Leveling Up or Leveling Out? Addiction, Gaming, and Relationships

Addiction involving video games is in its own pandemic while the global pandemic is occurring. Addictive risk and vulnerability are generally high, so layer in a greater ease to isolate and escape and you’ve got yourself an unhealthy situation. To quell the boredom of being at home and eat up time, many have turned to video games as a tool. For some this is a new thing, but for many they were already plugged in, now they just have greater ease of access because of time. What impact does this have on the person and on relationships?

Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that video games are inherently bad (this isn’t the 1990’s where you’re being tried to convince that media is the root of all evil). In fact, video games in and of themselves are pretty neutral. They are something that exists, period. What makes video games healthy or unhealthy is how we approach them and the motivation for engaging with them. If video games are being approached for occasional entertainment and as a way to stimulate the brain, critical think, and reach out to others, than they may have health value.

The downside is that how video games operate can stimulate the dopamine, reward seeking part of the brain to take that relationship with gaming one (or a hundred) steps further than being an occasional source of entertainment. For the brain that is vulnerable to ‘more’, video games can start to take on all of the qualities of addictive behaviour- compulsion, obsession, cravings, intoxication, withdrawal, and a lot of time spent on that behaviour that is not going into other things, including relationship with self and with others.

For loved ones, this relationship can be extremely frustrating. It’s easier to rationalize and minimize than drug and alcohol use but the impact on relationships is very similar, as it creates isolation, loneliness, and resentment. If a family member is locked into their gaming for hours a day, this makes them unavailable (physically, emotionally, and relationally) to the other members of the household and even those outside of the household. This is very frustrating to loved ones who may want time or conversation with the person who is gaming and, over time, can lead to a profound disconnection that can impact the integrity of the relationship. I’ve seen relationships end over this, although it usually takes place over a looonngg period of time because of that minimization and rationalization on both people’s parts.

People who are entrenched in gaming are usually more volatile, distant, irritable, and numb so even when they are unplugged, they’re really not plugged into life and can appear very robotic. This obviously isn’t very helpful for their own health or for relationships.

The need for recovery for people struggling with gaming is just as real as the problem itself. Boundaries (with potential disengagement from gaming altogether if it’s completely unmanageable) and engagement with life- physical activity, emotions, other activities, time with loved ones and for social connection, and connection with self and life through things like meditation, mindfulness, relaxation, and other spiritual practices- can all be part of the healing process.

If you are unsure if your relationship with gaming is becoming unmanageable, take the following self-assessment:

Do you:

  1. Consistently spend more time than intended gaming?
  2. Have difficulty setting limits with your gaming?
  3. Feel frustrated that others are frustrated with your gaming?
  4. Feel your relationship with gaming is harming you?
  5. Neglect basic care and needs to game?
  6. Feel quite numb and disconnected outside of gaming?
  7. Use other behaviours or substances, like marijuana, other drugs, or alcohol, while gaming?
  8. Find many reasons to game?
  9. Feel your gaming may be unmanageable?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, this may be an indication that your relationship with gaming is unhealthy. You may want to consider seeking out some professional support in your area.

Recovery and health is possible!

By Paige Abbott

Paige is a Registered Psychologist in Alberta, Canada. She has specialized in Addiction Psychology for over 8 years and works with individuals struggling with Addiction and their loved ones.