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As of 2017 the video game industry has generated just around 18 billion dollars in America alone. 4 out of 5 American households contain a minimum of at least one gaming console. An estimated 155 million Americans are partaking in the use of video games adding up to a staggering 42% playing a minimum of 3 hours each week (Extra-life). There is no denying it, America is and will continue to game on but at what cost? Research has argued and supported the benefits found by playing video games such as improved hand-eye coordination or improved multi-tasking capabilities. However, research has also shown for every benefit, a detriment is also present. These detriments are due to the mechanics of these games designed to keep players, engaged and ready to game on. I will discuss how game designers use methods to trigger player’s brains their effects on a neurological level, and the effects they have on the mental and physical health of its users.
Video game designer have had much practice since the 1970’s, when the first generation of console was released to the public. Innovation through the digital age has armed designers with tools and capabilities that designers from the 70’s could have never imagined. The gaming titles available today are built with state of the art design and programing software, ensuring the game does not just look amazing but the playability feels almost second nature to players. Certain game titles such as World of Warcraft or Elder’s Scroll: Skyrim just to name a few reflect the ever-growing capabilities and attention to detail designers input making these titles true cult classic the moment they are released. Hours upon hours of discoverable content with in-game partners along for ride as players journey into a vast virtual world. Designers specifically focus on five particular aspects of gameplay to ensure players are becoming full immersed into their digital creations and wanting more every time they play.
The first of these aspects is a model of measurable progress in correlation to players in game experience. As the hours pass players carry on in hopes to reach the next level or achieve a certain amount of in-game points or currency. The manageability of obtaining those specific in-game pursuits is reinforced by this measurable model providing visual progress as they get closer to their goal with each action. The second aspect is designed to generate multiple achievements within the game, each varying in duration and requirements. Time factorization provides players with insight and the promise that although they may not reach the goal they are attempting to reach, there are other goals that are attainable by putting in the effort regardless tying into the third aspect of rewarding effort, no matter the amount of effort every player wins somehow. Feedback is the fourth aspect and in most cases the most stimulating aspect of all. Through implementation of in-game feedback loops, designers can directly manipulate players by rewarding specific actions, in response to this structure players are punished for lack of or deviation from that specific action. The result of this is players can adjust to the conditions of this structure to correct any further actions, in hopes of achieving said reward. The last of these aspects is the implementation of randomness, constituting a certain level of uncertainty for players, the very same structure found in instances of gambling allows players a sense of adventure while confined to the limitations of the reward system. Reward systems such as this are changing the way players participate in-game and altering their behaviors even when they are done playing. The leisure time and relaxation a game once provided, now reformed to a virtual representation of Pavlovian experiments and subjecting users to participate in Prisoner’s dilemma.
Given these circumstances players are subjected to questionable situations so why do they continue to play? The simple answer is they are hooked and ready for more, keeping them fixated just as the canines in Pavlov’s studies. Due to the sophisticated and intricate reward systems in place, players are being affected on a deep neurological level, in most cases without being conscious of it. The rewards in video games produce neurological response by releasing dopamine. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter responsible for the communication between nerve cells and directly effects pathways in the brains related to reward-anticipation. Dopamine release is a normal function of our brains and is important for our neurological health and development, however like in any case excessive amounts can cause complications. As dopamine is released, the nervous system is activated and instigates production of the stress hormone called cortisol. The cortisol hormone is mostly responsible for regulating blood sugar levels and metabolic rate but in higher concentrations can cause hypertension and hyperglycemia. A study was conducted on the behaviors of children before, during and after participation in playing video games. Results showed that while the subject was playing, his heart rate increased as dopamine flooded his neurologic pathways, his attention became limited, strictly focusing on the game, tuning out his surroundings. As the subject is deprived of the game, he expresses fits of rage while his dopamine levels are high and adrenal glands are engaged he immediately acts-out in a rage. This reaction is common as with higher level of cortisol subjects are faced with hyperactive adrenal secretion leaving them on edge amidst an overload of hormones.
The neurologic onslaught taken on by the brain of video game user’s is detrimental to wellbeing regarding their mental and physical health. By subjecting the brain to the kind of hyper-arousal from video games, users are contributing to such disorders like chronic stress, depression, anxiety and insomnia. Video games are sought to relieve stress, whether it is to unwind from a long day of work or to collaborate with friends online due to busy schedules but the way games are constructed is only setting up users for short term fixes, left to a vicious cycle as their tolerance to the excitement builds. Chronic stress is a serious matter as it can lead to even more serious ailments, including cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks or strokes, the adrenal system will be in constant limbo causing irregular energy levels and lethargy (APA). In most cases mental disorder diagnosis require follow-up for video gamers, when asked to change their gaming habits, as studies have shown it can take weeks for the brain, body and mind.
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