TI 99/4A

The public radio program 1A had an interesting episode recently on the World Health Organization categorizing video game addiction as an official mental health disorder. This new classification is quite interesting to me as a Generation X geek who grew up as video games were just beginning. My brothers and I did not have one of the early consoles when we were young (or cable TV when it came out either), but we did have a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A computer. We loved that system. It had a few games and you could program it. Later we graduated to an Apple IIe as a family. I grew up playing text adventure games (good old Infocom) and role-playing games on those computers. A family down the street had an Atari that we would play on from time to time. Later on another family in the neighborhood got a Nintendo when they came out and we used to play that as well. Much later, our family got a Nintendo. We also, of course, played board games. And we spent a lot of time playing outside with the neighborhood kids.

Activities which require serious contemplation are not as potentially addicting as mindless activities. And activities that result in little visual or physical stimulation are not as addicting as those that are highly visually or physically stimulating. So modern video games, being usually just one step above mindless TV binging, massively visually stimulating, and physically stimulating (because of the frantic button mashing), all at the same time, are addiction masters. It doesn't matter if it's Fortnite or Candy Crush, modern video games are excellently crafted dopamine delivery systems the likes of which has never been possible outside of chemical means previously. The video game companies and programmers know this very well and spend their time trying to figure out how to amplify the effect. The better they get at it the more money they make.

Old Infocom advertisement for text based adventure games

But that doesn't mean they are intrinsically bad activites by any stretch. They are a good way to relax and get your mind off stressful things when necessary. I love some types of video games. There are some mentally stimulating, yet relaxing, video games out there, like Minecraft, or some of the strategy games still played on PCs, or some of the more advanced role-playing games on consoles and PCs. Most of those video games may not be in the same league as their analog tabletop counterparts in terms of required pre-frontal cortex brain activity, but they're cool for some pure escapism from time to time. Sometimes everybody needs a break from mental workouts...

So what should you do with a potentially addictive activity, with little worth in terms of self improvement, beyond boredom and stress relief? Obviously you keep a close watch on it in your life and the lives of your children. You must exercise control over it. And children need help from adults in exercising that control. If you are a parent whose children spend hours a day playing video games, or watching TV, but less than an hour reading or doing other mentally edifying leisure activities then there is a problem that needs to be rectified. Turn off the TV and video games every day at some point to spend time reading together, doing art projects, physically building something, playing mentally demanding tabletop games together, cooking together, sewing decorative fabric art together, playing musical instruments together, bike riding together, walking or jogging together, swimming together, or any other thing you can come up with that will not only be fun but will improve your family's minds or bodies as well. If you do that you will not need to worry about video game addiction for yourself or your children.

Do not count on their school hours to innoculate your children against video game addiction, either. Sometimes parents think that their children just spent 7 hours doing demanding mental work at school and therefore deserve a rest to do whatever they want for the rest of the day. Then some of those parents extend that reasoning to allow the children to do nothing but vegetate in front of the TV for the entire weekend as well. However, the teenagers mentioned in this episode, that are school aged and addicted, prove school is no protection against this addiction.

But here's the 1A episode. It's an interesting listen.