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  1. Basoodler

    * Co-written with Laura Anne Edwards, Global Content Partner, Unreasonable Group.

    So video games are addictive—this we know.

    It comes down to dopamine, one of the brain’s basic signaling molecules. Emotionally, we feel dopamine as pleasure, engagement, excitement, creativity, and a desire to investigate and make meaning out of the world. It’s released whenever we take risks, or encounter novelty. From an evolutionary standpoint, it reinforces exploratory behavior.

    More importantly, dopamine is a motivator. It’s released when we have the expectation of reward. And once this neurotransmitter becomes hardwired into a psychological reward loop, the desire to get more of that reward becomes the brain’s overarching preoccupation. Cocaine, widely considered the most addictive drug on the planet, does little more than flood the brain with dopamine and block its reuptake (sort of like SSRI’s block the reuptake of serotonin).

    Video games are full of novelty, risk-taking, reward-anticipation, and exploratory behavior. They’re dopamine-production machines dressed up with joysticks and better graphics. And this is why video games are so addictive.

    But this is only where things are today. There are a host of additional pleasure chemicals floating around our brains. Consider endorphins, the brain’s own version of opium. Or anandamide, which is essentially the brain’s natural version of marijuana. Or serotonin, which is calming and peaceful in low doses (Prozac) and, in higher does, the fuel behind both ecstasy and LSD.

    Right now, we don’t know enough about manipulating this neurochemistry to routinely trick the brain into releasing this cascade of chemicals via video game—but that will change.

    In my last blog, I wrote about the peak state of consciousness known as “flow,” where we feel our best and perform our best. To understand what’s coming with video games, it’s actually helpful to know a bit more about flow.

    While there’s more work to be done, we now believe that during flow, the brain gets high on an extremely potent neurochemical cocktail, blending norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide and serotonin. To put this in street drug terms, flow produces a rapid hit of speed, heroin, ecstasy, marijuana, and cocaine. This is also why researchers consider “flow” the source code of intrinsic motivation or, in plainer language, seriously addictive.

    We also know that video games can put players into low-grade flow states—but they’re really not much more than dopamine loops. Now, certainly, these loops are fun and addictive, but they’re nothing compared to what happens when we can marshal flow’s full complement of neurochemicals.

    Pretty soon, we’ll have video games that trigger endorphins and anandamide and serotonin and dopamine and all the rest. This will happen because our neuro-imaging and sensing technologies are experiencing their own version of Moore’s Law and this will continue to enhance our understanding of how to control the brain’s internal chemistry. It will happen because we are starting to understand a great deal more about flow itself, and what triggers the state. And it will happen because our games are becoming more immersive, more virtual, more like reality.

    Today, “serious gaming” using VR is how we train astronauts, military pilots, and, more and more, surgeons. Why? Because, the science shows, our brains respond to second hand stimulus (a virtual world) in ways that mirror first person experiences and—more importantly—the brain can be tricked/trained into deepening those responses (treating phantom limb pain with a simple mirror technique is a great example).

    Research has also shown that one of flow’s most powerful triggers is what’s called “deep embodiment”—which is a fancy way of saying all of your sensory systems are in a kind of synchrony and all of your attention is occupied by this inrush of information. Immersive video games are deeply embodied video games.

    Here’s Scientific American writer Seth Fletcher’s progress report from a brand new, January 2014, field trial with the Oculus Rift VR headset: “I’ve grown to hate the term ‘immersive’ when used to describe any experience other than, say, scuba diving, but here it is justified. The great virtue of Oculus is that it allows you to fully step into an artificial world.”

    Then there’s the Omni treadmill, a 360 degree treadmill designed to work with headsets like the Oculus, so no longer is the gamer stuck in a chair.

    These flowy-developments have significant society-wide implications in a number of key areas.

    The first is learning. A quick shorthand for learning and memory is the more neurochemicals that show up during an experience, the better chance that experience has of moving from short-term holding to long-term storage.

    Since flow includes a huge neurochemical cocktail, learning in flow is significantly amplified, sometimes ridiculously so. In a study run by DARPA, military snipers in flow increased the speed at which they learned new target acquisition skills by 230 percent. In a similar, but non-military study, the time it took to train novice snipers up to the expert level was cut in half.

    This also explains why companies that make learning based video games are so keen to crack the flow nut. And once you add immersive VR capabilities to those efforts, we should see real progress within the next next few years. This isn’t going to bring us to a world of Matrix-style downloadable learning (yet), but it will certainly and radically accelerate the path to mastery.

    The second is more peculiar. Flow states are deeply meaningful experiences. Research going back to the late 1800s, shows them to be fundamentally life-altering. Psychologists have found that the people with the most flow in their lives rate the highest on overall life satisfaction.

    Thus, when video games start producing full-scale flow states is arguably the point that VR becomes more fun and perhaps more meaningful than actual reality. This could produce a serious real world emigration, where large swatches of society begin to live more in the virtual than the actual.

    This could also mean that all those jobs that robots and AI are destined to take from us in the next few decades could be replaced, not with physical jobs, rather with virtual jobs. Sound ridiculous? Consider that several thousand people currently make a living inside of Second Life, and the platform has already produced its first millionaire.

