Electronic games are on the rise. From dedicated consoles to android games, they’re a part of our everyday reality now. Various studies have tried to explore the impact of video games on the human brain.
The psychological effects of gaming are mixed. Research shows that only an hour of gaming can improve our attention, and another study concludes that gaming improves memory in older adults.
On the other hand, video game addiction (or “Gaming Disorder” as WHO recognizes it) has officially been confirmed as an actual disorder. It can have destructive effects on a person’s life, and therefore, must be taken seriously.
But what’s the connection between gaming and spirituality? How do video games affect you spiritually?
Video games are typically designed to constantly stimulate the mind, making it more restless. They usually end up fragmenting our focus and make us less mindful of other activities like meditation or work.
However, we wouldn’t face these harmful effects if we only played video games for a limited amount of time. If we understand how the brain works, we can even use games to help us be more productive and regular with our spiritual practices.
Also, not all games are designed to stimulate us visually; some of them, like That Dragon, Cancer, and Journey, can provide us an intense emotional experience and peace of mind as well.
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A video game constantly gives you lots of variable stimulation. There’s always a creature to shoot at, something new to look at, another level to gain. The brain is flooded with stimulation when playing a video game. These stimulations make the mind agitated, especially if it’s competitive gaming.
Sometimes, a game may require intense concentration and quick reflexes. When you’re playing such a game, you may enter a state of flow—fully immersed in the present moment with no other thoughts—which could be described as meditative.
However, most of the time, video games act as a distraction for us. We might be sitting playing games, while our mind is on autopilot, running wild in the background.
We also aren’t conscious when playing games. Nobody sits there and thinks, “Okay, how do I feel about doing XYZ in this game?” Your actions aren’t decided mindfully when gaming, are they?
After a long gaming session, when you finally sit down to meditate or lie in the bed to sleep, situations, or random images from the game will keep popping up. It is hard to meditate or fall asleep. So, to answer the question: Yes, video games can be counterproductive to meditation or other mindfulness practices.
These effects won’t last unless your gaming sessions are quite long. You can get away with playing games if your sessions are limited. For example, playing for an hour or two on the weekends should hardly have any noticeable effects.
A teenager asked Thich Nhat Hanh about his obsession with video games and how to overcome it. The renowned Zen master explained that we resort to video games and other means of entertainment to escape from the suffering inside us (loneliness, boredom, etc.).
However, what we fail to realize is that these gaming habits do us more harm in the long run. We are essentially running away from life. Instead, if we were to establish ourselves in the present moment and live mindfully, we would be naturally happy. And as a result, we wouldn’t have to take refuge in video games to forget ourselves for a while.
How to stop being obsessed with video games?
Video games naturally agitate the brain. If your vision is to calm your mind and find inner peace, you shouldn’t indulge in video games as they usually disturb our mindfulness. At any rate, you should only play them moderately at the end of the day, after you’ve completed all other tasks.
Why only in the evening? Do video games rewire the brain in any way? Well, video games are designed to provide our brains with outrageous amounts of dopamine with little effort. Dopamine is an organic chemical that makes us feel pleasure when it’s released in the brain.
If our brain gets this chemical without much effort (instant gratification), it would have no motivation to work or meditate as these activities don’t fill it with dopamine right away. So not only will you find it harder to concentrate, but you may also become less motivated to continue your spiritual practice regularly.
As we progress on the spiritual path, we become more sensitive to our inner thoughts as well as external influences. Activities like gaming or partying start to feel like they drain us of our focus and mindfulness. That’s why monks leave everything aside to invest all of their energy into meditation alone.
When we think of video games, we conjure up images of a skilled warrior shooting his way through a bunch of enemies. However, there have been several open-ended and relatively ambiguous games that touch the player emotionally and make them reflect on their spirituality.
These spiritual video games allow us to enact the actions of the protagonist and explore the consequences of different spiritual and moral choices in the game’s narrative. Instead of being a hurdle in mindfulness, they can have an emotional impact on us, making us feel contemplative or peaceful.
For example, in RiME, you play as a child exploring a strange island. The game has excellent background music and is aesthetically pleasing. With relaxing gameplay and a beautiful story, you may get up feeling more peaceful and relaxed after your gaming session. People have even reported that this game has contributed to their emotional well-being.
Another such game is Journey. It’s a simple, stunning game that requires emotional investment from the player. It’s also one of the most beautiful games. Players have reported feeling positive emotions and a sense of peace while playing it.
Back to the body’s chemistry: dopamine is the chemical that makes us strive. The brain is constantly looking for activities that help release dopamine in the body. It’s why you’d rather scroll through your Instagram feed than do something else even though you know that it’s more important. These applications and video games are designed to give the brain high amounts of dopamine rapidly.
This information can be used to guide our minds and do things that’ll benefit us in the long run. We can assign ourselves several low-dopamine tasks that’ll better our lives (reading, meditation, work, etc.). Then, if we complete those tasks throughout the day, we can indulge in some high-dopamine activities like video games as a reward for ourselves.
For example, you may decide that if you work for X hours and meditate for Y minutes, you’ll get to play games for an hour in the evening. There’s nothing wrong with playing video games moderately to reward yourself for your discipline throughout the day.
In this way, what was once a time-wasting obsession will become a motivation for work or spiritual practice.
To conclude, video games can be used as a source of entertainment as long as you don’t overdo it. Overindulgence in video games, much like in everything else, should be avoided at all costs.
There has also been research that shows how playing video games may induce a feeling of transcendence or other spiritual experiences. However, this fresh line of research mostly remains unexplored as of yet.
As far as spirituality is concerned, the traditional view that video games serve as a distraction seems to hold its ground for the most part. However, we can take advantage of our brain’s chemistry and discipline ourselves by (strategically) using video games as a reward.