Kids and gaming – the art of moderation.

Anyone who has followed my blogging over the years knows that my husband and I are casual gamers.  There are a lot of people who would be embarrassed to admit that – like it’s something unusual that denotes a personality deficiency or something.  Not me.  I’ve been proudly hooked on gaming since Pong.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.  I just love me some time killers.

Actually, I suspect even the self-proclaimed adults in the room have some Spider Solitaire, Angry Birds or Words With Friends apps that they pull up while they’re waiting to board their planes, because really?  There are only so many Likes and Retweets you can withstand before you need something that feels a little less like work.  No offense to Facebook and Twitter, but too much social media makes my brain hurt.

Sidebar – I always smile at the the too cool for school attitude that the “professionals” cop when I explain that I’m walking so I can evolve something like a Bayleaf into a Meganium…which took forever by the way, but was so awesome.  Just a friendly PSA for people who claim they don’t game – Tetris isn’t a productivity app.

So my husband and I don’t like the heavy stuff like first person shooters and we don’t do VR, but PvP, RPG and augmented reality are fun and let us be something other than just “mom and dad” once in a while.  It also helps to keep us in the loop with the technology that our kids are experiencing and the dopamine hits that might encourage some homework avoidance.  Just saying – it can sometimes be a lot of effort to draw them out of their iPad cocoons.

We all want them to be tech savvy, connected, in tune with what their friends are doing, but putting on a headset to complete a quest with their classmates?  It falls a little short of socialization standards in my opinion.

Worse still – and this is according to the Wall Street Journal – game developers are actually designing their games to keep your kids plugged in for longer periods of time.  Per the WSJ:

“Videogames are engineered specifically to keep people playing,” said Douglas A. Gentile, a research scientist focused on the impact of media on children and adults. “They’re designed to hit the pleasure centers of the brain in some of the same ways that gambling can.”

This psychological aspect of game design introduces some real parenting challenges.  We all recognize the obvious pitfalls.  A sedentary lifestyle can lead to obesity and poor dietary habits.  A lack of sunlight can cause symptoms of depression.  Repetitive motions can lead to joint pain and carpal tunnel syndrome.  Check, check, check and got it.

Other issues are a bit more subtle.  As I see it, the problem with dopamine and epinephrine when your dealing with gaming – and again, I’m not a doctor.  I just play one in my kitchen as I’m confiscating everyone’s smartphones – is that they contribute to habit formation.

Think of it in terms of sports vs. virtual sports.  If you win a physical battle in real life, it can make you feel good and you could form a habit.  As a result of that sport, your heart races and your brain feels a sense of satisfaction much like you would in gaming, but ultimately you worked for it.  Your muscles and organs were fed by the blood flow, your body burned energy and you created a feeling of hunger and exhaustion that require food and sleep.  This is what bodies and their functions were built to do.

Gaming causes similar responses.  Let’s start with the epinephrine.

The heart races from an excitement that’s like fight or flight, but the gamer is sedentary so nothing is burning off the adrenaline.  Now if that were me, I think I’d start feeling some anxiety build up over time.  Anxiety produces cortisol.  Elevated cortisol  causes testosterone levels to drop, which means that the body will ultimately lose muscle mass.  Muscle burns energy more efficiently.  Also per Livestrong,com:

Even if you do not have high levels in your blood, the cortisol inside fat cells can still make weight loss challenging. An enzyme called HSD found in these cells boosts cortisol presence inside them, which triggers the fat cells to store more fat and grow, even when blood cortisol levels are normal. Visceral cells deep inside your abdomen contain more HSD than fat cells that lie just below your skin, or subcutaneous cells, a factor that increases the risk of abdominal obesity or weight gain…   

…which brings us to dopamine.

Dopamine is thought to be the chemical that stimulates the sensation of contentment or pleasure in the brain.  It has other functions, but that’s the one on which people tend to focus.

There are studies about dopamine that actually show that it’s not pleasure that’s being produced.  Instead it’s regulating something that Wikipedia refers to as incentive salience.  Dopamine signals achievement in the brain as well as worth of the achievement.  It causes one to feel like simulated driving across an imaginary finish line is of great importance.   Either way, it does tempt a person to chase after the feeling again and again.

