Sara Bellum
April 9 2014

Doodle Jump. Candy Crush. FarmVille. Angry Birds. Cut the Rope. Fruit Ninja. Words With Friends.

Nearly everyone with a smartphone or tablet has played one of these video games. It’s easy to get swept up in the bright colors, cutesy characters—and the satisfaction you feel when you finally complete a difficult level. So you keep playing, and playing, and playing. Lots of people say games like these are “addictive.” But, are they, really?

MaybeAddiction Science Award Winner Ethan Guinn definitely thought so.

Dopamine: Sweet Rewards for the Brain

Rewards in video games, such as points or bonuses, are surprising and often unpredictable. Figuring out that special move or combination that helps you conquer each level feels great. Not knowing when you’ll get that reward keeps you engaged.

These periodic bursts of pleasure are the work of dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical in your brain that causes you to feel happy, and it is what gets you hooked on lots of things in life.

Your brain is designed to release dopamine in response to things that are good for you—like spending time with your friends, eating healthy food, or exercising. Dopamine bursts also reward you when you apply your cleverness to solving real-world problems.

But people have figured out all kinds of ways to tap into the brain’s reward system with things that aren’t so good for you. Drugs and junk food are obvious, harmful examples. Video games might not kill you or make you overweight (at least not directly), but many people feel they are “hooked” on them.

So, Is Gaming Really an Addiction?

Scientists say that more research is needed before they can tell whether being hooked on a video game is actually an addiction.

Addiction is more complicated than just wanting to feel good. People who are addicted to drugs often just want to feel “normal” or not bad. It’s also more than just the compulsive need to keep using a drug or engaging in a behavior. Addiction means being unable to quit, even in the face of negative consequences.

A person with a drug addiction wants to use drugs even when their grades have tanked, they’ve lost their job, and they no longer care about the things that were once important to them. When they aren’t using drugs, they feel withdrawal symptoms that make them sick. Scientists aren’t sure video games can cause the same effects.

But … if you play a game so much that you don’t participate in life’s normal activities—you don’t sleep or eat or hang out with friends or do the things you used to love—you are heading down a dangerous path. If that describes you, maybe you should try not playing the game for a day or two, or even a week. Ask people that you trust if they think you have a problem. And, if you find that you just can’t stop—even if video gaming addiction isn’t officially a disease—you can absolutely get help by talking to your parents or a guidance counselor at school.

Tell us what you think in comments: Is video gaming addiction real?

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