Hi, my name is Holly, and I used to be addicted to video games

I am reformed now – BUT – I am pretty sure I used to classify for video game addiction.

I spent WAY too much of my undergraduate online playing games like CSGO and League of Legends. I just found it really easy to slip into hardcore 12-hour gaming sessions. Broken up only by a quick snack and maybe a bathroom break.

But I kicked myself up the butt, managed to uninstall the games, and move on with life.

His dopaminergic neurons are firing right now. Photo credit: Sean Do via Unsplash

But it sounds like not everyone can do the same. Some people take gaming so seriously they either die gaming or live long enough to ruin their marriage.  It seems pretty clear to me that as a society we are developing an unhealthy relationship with video games.

Which got me thinking.

All jokes aside, was I actually addicted? And if so, how can I prevent that happening again? Can I ever just enjoy games without it being “problematic”?

I wanted to find out more about the this so-called disorder.


A formal diagnosis of Gaming Disorder

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation added what they call “Gaming disorder” to their health classification system the International Classification of Diseases.


The key characteristics of this disorder are:

  • Impaired control over gaming behaviour
  • Prioritising gaming over other interests (which probably includes going to lectures….)
  • Continue to game despite negative consequences

To me, these seem quite broad and kinda subjective. To the point that estimates for how many people have gaming disorder are all over the place. But generally, researchers estimate somewhere between 1-10% of people.

This seems to be one of the main criticisms of gaming disorder.

Just as pointed out by this review paper (which completely shredding “Gaming disorder”, by the way), most of the research on gaming disorder just looks at prevalence and associated disorders. Rather than what actually causes it.

But what about the biology that underpins these symptoms?

This is the next step for researchers. Now that they have defined a behavioural disorder, researchers are starting to investigate the neuroscience that causes the disorder.


From behaviour to neuroscience

I noticed that a lot of the research looking into the neuroscience behind gaming addiction likens it to other addictions, such as gambling disorder. Which sorta makes sense, because when you are gaming your brain releases dopamine, lighting up the brain’s “pleasure centres”.

Which is the same thing that happens with addictions like gambling disorder!

So what is dopamine?

People tend to consider dopamine as the “pleasure chemical”, but this teecchniically isn’t the case. Scientists have moved on from that explanation because dopamine is more about the pursuit of pleasure.

Imagine that it is your first time ever eating cake.

You are probably releasing dopamine right now. Photo credit: Taylor Kiser via Unsplash

You eat the cake.

It is delicious.

Dopamine helps you remember how great the cake was, so that you will pursue cake again. It triggers a “behavioural adaption” that makes you pursue things that are good.

But how does this work on a cellular level?


Dopamine made me do it

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, because it helps to transmit messages between neurons.

Using the image below, say that dopamine is travelling from the green cell to the grey-looking one. The green cell releases dopamine into the gap between the two cells (this gap is called the synapse!). Then the receiving cell has these dopamine receptors, which sort of act like fishing poles.

By ‘fishing out’ the dopamine from the gap, the grey cell can ingest it and pass on the message.

Author’s own, using Smart Servier Medical Art and Fishing by Bahi from the Noun Project

Any leftover dopamine that isn’t taking up by the grey cell is recycled back into the green cell, and the whole thing is reset. This happens multiple times a minute.

But what scientists think is happening in addictions is:

  • You do the activity that feels good
  • The gap between the cells gets flooded with dopamine
  • The grey cell becomes overwhelmed
  • It freaks out and reduces the number of “fishing poles”
  • Because there are less receptors to receive dopamine, it has a lower impact on the brain

As a result, this makes you to want more dopamine for the same “high”. It is similar to things like caffeine thresholds. You start by having one coffee a day, then two, then three, and before you know it you’re having 5 coffees a day!!

So it is about managing your sensitivity.

But contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean that video games are “just like heroin“.

Lots of things release dopamine, like shopping, using phones, eating, exercising. It isn’t about avoiding activities that release dopamine, we just need to be careful about how much we are doing these activities.

Everything in moderation.


If you want to learn more about video game addiction:


6 Responses to “Hi, my name is Holly, and I used to be addicted to video games”

  1. Don’t we all? 😛

    The phone is also a big one for me!

  2. Veronica Voo says:

    Nice post Holly!

    I used to play a lot of video games too, now it has turned into shopping. Guess I just love these dopamine releasing activities 🙂

  3. Destiny was a great game!

    But that’s exactly it, the earlier you break the habit the easier it is! Good on you 🙂

  4. Thanks Stephanie!
    We’re getting closer every day 🙂

  5. Matthew Graham says:

    I was really interested by this blog as I play a fair bit of video games myself. In High school, when Destiny (the game) was released it was just about all I could think about, at school I couldn’t wait to get home and keep playing. Fortunately, I had a bit of a wake up call when I noticed that my grades where dropping and that I needed to reduce the amount of time I spent playing.

  6. Interesting post, I had a high school classmate that probably never ‘reformed’ from gaming addiction. None of us really understood or really took it seriously at the time. Hopefully, we’re getting a better understanding of the nature of addiction.