The problem with dopamine…well, let’s let Livestrong explain it.

High levels of dopamine in the brain are found in patients with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Parkinson’s patients treated with L-dopa, who exhibit impulsive behavior. Individuals with boosted brain dopamine levels were more likely to act impulsively with need for instant gratification. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation, learning through reinforcement and addictions, such as drug, food, alcohol, tobacco, sex and gambling, according to the “Journal of Neuroscience.” 

Obviously, each person will react differently to such chemical reactions.  Why some people become addicted to blackjack and others don’t, who knows?  Why some people can drink heavily and others become hooked after a beer, I couldn’t tell you.  The point is, that the more people play, the bigger effect the game will have on brain chemistry –  that and thought processes.

Remember that behind every storyline is an author and behind every author is a viewpoint.  Computer games feed entertainment to a passive audience and are actually an effective means of propaganda.  That propaganda might be as innocent as getting students excited about mathematics in the case of educational software or as sinister as suggesting to young people that satanic rituals are no big deal as with any number of role playing games.

Let’s say that your children play video games for 2 hours a day, which is not actually that excessive by today’s standards.  14 hours a week?  That’s a lot of influence over them, you know?  Social influences, religious influences, political influences.

As I alluded to earlier, my whole family enjoys playing Pokémon Go…husband, kids, siblings, nieces and nephews.  Pokémon Go is known as an augmented reality game that incorporates your real world environment into the graphics.  So you run the game, hold your phone up and Pikachu looks like he’s standing next to you on your coffee table as you try to catch him.  It’s pretty neat technology that is spreading like wildfire to all sorts of gaming platforms.

The Pokémon franchise is very social.  Furthermore, in order to play the Go game, you have to walk around.  I’ve often thought that if the nation ultimately beats it’s obesity problem, augmented reality games may well play an integral part in that success.  That’s beside the point.

In terms of  political or religious influence, Pokémon Go is pretty benign.   Earth Day events, special characters for holidays including Christmas and New Years Day, this is the extent of the political influence.  Also, and I personally see it as harmless, but some might be sensitive to mildly spiritual content.

For me, other games are more concerning in terms of religion, politics an societal influence.  Keep in mind that the tech community is almost entirely to the left of center politically.  Many games use foul language.  Many are extremely gruesome.  Some have decidedly anarchistic bents to them.  Others are sexually explicit.  A few allow characters to have virtual sexual encounters.

Then there’s the more overt propaganda.  During election cycles, candidates will often pay for political advertising to be added to certain games.  Player versus player games that are in real time, receive frequent updates and target young voters by placing political billboards around in the scenery, and those gamers are often especially influenced because they’re so impressed with the forward thinking of real mixed with virtual.  They see it as very smart, and really when you think about it, it’s kind of genius.

The question is how to deal with all this negative impact on your kids.

You know, the reason I know that there are games with satanic rituals is because my husband and I would rent new titles and try them out…and:

“Huh.  Hmmm.  Uh, I’m sorry.  What was that they want us to do?  Yeah, I’m not gonna do that.”

So we’d package it up and send it back.  The key to self-control in a virtual world is remembering that just because a game wants you to sacrifice an animal to an evil demon, doesn’t mean that you’re required to do so.

Especially when they’ve invested money, but even if they’ve only invested time, kids might feel compelled to keep moving forward in their tasks.  As a result of some pretty nasty experiences, my husband and I (and the kids by extension) learned that we don’t like games that are higher rated than Teen.  The Mature rating is pretty much just an excuse to act inappropriately and that’s not for us.

I also have occasionally found myself playing longer than I intended, and I’ve learned to keep a timer on.  My Fitbit is actually great because it buzzes any time I rest too long – perfect for staying motivated.

The one thing I do suggest is that you play games with your kids or hang and watch them play on their own. Maybe try an augmented reality game together, so you can walk out in the real world and see actual people…just remember that the game characters are simulated, but the car that you’re about to walk in front of is real.

Anyway, if you have any of your own techniques for reducing gaming impact, feel free to share.  Fresh insights are very welcome.

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