Many people consider video games to be the realm of children. The hours of screen time, the excitement of besting a new level, and the joy of watching an avatar succeed in their quest can be thrilling for young ones. But it’s not only children who like video games. In fact, 65% of adults regularly play video games on at least one platform.
And if you’re an adult with ADHD and a penchant for video games, you’re not alone.
The connection between video games and ADHD in adults is stronger than you might think. You actually have biological, social, and environmental reasons for reaching for a gaming console. But while video games aren’t inherently harmful, they can become a problem if you spend too much time gaming.
Most of the studies on ADHD and video games have been researched in children, not adults. And while the mere act of playing video games is not known to cause ADHD, it is known to intensify symptoms.
In other words, those in these studies who played more video games were more likely to have higher levels of impulsivity, hyperactivity, and scattered attention than those who played less.
However, video games aren’t all bad for people with ADHD. There is an FDA-approved video game that’s used to treat ADHD, particularly in children. This treatment is available only by prescription. It’s a non-medication-based option for people with ADHD to help improve ADHD symptoms, particularly in children.
But kids and adults are different. For one thing, kids’ brains are still developing, while adults with ADHD have fully developed brains. There hasn’t been much research on the impact of too much gaming on adults.
Adults who find appeal in video games run the risk of relying too heavily on gaming as a coping mechanism to manage ADHD. It’s possible that adults who are drawn to video games could form a gaming addiction. People with ADHD are a vulnerable population that can get taken advantage of by the video game industry, which is bigger than the movie industry, bringing in five times as much money as a global box office revenue. In a capitalistic society, the video game industry is financially motivated to do anything to make money, including taking advantage of children and vulnerable populations like people with ADHD.
Heavy gamers and people with ADHD are often the same people. But why?
There are a lot of reasons why so many adults with ADHD are drawn to gaming.
Dopamine is one of the biggest reasons for the connection between ADHD and video games. Every time you win a level or discover something new to unlock, your brain’s reward centers light up, and you want more. This is done on purpose The video game industry has noticed that the way they’ve set up their system benefits them financially, so they continue to offer more ways to get a dopamine hit while playing a video game.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that provides you with feelings of pleasure and motivation. And ADHD brains naturally have less dopamine than their non-ADHD counterparts. So it makes sense that many people with ADHD spend a lot of their time seeking ways to get more of the brain chemical.
Gaming is one way to get extra hits of dopamine. Other ways include adrenaline-seeking activities like skydiving, choosing a demanding and stressful career path, exciting sexual encounters, and binge eating.
Another reason for the connection between video games and ADHD in adults is that video games enable you to focus. They’re a way to cope with the whirring busyness of your brain because they channel all your energy into a tangible goal or set of goals.
For many of my adult clients with ADHD, video games are the only time they feel focused. When they’re gaming, they don’t feel scatterbrained or distracted.
On the contrary, the flashing lights and music or sound effects keep your attention honed in short bursts. For the first time, you may not feel like you have to work as hard to pay attention to what you’re doing.
But the appeal of video games can also be their danger. You may start to present with a flat affect without the hits of dopamine a game provides. You may miss the feeling of productivity you achieve from a long gaming session. You may miss the feeling of fine-tuned focus.
All this can result in extreme gaming behavior – and even a gaming disorder. But just because this could happen doesn’t mean that it’s the norm. Most people with ADHD who play video games use it to get the dopamine hit they crave. While this could lead to an addiction, that’s not always the case. We need more research to discover how much video games contributed to gambling disorders.
Another reason for the addictive quality of video games is a bit more unexpected – gambling.
Loot boxes, which are virtual treasure chests that appear in many video games, have been found to be psychologically and structurally similar to gambling.
These virtual boxes offer rewards that vary from avatar changes to extra weapons or resources in a game.
Gamers sometimes use the points they’ve received to purchase a loot box, but sometimes they use real money to fast-track the process. For example, if you spend five hours in a game, you may get one loot box. But if you spend real money, you could get 500 loot boxes, which decreases the playing time. The presence of loot boxes in a video game – and the potential for an exciting prize – light up the brain’s reward centers and are an incentive to spend money, which increases the chances of a payoff at a gambling hall.
Plus, many gamers experience FOMO if they don’t get a loot box or one with the specific reward they want. They don’t want to miss the chance to receive a rare item, so they’re more likely to keep playing to find more loot boxes.
Loot boxes increase dopamine in gamers by providing a new and enticing way to play the game. And again, dopamine is the neurotransmitter people with ADHD want more of. The connection to gambling is clear – you’re purchasing something that offers a reward based on chance. Plus, several places have made it illegal based on the idea that loot boxes are gambling.
I want to make it clear that I don’t want to demonize video games, I’d boast that I’m quite the healer in Final Fantasy XIV. If you play every once in a while and it helps give you a boost of feel-good chemicals, that’s great. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with video games. They can help adults with ADHD feel more focused and productive.
The problem comes when you don’t have any other sources of dopamine or enjoyment, and you turn to video games excessively.
If you suspect your video game hobby is a bit out of control, what can you do about it?
One thing you can do is consider ADHD medication. Certain ADHD meds help raise dopamine in the brain. And when you have more of the neurotransmitter in your system, you might not feel as compelled to play video games to get even more dopamine. Medication can help balance your system and lower your hyperactivity, impulsivity, and feelings of being scattered.
Another way to curb your excessive gaming habit is to work with a therapist who specializes in people with ADHD, like me. Therapy can help you figure out how to avoid a gaming disorder by coming up with other coping mechanisms and real-time alternatives to gaming. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly helpful for changing unwanted behaviors such as too much gaming.
If you want support figuring out how to navigate your gaming habit in a healthy and well-balanced way, consider therapy.
I’ll work with you to find other sources of dopamine, figure out healthy coping mechanisms for underlying emotions and difficulties, and build problem-solving skills to combat your tie to ADHD and video games.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.