The problem with digital games
Dr Waleed Ahmad
An addiction occurs when the outcome of any behavior is pleasurable. In scientific terms, we call this a reinforcement, more specifically a positive reinforcement. This pleasurable outcome may result from a substance of abuse such as heroin, but some behaviors themselves lead to a pleasurable outcome. For example, people become addicted to gambling when they randomly win a prize. The prize is a positive result but the most important factor here is the random nature of the outcome.
Behaviors that always lead to a positive outcome are not enjoyable all the times while we do not tend to lose interest in such behaviors. Think about the outcome of a cricket match between Pakistan and Kenya, we already know we are winning the match and so, few people enjoy watching such matches. Compare that to a match with a comparably competitive team, everyone who likes to watch cricket in the first place awaits eagerly.
Digital games are also designed on these principles. The most modern and successful games are jam-packed with such reinforcers in various forms and the outcome is as random as possible. Player Unkown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) would be the most conspicuous example. It is a fighting game where a large number of players fight each other on a virtual island; the last survivors enjoy a Chicken Dinner – PUBG’s title for the victory award.
The game starts with an airplane that flies over the island on a random path every time. Players choose the best location possible where they can find the most lethal weapons, dresses, medical kits, protective armors, etc., which are somewhat randomly distributed in different parts of the island, and jump out of the plane. A shrinking circle slowly brings the players closer to each other, those outside of the circle soon collapse. A plethora of other such reinforcements and random outcomes is used to ensure the most addictive experience.
The problem with such games is not their genre. It is difficult to ascertain whether people with violent tendencies are more likely to play games with violence or the virtual violence predisposes people to use violence in real life. The more serious aspect of such games is their addictive nature. Most people would be surprised to know the underlying mechanism of addiction to digital games is the same as in people who are addicted to drugs, like cannabis. In the brain, both of them cause the release of a chemical that we call dopamine. This is the chemical responsible for almost all of our pleasurable experiences.
The long term result of the addiction to games could be detrimental, especially in children and adolescents whose brain is still in developmental phases. For healthy growth, children need to interact with the physical environment. A well-researched theory known as the socio-cultural theory of cognitive development was proposed by Lev Vygotsky almost a hundred years ago. According to the theory, learning is a social process, interaction with peers, caretakers and cultural factors shape the cognitive development of children. Addiction to digital games immerses children in a virtual world and deprives them of such opportunities of interaction with the physical world that help them grow.
Youngsters addicted to digital games also face a multitude of other problems. Game-playing becomes the ultimate source of pleasure and it preoccupies their minds all the times. Other more important issues become of less concern and are easily neglected. Academic performance often declines or does not catch up as expected. Parental concerns often grow and the problem escalates leading to disturbed relations within the family.
Unfortunately, when addiction sets in, the poor child or adolescent has a little control over his/her behavior. The child’s ways of thinking then hijacked by addictive behaviors, whereas the parents with little knowledge of addiction often take unwanted measures, including corporal punishments, but with little success.
Few people know that addiction to games is a genuine addiction which is now recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as a mental disorder just like addiction to ICE etc.
Caretakers, who are concerned that their children may be addicted, should ensure consultation with a psychiatrist at the earliest. In addition, it is pertinent that parents should strictly follow the WHO’s recommendations on screen time for children to help prevent the development of addiction to digital games and smartphone usage.
The writer is a consultant psychiatrist based in Peshawar. He has been practicing psychiatry for the last 7 years. He has done MBBS from the Khyber Medical College, Peshawar and FCPS (Psychiatry) from the College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.