Craving the Controller

Lifestyle, Uncategorized

Throughout my life I have witnessed the evolution of video game systems. In 1985, I was six when Nintendo released their very first game console (in the United States). My parents gifted it to us a couple years later, but once it arrived into our house, my brother and I were hooked. We would play Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt, Zelda, Contra, Tetris, etc. so much that the unit would overheat; and of course we would simply take the game cartridge out of the console, and with great fervor, would blow on it until we were blue in the face. Then we would immediately pop it back in to the console and hope that our near cyanotic episode was enough to buy us a couple more hours of play. We knew cheat codes (“up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A and Start”), glitches in certain games, hidden levels, you name it.

Over the years, we weren’t ‘lucky’ enough to own every platform that was introduced onto the market. In fact, we owned the original NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), the Super NES, and a first generation XBOX. That’s it. Never an Atari, never a Sega Genesis, nor any of the Sony PlayStation series. I know what you’re thinking – what a rough and deprived childhood I must have had, right? Tell me about it.

In elementary school, I can still recall sleep-overs at friends houses staying up all night rescuing the princess from Bowser in Super Mario Bros. or button-smashing away to defeat (Mike Tyson’s) Punch-Out(!!). I would invite junior-high friends over right after school to come play Street Fighter II or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the Super Ninetendo system. But I actually hit a peak of ‘addiction’ later in life, right before registering for dental school, when three friends and I would get together every week or so and play the game Halo. No joke, we would play basically from early evening until the sun started to crack through the shutters. Then I would somehow make it home, and dream about Valhalla (a map in Halo), and snipers (a weapon in Halo), and trying to annihilate my friends at the game. We loved the online multi-player option for Halo, but we’d still meet regularly for the camaraderie and joy of witnessing someone’s face when you just finish rocket launching them from behind.

Life ended up interfering with our Halo group. I eventually started dental school, one friend moved away to Phoenix, another left to serve in the military and it all just unfortunately fizzled out.

A few years ago, I got excited to gift my two boys a Nintendo Switch. My wife initially opposed the idea. She was nervous (and rightfully so) that our boys would become addicted to video games. According to this article, 6 to 15 percent of all gamers exhibit signs that might be characterized as addiction. Emotional signs such as a feeling of restlessness or irritability when unable to play, preoccupation with thoughts of previous online activity or anticipation of the next online session, lying to friends/family about the amount of time spent playing and also staying isolated from others in order to spend more time gaming. Some physical symptoms might present as fatigue, migraines from eye strain or intense concentration, Carpal tunnel syndrome, and exhibiting poor personal hygiene.

Video games today are undoubtedly better than the 8-bit, pixelated consoles I used to play on. The graphics are insanely good, the online multiplayer setup gives them a social setting to feel accepted in, and all-round the games are designed to be more addictive then ever before. What’s worse, many games now are streamed – requiring minimal computing power and little more than a solid internet connection. Gaming companies have also become increasingly cunning in that they offer games for free and instead, now charge for things within the game. If not offered free of charge, have moved towards a monthly subscription-based model versus when I was a kid and my parents would have a one-time charge to buy the cartridge. Also, games now-a-days rarely have “levels” to beat, and therefore allow for continuous play and generally have no ending.

After dental school/residency, I never resumed my love of video games. I have so many precious memories, but now – older, more educated, more enlightened, more self-aware – I can’t help but consider the opportunity costs on the countless hours I spent on video games. I should have participated in sports or clubs instead of rushing home to turn on the Nintendo. How much better could I have done with my education? How much earlier could I have entered my career?

“Changing our thoughts, actions, experiences- and in the process changing our brains- is what will help us finally feel satisfied and free from the desperation of not being able to get enough.”

– Omar Manejwala

We ultimately decided to purchase the Nintendo Switch; however, that ended up not being the source of their addiction. After all, there are computers, phones, tablets, Apple TV’s, and so many other means of accessing games if they so desire. Before it was Angry Birds and Candy Crush. This generation seems to be all about Minecraft, Roblox, Fortnite, and something new seems to come out every day.

There have been studies that show an alarming correlation between video game addiction and depression, restlessness/sleeplessness, and even substance abuse. It can grow to be quite dangerous.

For a short while, I contemplated setting up parental controls, installing spy software, and cutting offer internet access to get them to stop playing so much. However, I genuinely do not believe that will inhibit addictive behavior. It is more reactive versus being proactive; and I feel like they will always find a way around the barriers I keep putting up. I would rather find solutions and methods that help decrease their cravings as well as distract them from thinking about gaming in the first place.

What I have found so far to be the most effective thing at helping overcome their dependency on video games and screen time as a whole is enrolling them in outside activities. Our kids take tennis classes, Kumon tutoring, and piano lessons. On weekends, we will try and do family board or card games, bake together, or go to the park. As dental school seemed to do for me, my hope is that – if we offer them better ways to occupy their time, and minimize exposure to the addictive substances – hopefully the brain rewires and overcomes dependency on things.

Everything in moderation, right? I think depriving them outright is not fair; they should be able to have some commonality and shared interests with other kids their age. But I want them to not be constantly thinking about them, or throwing tantrums when we tell them to turn it off. I want them to read books, spend time outdoors, interact with people, observe the world around them, become cultured. Recognizing and controlling obsessions and addictions is not easy for anyone; however, with some help and support from family and friends we hope to overcome these obstacles in life.

I love self-improvement, mental health and various psychology topics; I would be curious to know if anyone else has similar experiences and other good options to overcome addictive behaviors and tendencies. Please feel free to leave comments or contact me with your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to read this post!

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