Gaming was a big problem in my childhood. And so was racism. One day when I was about 10 years old, I came home from school and burst into tears in front of my mother while telling her how I had been bullied. Instead of offering me support or reassurance or even listening, she ignored me and turned back to her game of Microsoft Hearts.
Living in a small market town in England in the early ’90s, our family were the only people of color on the playground, at work, and in the shopping mall. My mother’s conservative upbringing in Malaysia hadn’t prepared her to deal with the demands of being a nurse in a hostile environment where she suffered discrimination from colleagues and abuse from hospital patients.
Instead she struggled with challenging feelings, especially sadness, and would often say I was being “silly” when I told her that I dreaded the walk to school. Sundays were particularly bad for me and I always struggled to sleep, while downstairs I could hear the noise of my mother moving the mouse as she also put off confronting the week ahead.
We had computers because my father fixed broken 286s that he brought home from work. Unlike other families, we had several machines at home that would play games. It meant that my mother could spend all her free time staring into a gray monitor, fleeing the trauma she felt from a life marked by her own racist conflict and toxic stress. The next day she would always be back on the computer, only stopping to eat a microwaved dinner.
Long after I left home in my late twenties, I became depressed and, following a familial pattern, also regularly began turning to my computer or game console to seek solace. I would spend entire weekends in my bedroom playing Championship Manager. But I broke this chain of behavior not by stopping gaming but by using it as a force for good. And that’s why I hate the term “gaming addiction,” and it’s how I can be a games journalist many years later. Games may have been part of the problem but for me, they also became part of the solution.
The title that made the biggest difference was Flower, released more than a decade ago. In it, the player can change the direction of wind to blow petals through the air. There weren’t any set goals or objectives in the game. Like my mother’s obsessions, it was more like creative play or play for play’s sake, something sorely lacking from my drab childhood.
Embracing games helped me cope with depression, which I believe was the underlying cause of both my and my mother’s issues with gaming. It’s also something that experts like Chris Ferguson, a psychologist who studies video games, consider first when they encounter people who may have an unhealthy relationship with gaming, completely disagreeing with the idea that it’s the games themselves that lead to addiction.
“Generally the pattern for gaming disorder is that the mental health problems come first,” he says.
This is also why I—along with a number of mental health professionals—are baffled that the World Health Organization currently defines a gaming disorder as when a person gives “increased priority to it over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities,” when you could replace “gaming” with any other activity: shopping, going to the gym, checking your email, or even ordering takeout every night.“You can make the argument that cats are addictive if you use the same logic,” Ferguson says.
“I half-joke, but cats have mechanisms to keep you engaged. Stroking a cat releases dopamine in the brain, just like everything else that’s fun,” he continues. ”And there’re people who have 70 cats in their house and they clearly have a problem, but there’s no diagnosis for ‘cat disorder.’ So why is the WHO and other organizations so concerned with gaming, to the exclusion of all the other things, that people might overdo?”
However, if we continue the argument that games may not be an addiction risk directly, but instead a symptom of a wider problem or other underlying mental health issues, then could you argue the same for alcohol and drugs?
“If you were to mix heroin secretly into someone’s food,” Ferguson says, “over time they would develop the addiction maybe without even noticing it until it was too late. There are physiological mechanisms that will cause the addiction. You get a lot of people who are addicted to caffeine and wake up every day and need a coffee or Pepsi. And they can't function without it and have gained a tolerance, so they need more and more coffee to get the kick. If they try to stop, they’ll get headaches, fatigue, and be irritable. There isn’t this equivalent in gaming when it comes to the concept of tolerance and withdrawal.”
This was heartening to hear, since I’ve used games to break addictive patterns in my life. The biggest problem I have is checking my phone for emails. If left unchecked, that can lead to screen use late at night, on weekends, or when I’m supposed to be on holiday.
Take this article: As soon as I sent the pitch, I turned off my computer and picked up my BittBoy (a retro handheld game console) to play 10 minutes of Tetris Attack on the Super Nintendo (I set a timer). It supplies me with the dopamine “reward” I was expecting from an immediate email reply. It means I can forget about the email and then resume work. But is there any science behind my novel habits?
“The easy answer is that, yes, you can absolutely do games as a reward,” says Ferguson.
“It’s a complicated situation, as dopamine does lots of things, but you will see dopamine levels spike right before you do something exciting. It’s like when you get to the front of the queue at Space Mountain at Disney World after an hour-long line. And that could be exactly like receiving an email from a really good pitch.”
Ferguson then tells me that dopamine levels raise about 50 to 100 percent when you play a game for the first time, and that’s a totally normal response to any pleasurable activity: from eating pizza to having sex (compare that to methamphetamine use, which can that raise levels by 1,300 percent). By contrast, dopamine-wise, it’s fine to play a game, and you won’t have the same regrets afterwards from eating pizza or (maybe) from sex.
I do worry about how gaming affects young minds, as my 4-year-old daughter has just started playing with my iPad. I fear that she could develop an unhealthy relationship with games, the way I did, and the way her grandmother did. Sarah Coyne, associate director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, allays my fears.
“There’s so much research on the positive uses of video games,” she says. “How it can help with social relationships and mental health and cognitive problems.”
“Video games are a really powerful tool and you can use them for good or for bad,” she continues. “And so you want to make sure that whatever you’re doing is really working for you. If you’re too restrictive with kids, then they rebel and then just want the restricted content and kind of the forbidden fruit type of idea.”
Coyne says there’s not much research into the effects of having a parent who misused gaming as a hobby, but the one advantage I have is that my mother played games that weren’t violent. That’s the kind of game I favor, especially puzzle games that offer a cerebral experience and the joy of solving problems.
“If you’re playing mindful video games, or video games that connect to you or help you think about the world, it’s going to have a dramatically different effect to Grand Theft Auto,” Coyne says.
The fears I have about games and my daughter are pretty minor considering I’m connected to her in a way that I wasn’t with my parents. My partner and I don’t see gaming as a way of us getting a break from our kids.
“If you have high parental warmth,” Coyne adds, “and a good relationship with your parents, the kids are less likely to be addicted. And parents that monitor games are less likely to have children that are addicted.”
My early life may have been marked by a mother who saw games as a refuge from her depression and the rest of the world, but my world has been enriched by video games. When I interview the people who make the games I love, I share their childlike wonder at how a medium can be both accessible and life-changing. The days I spent playing Champ Manager may seem like a waste of time, but they taught me a valuable lesson about the dangers of losing yourself in a game when you’re depressed.
Now, when I’m depressed, I talk about it with people I love and trust. I still pick up a controller, but by recognizing why I’m unhappy before I start gaming, I can use my hobby as a healthy retreat, and not a depressing getaway.