Video games offer a flow of rewards, but you can’t compare to the rewarding experience of living life in the real world. When you give your brain a rest, you’re giving yourself a chance to reclaim your life.
Dr Huu Kim Le, Presented by
Sarah Malik

20 Apr 2021 - 8:26 AM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2021 - 2:38 PM

As a teen, my life was geared towards getting good grades, but dial-up modems came out in the 1990s.

Every day, when school finished, I would say at the school gate to my friends: “Hey, when you get home, be at your landline phone, I’m going to challenge you in [Warcraft 2].” 

I wanted to figure out quicker ways to beat my friends. I even got in trouble by installing the game on my school catalogue computer. My saving grace was the fact that my parents were poor. They had mortgaged their house to send me to a private school. Games like StarCraft and Counter-Strike required very expensive computers. The only reason I didn’t fail year 12 was I didn’t have a powerful enough computer at home to play the latest online multiplayer games.

I played Kill Zone 2 in my summer medical school break. It was a 3D game and I really got into it. I developed vertigo, the room was spinning. I needed to vomit. I ran out of the room and got a bucket. I was puking in my bedroom so no one could see me. I cleaned myself up and kept on playing. It didn’t occur to me that I should stop playing. That was one of my early wake-up calls. The other wakeup call was in in 2017. I quit Pokémon Go for the second time and did a "90 Day Detox". I gave the [game] passwords to my sister.

Having a gaming addiction has helped me relate to my patients more as I come from a place of curiosity rather than blame.

In my workshop to counsellors, I brought in a Nintendo Switch with Mario Kart and I played it in the session. I wanted to show how polished, exciting and appealing games are to kids.  Just play it for five minutes and see what it’s like.

You could tell who was on board by their age. Some said, “I’m not interested in video games or playing them.” If you came from that point of view, how are you going to work with a young person who is addicted? They are going to think you are an old person who doesn’t get it. 

People talk about their lives in video games. It’s actually a whole world that exists for them and they’ve got memories and emotions attached to it. It’s not easy to switch off.

Personally, I liked the creativity and challenge aspect of video games; and trying to solve them in novel ways. Young people get a sense of purpose and emotional and psychological achievement in that virtual world. But for people with the addiction, it distorts concepts of money, time and rewards. 

One approach with patients is to give them insight into how it’s affecting them. Then you can say, ‘let’s try to have a healthier balance’ or, ‘your brain needs a rest’.

Studies in South Korea found the non-addictive gaming group (those who played video games professionally) had larger frontal lobes for adaptation, as well as control and regulation of emotions. They would play equal amounts as those with the addiction; but those with addiction played it in a way that was unhealthy and compulsive.

In Australian detox studies, researchers conducted 84-hour abstinence periods. Volunteers who had a gaming addiction would give up their passwords Friday midday; and wouldn’t get it back till Monday midday. What they found out, was if you gave your brain a rest, some of the thoughts you associate with the game that are harmful, you can give yourself a chance to say; ‘hey maybe that’s not real’.

For someone who is lonely you might say to yourself the only way for me to not feel lonely is to play my video game. Because you’re playing the video game it is reinforcing that belief.  When you give yourself a rest, it forces you to go out and talk to other people in real life.

It’s not a coincidence I replaced my Pokémon Go addiction with becoming a stand-up comic and public speaking.  How do you find that for someone who has never experienced any other activity?

The most common problem during the lockdown period was teen screen time. Parents rightfully allowed kids to use screens during this time; as they lost their usual activities. Kids were saying, ‘All my friends are playing video games.’ If you are the odd one out, you are ostracised. It became more common for young kids to have social phobia and school refusal because all their needs were met online. Real-life community connections are protective against video game addiction

It can get serious. Kids who can’t be bothered to brush teeth or eat food. I tell them: It’s more rewarding to live a first-hand life rather than a second-hand life. Video games offer a flow of rewards, but it doesn't compare to the rewarding experience of living life in the real world. When you give your brain a rest, you’re giving yourself a chance to reclaim your life.

As told to Sarah Malik

Dr Huu Kim Le is the presenter of the Australian-first interactive documentary experience, 'Are you Addicted to Technology?' 

You can watch Are You Addicted To Technology?  from April 21 on SBS On Demand. iOS & tvOS apps only. Update or download the latest app version. Minimum requirement OS 13.5.  


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