Dopamine Fasting, Addiction, and Video Games

Modern games are carefully-calibrated dopamine-dispensing machines — what does that mean for players and the industry?

Have you ever tried to take a break from something you habitually use or do? I’m not talking about like, a heavy drug or alcohol addiction here, but say, trying to cut out refined sugar or to use social media less? If you have, you know that it can be extremely difficult. There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason those things are so pleasurable to do in the first place — the chemical dopamine. And few modern activities are better are doling out dopamine than video games.

Now, dopamine isn’t exactly a pleasure chemical. Instead, it’s associated with motivation. Anticipation of a reward increases dopamine levels in the brain and directs behavior towards seeking a particular reward. And dopamine isn’t “bad,” either — without it, we might not have the motivation to do much of anything. Where things become problematic is when modern products and forms of entertainment, building off of developments in behavioralism and neurobiology, hook people in with amounts of dopamine that would obliterate a medieval peasant. Video games, for instance.

Why is every video game an RPG now, at least in terms of having experience systems, loot, and upgrades? Because these systems blast players with dopamine. When we make a number get bigger or a bar go up in a game like Fortnite or Destiny 2, we feel like we’re accomplishing something, and we feel good about it. And when you’re making a dozen bars go up at once, when games are showering you in rewards and you’re progressing different quests and activities? Well, that’s even better.

There are a couple of consequences of this kind of video game dopamine binge. The first is that it’s difficult to stop, because games are increasingly good at hooking players. Are games more addictive than they used to be? It’s hard to say, but I think there’s certainly a case to be made for that argument, especially as games have become a bigger and bigger industry with more research behind them in the service of keeping people playing — to the point that players can get upset when games scale back on repeatable content.

The second consequence is that everything else becomes less interesting by comparison — tasks you need to complete, pursuing other activities, even playing other games that aren’t as calibrated to the dopamine system. In comparison to reward-heavy games, other uses of time can come to seem like absolute drudgery. And not indulging in your preferred dopamine delivery system, whether that’s games, social media, or something else, can feel agonizing — at least at first.

“Dopamine fasts” have become a popular reaction to the recognition of the dopamine-soaked modern media landscape. The idea is to take some time, maybe a month or so, away from the thing that you find yourself glued to. (While cold turkeying is often a bad idea for physical addiction to alcohol or drugs, it isn’t dangerous for dopamine fixations.) This can be an extremely unpleasant experience, but over time can sort of reset your brain, and you may find yourself pursuing other activities with the same zeal as scrolling your timeline or filling up experience bars. It’s like abstaining from refined sugar for a while — everything seems to taste a little sweeter when you adjust your baseline.

I’m trying this out myself right now, stepping back from my preferred live game, Destiny 2, in between weekly resets. Each Tuesday the game adds new story content, which I often tell people is the main draw — but over the course of my three years or so with the title, I’ve found myself running meaningless missions in between story drops or new areas simply because it’s there. That’s not necessarily a problem, but I’ve realized how quickly I default to loading up Destiny 2 and grinding out Exotic catalysts I’ll never use or progressing seasonal challenges when I clock out for the evening rather than doing, well, anything else.

But this isn’t all just a personal problem. While some people might have an easier time resisting certain lures than others, the games industry as a whole seems to be moving towards a model reliant more on dopamine addiction than compelling narrative or gameplay. I don’t blame individual designers for this, but from big-budget AAA titles to mobile titles, video games incorporate more mechanics keyed into human brain chemistry today than they ever have in the past.

Should some of these mechanics be illegal? I don’t know if regulation is the answer, and the line between compelling and compulsive is hard to define. But I do wish that more people in and around the games industry would speak to the reality that games are increasingly cultivating addictive behavior in their players. People who write about video games have been in a defensive mode for so long, protecting our hobby against those who don’t understand it, that we sometimes dismiss the notion of addiction entirely. But executives and market researchers know the power of dopamine and understand how video games impact the brain — we should, too.