Last week I was speaking to a colleague whose partner is a gamer. She was telling me about their visit to his mother. During the visit my colleague was speaking to his mother about how much he still enjoys playing video games. His mother expressed how concerned she had been about his playing when he was young. “It could have been worse though,” she’d said, “at least he wasn’t into drugs.”
This comparison is reminiscent of the homophobic one where the tolerant person says, “I don’t mind if you’re gay, as long as you don’t come home with a goat.” The “distinction” made actually implies that the two things are comparable. But in fact they are not.
Our culture uses the word addiction pretty frequently and casually. And gamers and opponents of gaming alike use it in reference to playing video games. Frequently we hear the comments “gaming is like a drug,” or “video games are addictive,” or “I’m addicted to Halo 3.” What muddies the waters further are the dozens of articles that talk about “proof” that video games are addictive, that they cause real changes in the brain, changes just like drugs.
We live in a positivistic age, where something is “real” if it can be shown to be biological in nature. I could argue that biology is only one way of looking at the world, but for a change I thought I’d encourage us to take a look at the idea of gaming as addictive from the point of view of biology, specifically dopamine levels in the brain.
Dopamine levels are associated with the reward center of the brain, and the heightened sense of pleasure that characterizes rewarding experiences. When we experience something pleasurable, our dopamine levels increase. It’s nature’s way of reinforcing behaviors that are often necessary for survival.
One of the frequent pieces of evidence to support video game addiction is studies like this one by Koepp et al, which was done in 1998. It monitored changes in dopamine levels from subjects who were playing a video game. The study noted that dopamine levels increased during game play “at least twofold.” Since then literature reviews and articles with an anti-gaming bias frequently and rightly state that video games can cause dopamine levels to “double” or significantly increase.
They’re absolutely right, video games have been shown to increase dopamine levels by 100% (aka doubling.)
Just like studies have shown that food and sex increase dopamine levels:
This graph shows that eating food often doubles the level of dopamine in the brain, ranging from a spike of 50% to a spike of 100% an hour after eating. Sex is even more noticeable, in that it increases dopamine levels in the brain by 200%.
So, yes, playing video games increases dopamine levels in your brain, just like eating and having sex do, albeit less. But just because something changes your dopamine levels doesn’t mean it is addictive. In fact, we’d be in big trouble if we never had increases in our dopamine levels. Why eat or reproduce when it is just as pleasurable to lie on the rock and bask in the sun?
But here’s the other thing that gets lost in the spin. Not all dopamine level increases are created equal. Let’s take a look at another chart, from the Meth Inside-Out Public Media Service Kit:
This is a case where a picture is worth a thousand words. When we read that something “doubles” it certainly sounds intense, or severe. But an increase of 100% seems rather paltry compare to 350% (cocaine) or 1200% (Meth)!
One last chart for you, again from the NIDA. This one shows the dopamine increases (the pink line) in amphetamine, cocaine, nicotine and morphine:
Of all of these, the drug morphine comes closest to a relatively “low” increase of 100%.
So my point here is twofold:
1. Lots of things, not all or most of them drugs, increase the levels of dopamine.
2. Drugs have a much more marked, sudden, and intense increase in dopamine level increase compared to video games.
Does this mean that people can’t have problem usage of video games? No. But what it does mean, in my opinion, is that we have to stop treating behaviors as if they were controlled substances. Playing video games, watching television, eating, and having sex are behaviors that can all be problematic in certain times and certain contexts. But they are not the same as ingesting drugs, they don’t cause the same level of chemical change in the brain.
And we need to acknowledge that there is a confusion of tongues where the word addiction is involved. Using it in a clinical sense is different than in a lay sense– saying “I’m hooked on meth” is not the same as saying “I’m hooked on phonics.” Therapists and gamers alike need to be more mindful of what they are saying and meaning when they say they are addicted to video games. Do they mean it is a psychological illness, a medical phenomenon? Do they mean they can’t get enough of them, or that they like them a whole lot? Do they mean it is a problem in their life, or are they parroting what someone else has said to them?
I don’t want to oversimplify addiction by reducing it to dopamine level increase. Even in the above discussion I have oversimplified these pieces of “data.” There are several factors, such as time after drug, that we didn’t compare. And there are several other changes in brain chemistry that contribute to rewarding behavior and where it goes awry. I just want to show an example of how research can be cited and misused to distort things. The study we started out with simply found that we can measure changes in brain chemistry which occur when we do certain activities. It was not designed or intended to be proof that video games are dangerous or addictive.
Saying that something changes your brain chemistry shouldn’t become the new morality. Lots of things change your brain chemistry. But as Loretta Laroche says, “a wet towel on the bed is not the same as a mugging.” We need to keep it complicated and not throw words around like “addiction” and “drug” because we want people to take us seriously or agree with us. That isn’t scientific inquiry. That’s hysteria.