    It could also mean that those with addictive tendencies could find a new drug to sate their needs. But if those needs are being sated in a deeply meaningful, radically fun way is that such a bad thing?

    *To learn more about flow, be sure and check out The Rise of Superman, Steven’s forthcoming book on the subject.




  1. soer
    Great post, Basoodler (honored to be the first reply). Regarding the statement, "Pretty soon, we’ll have video games that trigger endorphins and anandamide and serotonin and dopamine and all the rest.", how far off do u think we are from being able to develop vid games that trigger specific neurotransmitters- ex: Duke Nukem 2036 is developed to produce serotonin release in the user.

    Re: the statement "A quick shorthand for learning and memory is the more neurochemicals that show up during an experience, the better chance that experience has of moving from short-term holding to long-term storage.", readers might be interested in this book http://www.youarenotyourbrain.com/ which discusses similar material.

    Thx, Basoodler!
  2. D0pe
    I remember being addicted to Online First person shooters about 10 years ago... When i was a teenager, Unaware of the drug world and i had eyes like a newborn deer. Anyways one day my computer crashed after about 16 hours a day 1 year straight of playing non stop... I had no internet. No Video games.

    I remember being so frustrated and almost like i was going through nicotince withdrawals.. It was a lingering feeling at the back of my brain.. Needless to say the internet was back up and my computer was fixed in about a week.... between that time frame i actually found and started smoking weed.

    I know some people would scoff at internet/videogame addiciton. Even me being a recovering heroin addict i can relate that internet/video game addiction is a real thing....

    I would hope parents are more responsible and limit certain stimuli in short durations.
  3. usually0
    Video games are definitely addictive. So are many other things, I can relate to having an addiction to going online and an addiction to porn, as well as being addicted to music.

    With increasing knowledge in neuroscience, greater technology in virtual reality being implemented into video games, as well music that is so perfected to manipulate our emotions, I don't feel this is very far off. Using a combination of imagery and sound isolation, the brain can tricked into thinking it's in a new environment. Using kinect like technology, people can go snowboarding and feel the same rush. Add some music that matches what the user is supposed to be feeling and the emotions as well the neurochemical rush can be amplified.

    Sometimes, just listening to a good trance song I can feel a rush of some neurochemical, and often while playing first-person shooter games I get so into it that I feel all the rewards of playing sports and other competitive games while sitting on my couch. Porn is practically tricking your brain that your having sex when you're just beating it.
  4. D0pe
    Im sure a person could have withdrawal from beating off.... Maybe when they make the Playstation 5 they will have virtual reality helmets, vibrating remote linked electric vaginas, and the stinky smell and rush of going into a grudgy prostitute's house that has not bathed in 20 days.. Then Zynga charges you $10 per visits.
  5. MikePatton
    If we simplify this down to firing Nuerons, Action potentials and Neurotransmitters then yes, video games are addictive in the same way drugs are. However, the increase in the amount of neurotransmitters present in the synaptic cleft brought upon by recreational drugs in MOST people would be far greater than that caused by video games.

    In other words, some people really like video games, and those people get the same chemical rush recreational drug users get when they play them. But people who don't dig video games will simply not recieve these chemical rewards from their brain whereas the administration of a psychoactive will cause these changes in the levels of neurotransmitters in any human being. Wether or not he'll find the effects pleasureable is a different question.

    The chemical excitation in the mind of a hardcore gamer playing a video game is subjective, whereas the chemical changes that follow the administration of drugs are objective. For example, in 100% of subjects who are administered Cocaine there will be a change in the levels of Dopamine in the brain - the same could not be said about video games. Therfore for the average human being, Cocaine would produce much more Dopamine.
  6. D0pe
    You simply cannot compare Drugs to video games.. But i agree that certain people could receive a higher rush in the reward center of the brain when playing video games.

    I have read many stories of kids and young adults committing suicide over video games or loss of the internet. I have heard of a few kids that killed themselves because they lost all their gear in a RPG game, parent taking it away, Or someone hacking into a account.

    I can personally relate to Video Game/ Internet Addiction when i was a child. I remember not being able to be on the internet or play my Online games and it almost felt similar to not having nicotine for a few days. I was irritable and felt very restless. It almost seemed as if everything in my life was stripped away.
    I know logically that i was just craving the video game and the chemicals my brain was craving. Not to mention the amount of time and effort that i put into the game.

    Here is a news article i dug up and found.

    A 12-year-old boy in Bangkok commited suicide by leaping off a sixth floor veranda at his school. What drove him to take his own life this way? Being banned from playing video games. Apparently, the boy's parents thought he was playing too much and decided to intervene with the ban-hammer.

    An investigation into the case revealed that the boy had used his cell phone numerous times, sending complaints about the his parents' decision to his friends. He even hinted at the suicide by texting, "Tomorrow is my last day."

    His friends told police that the boy arrived at school normally, like any other day. But after putting his bag down at his desk, he went up to the sixth floor with a "grim" expression. And we all know what happened next...

    Thailand's Ministry of Health, comprised of sensitive and sympathetic individuals, criticized the parents for improperly handling the addiction, thus driving their son to suicide. The Ministry stated, “For children addicted to gaming, the most effective approach is not to ban games but to regulate the time spent gaming.”
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