefs about drugs and addiction, and may impact their brain development in these formative years.

How Video Games Contribute to Substance Abuse 

If we’re looking to understand the impact of video games on those who struggle with addiction, it’s important to look beyond the content of the games that they’re playing. 

When people expose themselves to too much screen time or video games, they may lose out on developing other areas of their life that builds their resilience and contributes towards positive well-being. Gaming, even online with others, often gives people a false sense of connection and belonging which can contribute to the development of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Video game use can become problematic in our lives when it comes at the expense of our other responsibilities and relationships or when it becomes our only coping skill to “get lost” within the world of our video game. It’s at this point that we might consider our gaming to be a “behavioral addiction” as it reflects many of the characteristics of substance addiction.

The link between the self-reinforcing behaviors found in video game addiction and substance abuse is thought to be a primary contributor to developing addictive patterns. 

When playing video games, certain brain pathways are impacted, including the dopamine or “reward” circuits of the brain. This same system is lit up when someone engages in other self-rewarding behaviors, including drug use. For this reason, gaming and substance abuse can exacerbate each other. 

This means that those who suffer from a video game addiction are also more likely to use substances. Research confirms this link between gaming disorders and substance abuse as well as between other co-occurring disorders like depression and anxiety.  

Some gamers will use substances while playing video games, both as a means to relax or out of habit. They may also use different stimulant drugs to help improve their performance or help them stay up all night to finish the campaign. This combination of gaming and the use of drugs can make these individuals much more susceptible to drug addiction.

Addiction Recovery at The Haven at Pismo

While at The Haven, our focus is not on treating behavioral addictions like video game addiction, the truth is that many of these underlying patterns are the same. At the Haven, we teach our guests a new way of living life, of breaking these cycles of substance addiction and being intentional about both the way they spend their time, and what they allow to influence them. 

If you or someone you love is stuck in a cycle of addiction, reach out to us today to learn about how we can help!