The New Dope On Video Games

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 5 September 1998

I was at a cocktail party recently when I heard the terrifying news. A notice in Scientific American reported that video games change brain chemistry.

In a study conducted at the cyclotron unit of Hammersmith Hospital in London, Dr. Paul Grasby and his fellow researchers determined that playing video games triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.

What the scientists believe they found is that dopamine production in the brain doubles during video-game play. The increase in secretion of this psychoactive chemical is roughly the same as when a person is injected with amphetamines or with the attention-deficit-disorder drug Ritalin. Worse, this alteration in brain chemistry is the first hard evidence that video-game playing is addictive.

As someone who has laughed off the concerned cries of parents and teachers about the perils of Duke Nukem, I was quite taken aback. If I hadn’t been on my third glass of wine, I wouldn’t have been able to finish my dinner.

“I guess this means you’ll be retracting your last three books,” a particularly competitive media-theorist friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, gibed.

Indeed, at first glance, it appears old Marshall McLuhan was right yet again. The medium is not only the message, it is the massage. That is, the media we use and watch, regardless of content, have physical and psychological effects on us. The flickering TV screen itself massages our brains in ways we might only be starting to understand. Like the “brain machines” with flashing lights that high-tech New Agers attach to their eyes to transport themselves into meditative states, our TVs, computers and video games appear to have a calculable impact on our nervous systems.

And it’s not a good one at all. According to the study, video games are the electronic equivalent of a dose of speed. No wonder some kids need Ritalin and similar chemicals to stay alert in school; they are addicted to raised dopamine levels and can’t concentrate without them.

What is the effect of the flickering from my computer monitor?, I wondered. Mine is set to a refresh rate of 85 hertz (meaning the image flashes 85 times a second). Do different refresh rates do different things? Is this why I feel so compelled to check my E-mail before I go to bed? Am I addicted to the monitor?

And what about all those video-game-playing parents and children who I suggested have no reason to worry? Am I guilty of pushing them into a life of addiction and possibly a painful withdrawal period at some video-game recovery clinic?

I took a careful second look at the study as published in Scientific American and found nothing to cheer me up, so I went back to an earlier report on the same study published in New Scientist, the British science magazine. It was there I found my salvation.

The subjects of the aforementioned experiments weren’t simply playing video games. They were playing for money.

The men would win cash prizes for successfully manoeuvring a tank and collecting enemy flags.

So, if we want to be really scientific about all this, might not we leave open the possibility that the observed increase in dopamine levels was associated more with the known compulsive and addictive sport of gambling than the video games themselves? Or, at the very least, hasn’t cash already been proven to be a sufficient incentive for many a questionable action? I know my

brain chemistry changes when I have a $100 bill dangled in front of me.

Maybe I’m just fighting the inevitable, namely conclusive proof that the technologies I enjoy are somehow debilitating or addictive. But until someone can show me the brain damage incurred by people who play games purely for fun, I’m hanging onto my joystick.

Douglas Rushkoff is a New York-based social theorist and the author of several books, including Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, a bestselling portrait of 1990s cyberculture. His column appears every second Saturday.