video games as addictive as drugs?

(I’d like this post to grow and evolve with feedback from readers, so please post comments early and often, critique and suggest improvements, or even argue with me.  — o’daddy)

As a father of two six-year-olds, I’m now finding myself struggling with the Issue of Video Games.

When I was a kid, no one thought enough about video games to be worried about the fact that I spent several hours a day playing Bard’s Tale or Wizardry or Ultima 4-9.  Even as I matured into a teenager, game-time wasn’t really considered an issue.  The other adults in my life will have to judge for themselves how this has affected my development, and what sort of individual I am, but speaking for myself, I’m pretty happy with my life.  I was inspired to study computer science because of video games, my third, fourth, and fifth jobs out of college were as a programmer of video games, and it turns out that this programming thing pays pretty well.  I don’t actually play games all that much anymore, except when the occasional Nethack binge overtakes me, but for the most part, I’d say they’ve been pretty positive in terms of their affect on my life.

This is all anecdotal and not very scientific, so it isn’t a valid refutation (which is where this post is headed) of articles like the following:

There are more strongly slanted articles like these all over the internet, and the alarmist tone of these (especially the titles) is frightening, especially for parents.  Surely, it’s designed to be that way: scary headlines probably pull in more readers.

The problem is that a lot of these articles aren’t really founded in all that much science, either.  They all seem to take various studies or reports on dopamine release associated with playing video games, and suggest that this is somehow similar to the “high” experienced by users of drugs like cocaine.  I’m not a physician or a medical expert in any way, nor have I ever taken cocaine, but that assertion is simply ridiculous.

That’s not to say that video games (like many enjoyable activities) are not potentially addictive.  As a parent, you certainly have a responsibility to monitor and limit your child’s activities, video games included.

But dopamine is not a drug.  The release of dopamine in your child’s brain is not in an of itself a bad thing.  If it were, we’d have to restrict them from doing things like eating, asking questions, exploring, or competition.  As mentioned in the Discovery article linked above:

“The thing to remember about dopamine is that it’s not at all the same thing as pleasure,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, who looks at dopamine in a cultural context in his book, Satisfaction. “Dopamine is not the reward; it’s what lets you go out and explore in the first place. Without dopamine, you wouldn’t be able to learn properly.”

Cocaine seems to work in the brain by actively inhibiting your ability to reabsorb the dopamine already present, in addition to causing a dramatic increase in dopamine output.  At the very least, an important distinction between cocaine and video games (even if video games do cause an increase in dopamine output), is that video games do not act as reuptake inhibitors, in that way that cocaine and amphetamines do.

In other words, the dopamine release and reuptake process in your child’s brain, while playing video games, is normal and healthy.  This is how the brain is meant to function.  In essence, dopamine is helping your child process success in the game as a rewarding experience, and encouraging them to pursue further success.  This cycle of “virtual success” could certainly be addictive, I understand that concern.  But it can also be a very powerful motivation for learning, exploring and achieving.

How much time should your child have with video games per day?  I think that depends on you, the parent, and also on your child.  You should guide them to the projects and hobbies that best help them grow as individuals.  One of my sons shies away from video games, and I’d very much like to challenge him to play more.  One would literally play video games all day every day, given the choice.  I’d like him to spend more time sitting quietly with a book, or drawing or building LEGO-castles.  I don’t think a half-hour to an hour a day is unreasonable, though I think it may also be a mistake to create an expectation of a certain amount of game-time each day for some children — this is still an issue I’m struggling with, and I’d love to hear how other parents tackle it.

Game on.