Videogames vs Personal Improvement (How to Outplay Addiction)

Like many gamers, I’ve experienced both positives and negatives with the role that video games have played in my own personal development, on the one hand, they’ve allowed me to escape into fantastical worlds where I was able to experience friendships, love, purpose, they’ve given me strong models and archetypes that have played a huge role in shaping who I am today. On the other hand, there have been times in my life where instead of studying for exams or advancing my career, I was instead spending countless hours farming virtual gold, or playing Halo until 5 a.m.

Video game addiction is now such a massive global problem that in 2019, the W.H.O officially added a new disorder to its list, “Gaming Disorder”, which is roughly summarized as

“an impaired control and over-prioritization of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences”.

When we think “Gaming disorder”, most of us conjure up the image of an overweight neckbeard still living in their mothers basement, and sure, while that’s true in some cases, most gamers are actually in their 20’s and 30’s, over 40% of gamers are women and so these are the “real” gaming addicts, normal everyday people who have become involuntarily enslaved to an artificial stimulus that is designed to keep us addicted.

In this post,  part 1 of “Video Games vs Self Improvement”, we’ll focus on what is it that makes video games so uniquely addicting in a world filled with unlimited options for distraction. 

Then in the next post, we’ll talk about all the positive aspects of video games, and how they can actually help us on the path of self development.  

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Our reward system loves instant gratification

By now most of us have heard of “dopamine”, however most of us mistake it as something that makes us “feel good”, when in fact, dopamine is actually responsible for motivating us to take action in  anticipation of the thing that makes us feel good, the reward, when we’re thirsty, dopamine is the thing that motivates us to get up and pour ourselves a glass of water. 

Now the problem with dopamine is that it can’t distinguish between “long term” rewards  and “instant rewards”, neurologically, they’re both just rewards and so when you consider that we are biologically hardwired to always choose the path of least resistance, it’s no wonder that the instant reward of playing video games is so much more attractive to us  than the long term rewards we get from working on a business or training our bodies.

This is why it’s so easy to prioritize Fortnite over studying. Trying to manage video game play time is like buying a pack of oreos and intending to just eat one a day. As long as our video game console is near us, It takes  a tremendous amount of conscious energy and discipline to be able to effectively manage how much we play, especially when we’re addicted and especially when you consider how little friction there is to go from the “idea” of playing, to “actually” playing. 

Playstation 5 now loads up so fast that from the moment that I have the idea to play Spiderman, I can be playing within a few seconds, also, I can open up Candy Crush on my phone just as quickly as I can open up Instagram.

Video games are supernormal stimuli

In Call of Duty, we’re a highly trained soldier, hunting down terrorists and expertly maneuvering around obstacles while executing strategies with our teammates, in reality, we’re just pushing buttons on a controller. 

This is a great example of how videogames are “Supernormal Stimuli”, let me explain, just like all creatures within the animal kingdom, humans have built-in programming to react to certain stimuli, mechanisms that have evolved to help us survive as a species. A supernormal stimulus is an artificially exaggerated version of a normal stimuli, that produces a greater response.

An example of this is junk food, which is an artificially exaggerated stimulus of real food, or porn, which is a supernormal stimulus of human reproduction, and so videogames, well, they are loaded with supernormal stimuli. 

The easiest example here are horror games, ghouls, monsters, and demons are all grotesque exaggerations of predators, Call of Duty and Counter Strike are so rewarding because they closely mimic the activity of hunting, while sports games like Fifa and NBA2k21 are evolved simulations that mimic hunting and battle skills, MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft, simulate an exaggerated sense of progression by including ranking systems, rare equipment, and achievements, and unlike real life where “progression” takes real time and effort, in video games, in just a few hours we can go from a weak puny nothing, to a legendary hero, all of this is tied into primitive desires  where the best hunters and the most accomplished members within groups had better access to resources and potential mates, even the upgraded gear that we purchase is tied into our innate desire to appear accomplished within society, even if it’s a virtual one. 

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Video games use operant conditioning

This is a Skinner Box. A Skinner Box usually has a button or lever that activates a food dispenser.

It was designed by Dr. B.F. Skinner to research how he could change an organism’s behavior using rewards and punishment, a learning process that he dubbed “Operant Conditioning”.

Now, what does this have to do with video games? 

Dr. Skinner made a lot of important observations, 2 of which are critical to understanding why video games are now deliberately addictive.

