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Gaming FE

Playing with Fire: Navigating Video Game Addiction Through a Faithful Lens

Author: Eldred de Beer 

In an age of rapidly advancing technology and virtual experiences, a new battlefront has emerged – one that often remains hidden behind screens and seemingly harmless hobbies. Video game addiction, once relegated to the shadows, is now gaining prominence as a significant societal concern. As we venture into the realm of gaming, let’s explore the story of a former gaming addict, along with the science behind addiction, and how faith can guide us through these unchartered waters. 

For over two decades, I was entrapped in the clutches of video game addiction. The allure of improved hardware, the adrenaline rush from conquering in-game challenges, and the excitement of each new expansion release consumed my existence. Yet, in hindsight, there was no lasting fulfilment or satisfaction to report from those years. In reality, my personal account is a testament to the profound emotional and spiritual wreckage that unfolded, affecting not only my own well-being but also casting its shadow over all those who were intricately connected, particularly those nearest and dearest to me, who regrettably bore the weight of the overwhelming consequences. The journey towards recovery led me to delve into the intricate mechanics of addiction and its profound effects on the physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of life. Through heartfelt conversations with gamers and their families, a painful reality emerged – the grip of addiction does not only affect the individual, but also reverberates through the lives of loved ones, leaving inevitable destruction in its wake. 

At the core of human behaviour lie two primal impulses – the pursuit of reward and the evasion of pain. These fundamental drivers are imprinted in our DNA, safeguarding our survival and propelling us forward. The positive reinforcement of rewards, scientifically validated as a potent learning mechanism, shapes our actions. In contrast, the instinct to avoid pain, ingrained in our primal brain, protects us from potential threats. This dichotomy of reward and pain is integral to our existence, culminating in a complex interplay between our desires and fears. 

Central to the Christian worldview is the understanding that our identity is intricately tied to our Creator. The quest for rewards, paralleled in the Scriptures as divine favour, intertwines with our pursuit of spiritual growth and purpose. Our capacity to experience pleasure and reward, neurologically intertwined with the release of neurochemicals, reflects the divine design woven into our being by God. (Hebrews 11:6 and James 1:17) Yet, this reward-driven pursuit can also take a perilous turn, leading to addiction and an erosion of self-worth. 

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The battle between the pull of gratification and the path of restraint is a spiritual one as well. As the Apostle James aptly states, “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). While gaming can be an enjoyable pastime, it’s crucial to discern its potential to overtake our lives. Hebrews 11:6 underscores that God is the ultimate rewarder, inviting us to seek fulfilment in His purpose for our lives. The quest for balance urges us to scrutinise the motives that drive our choices and pursuits. 

In the early days, gaming was a transient delight. The excitement of a new PC, the thrill of achieving in-game milestones, and the allure of expansions gripped our attention, albeit temporarily. However, as demand and supply dynamics converged in the competitive marketplace, gaming developers sought new avenues to sustain their revenue streams. A shift occurred – from focusing on entertainment value to embracing the darker allure of maximising monetisation through addiction. The developer who could effectively extend players’ engagement time would emerge victorious in this high-stakes competition. 

The gaming industry’s rapid ascent through the past four decades since its conception in the early 1980s, paints a picture of unprecedented success. It is currently worth over $250 billion and is only five times smaller than the pharmaceutical industry, which wields enormous legislative influence and societal control. We witnessed how the latter exerted power to limit our freedom of movement and personal mandate during the pandemic, leading to involuntary lockdowns and mandated immunisations. If an industry five times larger than the gaming industry could wield such authority, the potential of the gaming industry is staggering, particularly given its penchant for employing behavioural engineers to enhance the addictive nature of games. The gaming industry is twice as big as the movie industry, and it costs more to develop a game than to produce a blockbuster movie. 

Class action lawsuits against Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, highlight the growing concerns surrounding gaming addiction. The gravity of the situation becomes clearer when we realise that Internet Gaming Addiction found its place in the World Health Organisation’s ICD 11 and the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5, shortly after the release of Fortnite, affirming its status as a recognised issue. Our children engage with this addictive landscape, facing the challenge of contending against a multibillion-dollar enterprise backed by behavioural experts. 

Deep within the brain, the battle for our attention unfolds. The neurotransmitter dopamine, known as the pleasure chemical, is at the forefront. When released, it signals rewards, reinforcing behaviours that elicit pleasure. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for cognitive functions such as personality, decision-making, and inhibition control, becomes a battleground for this chemical influence. Excessive stimulation of dopamine can lead to its shutdown, resulting in mood changes, irritability, and even aggression – telltale signs of gaming addiction. This explains the rapid change in behaviour seen after a short intense period of exposure to gaming in children, such as most evident during lockdown. We are currently seeing the results of this exposure as we deal daily with stories of rebellion, defiance against authoritarian figures, depression, bullying behaviour in schools, pornography which goes hand in hand with gaming addiction, problems with focus, attention deficit and learning problems.  

Consider the surge of dopamine above baseline levels induced by various activities. Nicotine and alcohol can elevate dopamine by 100%, chocolate consumption elevates dopamine levels by around 50% and cocaine consumption can increase dopamine levels up to 225% above baseline. Initially, studies in 1998 highlighted a 100% increase in dopamine due to gaming. Today, it has been shown to spike between 75% to a staggering 300% above baseline. The level of spike is determined by the novelty aspect of the game. The allure is fuelled by the constant influx of novel features, expansions, and levels, ensuring that the engagement never wanes. With every update, the novelty is renewed, making games limitless when it comes to novelty. For gaming companies, the quest for mental ownership over our minds is relentless. Add to this the novelty feature of in-game microtransactions and the ability to increase your character’s performance almost instantaneously with every purchased upgrade.  

