Most of the dopamine triggers I’ve exposed myself to have been in the form of video games. I used to defend their influence as being somewhat marginal in nature, having some lasting effect, but not one that is particularly powerful in the grand scheme of things.
Within two weeks of not playing any competitive (this is key) games, I inexplicably felt happier. At first, I thought that this was because I was experiencing novelty doing other things, and certainly there are personality biases at play here. However, after research I developed a working hypothesis for the improvement in overall mood:
Simply stated, don’t fuck with it. Here’s why, and how games in particular can contribute to an insidious feedback loop that tricks your brain and ultimately damages your experience of waking life:
Dopamine is like anything this body regulates. It is an important component supporting very important conscious functions such as learning, motivation, sleep, mood and attention. It is secreted in response to actions deemed valuable to you. This is mostly automatic except, being humans, we’ve figured out how to build dopamine buttons. We’ve packaged these buttons as systems. These systems generally take the form of entertainment. Video games, unfortunately, are entertainment perfectionism.
They hook, reward and tease based on science. Why is this an issue? Insidious dopamine secretion causes the brain to desensitise itself to its effects. This results in the brain reaching a state of “dopamine fatigue”. A conscious reality resulting in feelings of disconnect, unhappiness, unfulfilling loops and uninterest in other stimuli. Social lives crumble, familial obligations tumble, happiness eludes, and wellbeing is replaced with despair. It is quite difficult to explain what this feels like unless you’ve experienced it for yourself. Something I would not recommend.
Much like abusing sugar intake results in diabetes. Abusing dopamine results in the lack of ability to feel joy in unrelated tasks. Gaming*, unfortunately, creates a reality where no other joy can possibly be enjoyed. The brain of a very routine gamer is trapped in a cell with no obvious exit. Not all games will put a person’s brain into this state, I believe. Dopamine “hits” are the strongest with hardcore, action-packed, maximum-intensity competitive games. Overwatch, CS:GO, DOTA 2, etc. are all programmed to PROGRAM you. Action > reward > challenge > repeat, this is their recipe for ultimately (and if you know me, you’ll know this hurts me to say) control of your mind. As my experiment has continued now for over a month and a bit, I am now finding it hard to trust myself with gaming. I wouldn’t say that I’ve had an addiction per se, but I have most certainly over done it, routinely.
These routine flirtations with the muses that are modern games has made me realise just how cyclical the brain is. Dopamine fatigue is overcome between 3 and 12 weeks. It is fairly straightforward to recover from. So, how do you know you’ve got an issue with dopamine? Simply put: If you find that you once enjoyed doing something, but now don’t, and battle to find joy in anything else while still thinking about doing the thing you think will give you the joy you seek, you’ve got a problem. I am no doctor, but to me it has been that simple to diagnose. After cutting down(read: out) competitive games from my weekly entertainment, I’ve gained renewed interest in reading, cooking, my dogs, I’ve been better towards my responsibilities, my family, my work, my studies… The list, quite literally, goes on.
I’ve read 5 books back to back, made significant progress in my coding studies, pipelined new work, found new peace in everyday life, experienced less anxiety, am getting up earlier and sleeping better. I am happy. Happy without something I mistakenly thought was a massive source of my happiness. It wasn’t, though don’t get me wrong, I love games, and in particular high-intensity competitive first person shooters like Overwatch, Quake, etc.
I now believe that just like anything else that triggers dopamine moderation is key. It’s the routine pushing of the dopamine button that is the problem. There is an enormous appeal to playing games for fun, there is a near infinite novelty to be experienced, add friends into the mix and you’re probably having as much fun as possible but there is a hidden, lurking cost that doesn’t strike at once, but rather creeps into your life over time. A cost that robs you of the rest of your joy. Sadly, but honestly, this probably marks the end of my playing routine games.
I will miss them, I’m sure, but overall I will be a happier version of myself. For all my friends who game, I would strongly urge you to experiment with allowing your dopamine levels to normalise. See if there is a difference in your well being after 3 weeks of no games. Heck, give it a week and report in.
Lastly if you’d like to explore the science of dopamine, and specifically how it is influenced by games. Watch this series of videos by Dr. Alok Kanojia on the subject.
If you’d like to chat to me directly about his. Reach out!
#dopamine #dopaminedetox #gaming #gamingaddiction