“I had a date over who was just lingering around. This was at the height of Red Dead Redemption 2 for me,” an Indian gamer told Re:Set on the condition of anonymity. “I tried to make her leave, but when I couldn’t, I just launched the game while she was there and started playing.”
Such interactions aren’t atypical for gamers who play for three to four hours everyday.
“There’s a [neural pathway] in our brain called the reward circuit, where we feel pleasure. For some individuals, games give them a high which others find from drug abuse,” explained Dr. Yatan Pal Singh Balhara, associate professor of psychiatry at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), in a conversation with Re:Set. “When [gaming] becomes their only source of pleasure, they modify their behaviour around receiving that pleasure. It then becomes [an excess] beyond control.”
Such behaviours have been observed worldwide and, in response, the World Health Organization recognized it as the ‘gaming disorder’ in September 2018. According to their definition, the disorder is characterized “by increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities.”
Shreemant Yadav, a psychotherapist in Mumbai, who often deals with cases of video game addiction in children, says that there are signs parents can look to address early on. “Kids addicted to gaming play for three-four hours a day, and get aggressive when parents tell them to stop playing,” he told Re:Set. “They also start [falling asleep] at school, and fail to complete [regular tasks assigned to them] like homework.”
Furthermore, the effects of excessive gaming in young adults are different, impeding their personal as well as professional lives. The signs include social isolation, dropping out of college or extra-curricular activities and lying to parents. Some use gaming to reject anxiety-inducing parts of their reality, like bad grades and familial issues, Yadav said.
“We had one case where a 20-year-old engineering student in Mumbai would steal money from his parents, miss college and spend entire days at gaming cafes.”
As an increasing amount of time and emotional energy is expended towards gaming, its impact trickles down to other aspects of daily life. According to Balhara, this affects mental health too, many times leading to social isolation and depression. Over the past three years, he has been involved with treating cases of gaming and social media addiction at the behavioural addiction clinic at AIIMS, and has noticed a clear pattern of how gaming addicts, similarly to those addicted to substance abuse, start ignoring parts of their lives so as to be able to game.
“Many times we see that people build entire lives around [the] friends [that they have made] online through gaming. And when they don’t respond in ways you expect them to, it leads to depression, as there’s no one else left to interact with,” he told Re:Set. “It also affects job prospects, as these people have poor real world social skills.”
What though, is causing people to choose gaming over other mentally stimulating activities?
According to the Illinois Institute of Addiction Recovery, video game addiction is similar to pathological gambling. Recently, NBA2K, one of the most popular sports games in the world, came under fire for incorporating gambling elements like slot machines into their game. The slot machine in the game is an example of an increasingly pervasive trend in online video games: loot boxes. A loot box is an in-game purchase where players don’t know what is in a box until they have bought it.
In 2018, Belgium declared loot boxes illegal under their gambling laws. The British government too, is mulling over a loot box ban. The most stark admission of this connection came in 2017. A user experience researcher at Epic Games (publisher of the wildly popular game, Fortnite) explained the popularity of loot boxes in a presentation called ‘Reward Psychology — Throwing out the Neurotrash’ saying: “The reason these are famous is [because] they are quite often the ratios used in gambling. The response they tend to get is a very constant and high level response and that’s because you don’t know how many times you have to respond before you get the reward [that you are seeking], so people tend to keep it up.”
A recent survey by gaming website Clutch confirmed this connection. A survey of over 1,000 members of their community showed that online games with some variation of the loot box mechanism are the most popular as well as the most addictive.
Recently, GTA V released an online casino, where players can gamble with real money. The game was No.5 on the survey.
To understand the appeal of such games, and how they have affected the lives of gamers, Re:Set spoke to Indian video game enthusiasts.
Kevin Kenneth Lee, 27, Content Creator, Mumbai
Overwatch has perfected multiplayer gaming — you jump into a game really fast, and the difficulty scale is such that you feel productive and good at the game early on. It has a multitude of characters that you want to experiment with and enough [variety of] maps and game modes to ensure that it doesn’t get boring. Another thing is that the game ends and a new one queues automatically. So it’s like the Netflix problem. You spend hours before you’re like ‘wait, I have a life.’
Socially, I don’t think it has affected my life as much. But [there was a phase when] I was taking [the] time out [of my schedule] to dedicatedly play. There was one time I ditched a family dinner even though my mum was in town because I wanted to play Overwatch. I told them that I was playing a tournament, when in reality it was just me and a friend fooling around with the game.
Manasvi Dalvi, 21, Gaming Influencer, Mumbai
I’ve played around 200 hours of GTA V online in the last six months. Like any other sport, cricket or football, you don’t get bored of it. It’s the same with video games for me; I can’t get bored of it.
Playing online becomes a competition with your friends. You then play more to flex on your friends. Buy new cars, customize them and then race with friends. If someone gets a better car or house, I want it and grind for it. Even though the game isn’t very competitive, we make it so.
In real life, I don’t exactly have a social life. I don’t know how to start conversations, I only have a few friends and those are through gaming. If I wasn’t into gaming, I wouldn’t have any social interactions with people.
Deepesh Lamba, 25, Civil Services Aspirant, Hissar
I’ve been playing Pro Evolution Soccer since I was a kid. It was possibly the first game I ever played. Now I play online for about five hours everyday, and I do it because of the competition. We build our own team, in the way we play football, and try to win. Even when I lose to someone better, I learn something new.
I am unable to stop playing. It feels so good when my ranking improves or when I beat someone ranked above me. Plus it just feels good to know you’ve beaten another person who is trying just as hard to win.
I’ve had problems at home because of it, especially since I have been preparing for the civil service examination, which are quite difficult to crack. When my parents ask me to study, I say, “I’ve just started playing.”
Clarence Kharshiing, 38, Businessman, Shillong
I’m on my third playthrough of The Witcher 3. I finished the game a long time back. But thanks to Netflix’s show The Witcher, I felt the urge to play it again. I’ve put over 200 hours into it, maybe 300 in GTA V.
Many just play to finish, but I like exploring a lot. I don’t run aimlessly, I literally walk. Sometimes I go to forests, hunt, or go towards the lake and start fishing. It also has role playing elements, so I try out different builds, like say I want to have the best sword skills, so I grind for that.
I don’t play games as much as I used to since I got married and developed some back issues due to playing sports-based video games. My wife is cool, but with kids now, there’s more responsibility and I can’t just game the whole day like I used to.
When I think about my kids and gaming, I’ve decided to not gift them a console or games when they grow up. They can use mine for a set period of time.