Have you ever wondered why we find it so hard to tear ourselves away from the captivating grasp of video games? As explained previously, our existence is shaped by two primal survival instincts: the pursuit of reward and the evasion of pain. It’s the latter that games excel at exploiting, offering an enticing escape from life’s tribulations. This potent allure serves as a powerful motivator for countless gamers, drawing them into a virtual refuge from the hardships of reality. 

For many, games provide a respite from a multitude of real-world challenges. Whether it’s the spectre of bullies at school, familial discord, the anxiety of exams, feelings of inadequacy, or a struggle to conform to societal norms, games offer a haven. This escape extends to adults grappling with workplace stress, relationship strains, financial burdens, and the quest for affirmation. The reasons are varied, but the end goal remains consistent: an escape into a realm where stress is absent, commitment is optional, and accomplishment yields instant gratification. 

Amid the facade of relaxation lies a dichotomy – the brain’s intricate response to the gaming experience. While players may feel a momentary sense of calm, their bodies undergo a surge of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Hearts race, and dopamine floods their brains. This surge of pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters, paradoxically, comes at a high cost to the body, mind, and soul. It’s an investment that demands more than one could fathom, often leaving individuals burdened with a debt they can never fully repay. 

The prefrontal cortex, a pivotal region of the brain, is particularly susceptible to the influence of dopamine. This region governs higher cognitive functions, encompassing facets like personality, IQ, decision-making, and control over inhibition. Yet, when the dopamine influx surpasses a certain threshold, an unsettling phenomenon occurs – this brain region effectively “shuts off”. It’s this phenomenon that can explain why individuals, be they children or adults, subjected to excessive gaming, may undergo phases of intense anger, rage or aggressive behaviour that diverge markedly from their usual demeanour.

Consequently, you might witness a startling overnight transformation in a child’s disposition, leading them to become highly rebellious or overtly resistant towards authority figures. Strangely, when they’re not immersed in gaming, they might display heightened irritability, yet the act of gaming seems to partially alleviate this agitation. This observed pattern often serves as a telltale sign of a burgeoning gaming addiction. 

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The limbic system, the centre for assessing harmful, threatening stimuli and regulating emotions, is subdued when we immerse ourselves in gaming. As this centre falls dormant, our “trauma” centre – the part that flags our actions as wrong – remains silenced. This eerie juxtaposition allows our addiction to flourish unchecked. For children, the toll is even more profound; they grapple with an inability to navigate emotions, to relate to others, and to discern emotional cues. The very capacity to handle trauma and its impact on peers is compromised, perpetuating the cycle of addiction. 

One question often arises: Why, despite indulging in activities they believe make them happy, do addicts remain perpetually unhappy and burdened with depression? The neurotransmitter serotonin is the key player here. It brings contentment. Its harmony with dopamine is essential for effective learning and maintaining a balanced sleep-wake cycle. When dopamine spikes, serotonin dwindles in response. Continuous pursuit of dopamine-induced happiness inevitably results in a serotonin deficiency. Thus, the cycle continues – ephemeral bursts of intense pleasure replaced by discontentment, never truly experiencing joy. This is why addicts are never content and is always in that search for finding meaning and purpose in life.  

The intricate dance of dopamine and serotonin brings to light a significant truth: happiness is contingent upon the achievement that dopamine provides, and this contrasts with the eternal and profound joy that springs from within that serotonin provides. Dopamine operates on conditional acceptance and love, while serotonin thrives on the bedrock of unconditional acceptance and love. 

What compels individuals to seek solace in gaming or any form of addiction? The answer, while multifaceted, often boils down to a profound and intrinsic issue – one of identity and a wounded soul. This very essence lies at the heart of addiction, an affliction that reaches deep into the core of who we are.  

For me, this revelation came after a 20-year journey through gaming addiction. While delving into the intricacies of my personal voyage is beyond the scope of this piece, one truth remains crystal clear: addiction is not merely a physiological or mental ailment accompanied by emotional struggles, as the conventional disease model might suggest. Instead, it’s a spiritual affliction that takes root in the dimensions of the soul – an ailment of the wounded identity. 

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The crux of this matter rests on where we anchor our identity. When our identity finds its home in the realm of the soul, which often gravitates towards worldly desires, addiction becomes a probable outcome. This inclination towards addiction arises from a deeper need for fulfilment and purpose – one that, when unmet, drives individuals to seek solace in vices that promise temporary reprieve yet permanent discontentment. Without purpose there is no vision and without vision there is no hope.  

Yet, there is a crucial distinction between dependency and addiction. Our inherent design calls for dependency on God, the ultimate source of meaning and fulfilment. When we stray from this divine dependency, our souls turn to other avenues, including addictions, to quiet the yearning for purpose and identity. This deviation from divine alignment initiates a spiral that can lead to addiction’s grip. 

Returning to our intended state, as created beings with an identity anchored in our spirit, mirrors the harmony that existed in Eden before humanity’s fall. Just as Adam and Eve found their identity in God’s design, we too must seek our identity in alignment with our spiritual essence. When we stand secure in our spiritual identity, the allure of addictive vices loses its grip, and we embark on a journey towards restoration. 

This very brief discussion on gaming merely scratches the surface of a profoundly intricate topic. I invite you to join my lectures, where we can delve deeper into these dimensions, illuminated by real-life examples. In this pursuit of understanding, may we find the path towards freedom and transformation, leaving behind the snares of addiction and stepping into the light of our true spiritual identity.