Observation 1: Rewards can be used to create addiction

Almost every game on the market is now overflowing with rewards, we gain experience points, loot, and virtual money  for every monster we defeat, we get rewards for unlocking new skills, recipes, and equipment, in a lot of games, we even get rewards just for logging in every day, in some cases we get rewards for getting a certain number of rewards. This is way better than real life! 

Former Ubisoft research scientist Nick Yee famously conducted studies that demonstrated how the more hours that we spend playing video games, the more self achievement we begin to derive from video games instead of real life.

By leveraging these systems of seemingly unending rewards, video games are starting to look more like Skinner Boxes than harmless sources of entertainment.

Observation 2: Random rewards are even more addicting

We release much more dopamine when rewards are random, this is why slot machines are so popular in casinos.

Because of this, we’ve seen an unprecedented rise in “Gacha” type games, Gacha is short for Gachapon, which are very popular machines in Japan where people put money in hoping to score a rare toy, “gacha-gacha” the sound of the machine being cranked,  and “pon” is the sound made when you take the capsule out. 

If you take a look at the Google play store on Android, or the App store on Ios, you’ll find thousands of Gacha games, where the entire point of the game is to spend real money on loot boxes, crates, or wishes, that might contain stronger equipment and heroes. Players can never directly buy the items themselves, they can only offer up their money and pray to the gacha gods that today is their lucky day. 

A lot of these games are disguised as RPGs or Card games, the reality is that they’re just glorified slot machines, and what players think is a gaming addiction, is actually a gambling addiction.

Summary

Alright guys, here’s a quick recap on the negative, addictive elements of video games. 

Our reward system loves instant gratification

Video games offer massive rewards for minimal effort and no risk, which is why our dopamine systems are so inclined to motivate us towards them, at the cost of more important long-term rewards.

Video games are supernormal stimuli

The most addictive games simulate important stimuli rooted in the survival of our ancestors, Games where we hunt, compete, or rise in rank and status are all examples of this. 

Video games use operant conditioning

Video games use operant conditioning to get players addicted by rewarding everything that they do. The most addictive rewards are those that come at random, which is why games also exploit “Gacha” systems, where they take the already addictive nature of video games, and combine them with gambling.

Alright guys, everything described in this video is exactly why I tend to avoid most online shooters, MMORPG’s, and especially mobile games, and I think that if you care about your own self development, you should probably avoid them as well. 

However if you are going to play them, then you should find effective ways to manage the temptation to play when you know you should be doing more important things, for example, as a rule, I only play video games when I’m training on my bicycle and if I did find myself playing games when I know I should be doing other things, I’d give my console to a friend for a few days, or lock the controller in one of my timed lockboxes so that I won’t have access to it for X amount of time. 

Here’s a trick that will help you identify games that are intentionally designed by be addicting, something that they all have in common, they don’t have “Game Over” screens or for that manner any other stopping cues that give us a pause to decide whether or not we want to keep playing.

Anyway, as for me,  I only play role-playing games, more recently, The Witcher 3 and Persona 5 Royal and 13 Sentinels, and indie games, like Journey, Celeste, and Gris. Generally speaking, I tend to gravitate towards games with rich stories, deep characters, and unique experiences. 

In the next post, I’ll focus on the “positive” aspects of games, and show how they can provide us with transformational experiences and allow us to practice skills and traits that translate well into real life. 

Now, I’m not sure if you’re heard, but We’re the fastest growing self-development channel here in South America, kind of a big deal, so if you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe and hit the goddam notification bell to be notified first when I release new videos. 

Also, What sort of role do video games play in your life? How have they benefited you or harmed you? Let me know in the comments below. 

If you want to see first-hand how video games have influenced my life, follow me on instagram @NelsonQuest.

This is the path! See you in the next post. 

Sources

“The Daedalus Project” by Nick Yee, available at:

http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus

Yee, N. (2004, April 15). “The Daedalus Project: Achievement and Frustration in MMORPGs”. Retrieved March 10, 2012, from Nickyee.com

“The Norrathian Scrolls: A Study of EverQuest” (version 2.5) by Nicholas Yee, 2001. Available at:

http://www.nickyee.com/eqt/report.html

Barrett, Deirdre. (2010). Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose.

Astolfi, Michael. (2012). The Evolutionary Psychology of Video Games: The Digital Game as Supernormal Stimulus

Sapolsky, Robert. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

Hagura, Nobuhiro & Haggard, Patrick & Diedrichsen, Jörn. (2017). Perceptual decisions are biased by the cost to act. eLife. 6. 10.7554/eLife.18422.

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