How to tell if you’re playing too many video games, according to a therapist
Our relationship with video games has always been lopsided. From the beginning of the medium’s history, it has tried to take it from us. First our quarters, then our time, and then a twisted combination of the two increased to greater – and in some cases extreme – degrees.
This has only gotten worse as gaming has exploded in popularity and availability. For most of gaming history, playing a video game meant going to an arcade or staying at home with a console or computer with limited connectivity. There was enough friction in the process to keep it from overwhelming people.
No longer. Access is 24/7, available on any device you own that has a screen. The number of games is not only much greater than before, but many are “free” to play, eliminating barriers to entry. Gaming companies hire psychologists to tweak their games in ways that hack your brain to make you play longer and spend more money, similar to gambling or how the food industry made food more addictive by adding excessive amounts of salt, sugar and fat to goods beyond taste reasons to create addiction.
Have you ever thought to yourself that I want to get better at games but I don’t want to ruin my life? We’re here to help with a special week dedicated to all things video games and health.
Not to sound depressing, but every time you play a video game you face an industrial monster equipped with more resources and money than you, trying every waking moment to take what’s yours and add it to the ever-growing pile, ideally before the next accounting quarter is published.
This being thrown at you on a daily basis can often feel like when your character gets their ass kicked in a movie scene. Rigged from the start. You had no chance.
While it’s not a fair fight, you versus a billion-dollar industry that increasingly relies on predation on customers, it’s not impossible. The industry can only exploit what is not well guarded. The better you understand your own emotional impulses and relationship to video games, the less likely you are to succumb. Developing a better understanding of yourself is key. My hope is that this article will help you start the process yourself.
By way of background, I am a practicing therapist in New York City and a lifelong gamer. I’m also one of the creators of the satirical video game site Hard Drive, so I come to this issue with a mix of clinical and personal experience. I love games, even if more and more games want us to love them back a little too much.
Here is a review I would do with one of my patients to examine their relationship with video games if they were brought up as a potential concern in one of our sessions.
First, how do you actually do it feel while playing video games? This may seem like a silly question, especially when you’re yelling at your team to join the payload. However, video games are designed to be as frictionless as possible to remove any slow moments that might evoke emotional clarity. This may be good game design (or good manipulation, depending on your point of view), but it’s bad for emotional self-regulation. You need pauses in the action to assess whether you actually enjoy what you are doing now.
The easiest way to do this is to keep a simple feelings log and write down what you feel every 15-30 minutes. minute while playing. It can be as short as a single word. Set a timer as a reminder. Do it for a couple of weeks and review the results, either with yourself or a mental health professional. I feel confident that you will likely find patterns, either in the emotional states you tend to have while playing or by noticing a connection between playing and specific situations in real life. (For example: “I notice that when I play video games it’s often because I’m sad after having a fight with a significant other.”)
Having established your feelings, we will now come to the motivations. Why do you play video games? Again, sounds like a stupid question, but one thing you pick up working as a therapist is how many people don’t know why they do the things they do, even though they do it every day! It’s one of the “Oh shit!” realizations clients often make first in therapy, and ultimately examine and understand why they continue to do a behavior, especially if that behavior is generally harming their quality of life. The length of time we are on emotional autopilot is staggering.
When I specifically ask about motivation for playing games, clients will usually say it’s “because they’re fun,” which is true, but as I do with them, I’ll ask you to go deeper. What makes video games fun for you? Is it collaboration with others to achieve a goal? The appeal of completing a checklist of tasks? To make your grade 1% better? To escape from reality for a few hours? If you sit down and really think about it, I’m sure the surface level feeling of “fun” will evolve into something more specific. That’s what we want to hone in on for deeper exploration.
That’s because once you understand the main driver of your desire to play video games, you can start working on it. There will probably be an instinct to judge your motivation once it is discovered. Try to avoid this. These motivations are neither good nor bad. Even one that “escapes reality” is not bad in itself; it only gets bad when it turns into avoidance. Enjoying 100% viewing of a region on the game map is no problem; it only becomes one when you do it out of compulsion and not fun. The aim is to develop a relationship with the motivation rather than running from or fighting it.
Since I also come from comedy, respecting the “three rule”, here is a third and final step to take. Ask yourself if you play video games as a way to compensate for a lack of something else in your life. Tying this to the previous section, if your motivation for playing games is to connect and work with others, do you find that the vast majority of your socializing is through video games? There’s nothing wrong with having friends online or even with some of them being important parts of your life, but we all need real connections. That doesn’t mean rejecting your online friendships, but seeing if developing a healthier social life IRL leads you to naturally play video games less than you once did. Addressing the lack of this will make scaling back a problem behavior easier than simply trying to stop it.
If you overindulge in an activity, it’s probably because it serves a misaligned purpose for you. You play for 10 hours a day because it’s the only place in your life where you get a sense of accomplishment, where you connect with others, where you matter, etc. Until you address the underlying issues, you will continue to turn to the activity that gives you at least an idea of what you want.
This does not only come from a clinical angle. I have my own history of video game obsession. When I was in high school I was a lonely boy with very few friends, and so World of Warcraft became my social life. Often I would mindlessly hop around Orgrimmar (Mannoroth Horde!) chatting with my guild mates via Ventrilo for hours at a time. Without them I would have no friends.
If I knew what I know now, I would have realized the addictive root of it World of Warcraft for me was lack of friends. Then I could have worked to find out what prevented me from making friends in “real life” and found a better balance between my online social life and my personal life. There was a healthy relationship to be found there between myself and the game, one where I recognized what it was that drew me so deeply into the game and made sure to back up the lack of it that I felt in my real life.
It is too late for the 16-year-old. My relationship with games is much better now, but the march of time means I can’t get back the community I lost. Understanding your own emotions and motivations is the only way to ensure that you are playing the game instead of the game playing you.