There is some debate among researchers and health care practitioners that gaming can become a true addiction, but according to the World Health Organization, “gaming disorder” can “result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”
The over-the-top experiences and rewards built into video games can stimulate our brains to release dopamine. Dopamine, the powerful “feel good” neurotransmitter, motivates us to seek more of these pleasurable activities. This is what can lead to addictive behavior.
One recent study followed adolescent video-game players for six years. Most were able to enjoy playing without any harmful consequences. But a significant minority, 10 percent, developed pathological tendencies related to video games, including having difficulty stopping play. Compared with the other group in the study, these players displayed higher levels of depression, aggression, shyness, problematic phone use and anxiety by the time they were emerging into adulthood.
I’m not proud that I had a hand in furthering these problems. As a matter of fact, I tell my daughters that I make board games like the ones they play at school. Whenever I encourage my daughters to strive to make a positive difference in the world, I question whether I have done the same.
I am not suggesting that we regulate video games as China has. But here are three ways that we should think about addressing this issue:
Start with parent training. Parents need to be made aware of the negative impact of the video games they may be letting their children play. I get that sometimes we need to occupy our kids, and it’s very tempting to hand them a phone. But we need to be better gatekeepers.
It’s hard to change a behavior if you can’t first measure it. Use tools, such as Apple’s Screen Time or Google’s Digital Wellbeing, to create awareness of just how much time you or your children are spending on games — you’ll be surprised.
Finally, strike a balance. Games can be fun, of course; we just need to find moderation. When I was growing up, my parents pushed me to eat more vegetables and fruits. With technology so integral to our lives, we need to treat digital wellness like physical wellness and make sure we encourage behavior that’s good for us.
I have realized that I have a role to play, too, beyond keeping my daughters safe. Going forward, I’ve decided to use my knowledge about video game design for good, to try to design educational games that are more engaging.
Recently I had a chance to participate in a math program for young children at Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Services. I worked with two kindergartners and saw how technology and games could help them learn. I asked them what they were interested in and created math games with themes that they liked.
The children were excited to play the games, and in two months, they went from skipping numbers when counting to accurately counting from 1 to 100 and even doing simple addition. Even so, I believe there is a lot more waiting for kids beyond that screen.