Video Game Addiction and Teenagers: Understanding The Allure

Video Game Addiction and Teenagers: Understanding The Allure

Teenagers have a big job to do.  They have to cement their identity, gain a realistic sense of their power to make changes in their life and create a social support network where they are valued, accepted and feel like they belong to.  In short they have to grow up feeling good about who they are and what they can do with their lives.  However, our world is not perfect and sometimes these challenges are more than teenagers can bear.  All sorts of things can go wrong with these goals that are so necessary to a being a well-adjusted and happy adult.  When this happens teenagers experience themselves as depleted and long for meaning and satisfaction in their lives.  This is usually what’s going on in a life of a teenager when they become addicted to video games. 

It is important to understand that video games today are very different from the video games of before.  This is especially true of massive multiplayer online role playing games or MMORGPs.   When teenagers begin playing these games one of the first things they do is pick an avatar or a character to play as.  The choices are astounding.  These characters are rich in back stories, are powerful and can be beautiful.  There are various types of good guys and bad guys, warriors, wizards, enchantresses, knights, sorcerers, monsters, and fantasy creatures of all kinds. The point here is that choosing a character to play as is almost like choosing to adopt a ready-made identity or persona – one that you have complete control over.  This can be irresistible to teenagers who have an unstable sense of who they are. 

Another important point for parents to understand is the environment that MMORPGs provide. MMORPGs are expansive, rich “worlds” filled with fantasy and excitement.  They can be very pleasant to explore.  In many ways they provide an alternative reality were it is easy to become engrossed and wonderful lost.  Almost like discovering a beautiful land in a delicious dream.  Imagine how pleasurable this can be for a teenager who finds his environment difficult or disappointing for whatever reason. 

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Part of playing the game is also improving your individual character. This is sometimes called leveling-up. Through quests, missions or adventures players can enhance their character’s attributes.  They can grow stronger, smarter, more powerful and gain different abilities the more teenagers play.  In contrast to real life these changes require relatively little effort and the advancement is fast.  Teenagers can develop a sense of mastery and feel that they are good at something very quickly.  For those teenagers who find the pace of their lives intolerable or for teenagers who feel that they are not progressing this aspect of the game is truly enthralling. 

The social aspects of MMORPGs are also critical to consider.  These games are populated with people from all over the world.  Gamers share in missions, work together, trade and socialize all through the game.  Since everyone playing the game has similar interests and goals relationships can quickly develop where the participants feel accepted and that they belong.  The more teenagers invest in these games the more they can also feel power and high status compared to the other players.  For a teenager who has trouble making friends this can seem to fill that painful void in their lives.

I believe that in the vast majority of cases video games can be entertaining, harmless and maybe even helpful to a teenager’s self-esteem.  But imagine how much some teenagers with the life difficulties discussed above get out of these games.  It’s a HUGE deal to them.  The trouble comes when games begin to be a substitute for real life. School doesn’t matter, sleep doesn’t matter, starting or repairing friendships doesn’t matter, getting along with your family doesn’t matter.  The only thing that matters is the game.  The game becomes their only source of self-esteem, personal agency, power, mastery, social life etc… When they can’t play they become depressed, angry or irritable.  They constantly have a strong urge to play and to escape into the fantasy of the game. They are trying to avoid the painful or shameful realities of their lives.  And in the mean time they are not developing the skills that they will need as adults to create a happy and fulfilling life. 

As a parent it is important to be on the lookout for problems with your teenager’s video game use and to be prepared to curtail it or eliminate it if need be.  Explain to your teenager why you are worried about their game use.  Facilitate and encourage real world fun and socializing and if you run into trouble don’t be afraid to search for professional help.  

For information on treatment options for video game addiction available at Miami Teen Counseling please visit Video Game Addictions.

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By Miguel Brown