Gaming and Emotional Arousal

Red Cactus at Night by Cedward Brice, CC

Red Cactus at Night by Cedward Brice, CC

Gaming can really wind kids up, and in all honestly, adolescents don’t need any help on this front. Video games demand incredible focus and intensity—and lots of time. A whole session’s worth of gains and points can be lost with one small mistake, leaving some players frustrated to the point of rage. The sedentary nature of gaming compounds the problem: there’s no physical release of all that emotional arousal.

Brain Chemistry 101

Previous articles on e-Quipped (see links at the bottom) scratched the surface of the neurochemicals that come into play in gaming. It’s a huge, complex science, but we lay people can gain some benefit by understanding the basics. By design, computer games (and social media, to a certain extent) exploit the brain’s reward centre, stimulating the release of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that results in a heightened state of alertness and a sense of pleasure or euphoria. The high can be followed by irritability, nervousness, and in some cases paranoia.

The release of dopamine is completely normal and natural; it’s triggered by the age-old, everyday activities of eating and procreating. And yes, while we’re pointing fingers, narcotics trigger its release as well—in a super-exaggerated way.

The point is this: when a young person is fully engaged in a gaming session, a wild concoction of hormones is sloshing around his system like spirits in a cocktail shaker.

Tension escalates with every near miss, adding adrenaline and cortisol to the mix. A sneaky attack … A taste of victory … A stupid mistake … A scary encounter with an axe-wielding orc … Some bad luck … Lose all those hard-won points! ARRRGH! This gaming kid is emotionally aroused to the n-th degree. Talk about wound up! If he had a spring, he’d boing.

And then? Mum says it’s time to do homework or eat dinner or take out the rubbish.

Gaming son blows up! He gives Mum some cheek. Dad chimes in about respect….

Next thing you know, you have a clash of the clan…in your own home.

Managing Gaming and Emotional Arousal

Make sure your gaming child has a physical outlet for those unwieldy teenage emotions that he’s working up. Balance is critical. If he’s getting too aroused and is showing signs that he’s not managing it properly, talk to him about. But NOT when he’s emotionally aroused. Wait. Feed him. Let him sleep it off. Then talk. Something like this could work…

“Last night when we asked you to wrap up your game, your response was disrespectful and has us worried. Calling your mother a hell-wench/punching the wall/swearing at the cat/[insert excessive behaviour] is never appropriate in our home. We know you were wound up from the game, but we need you to moderate your behaviour. If you’re getting too emotional, you need to pull out or take a break. Let’s talk about how you can recognise if you’re getting too wound up…”

Insist on a good balance of computing and physical activity. And by physical, we’re talking sustained heavy breathing, elevated-heart-rate physical. (Texting and thumb-twiddling around a hand-held device don’t count.) Here are a couple physical outlets for him (or her) to pick from:

  • 20 minutes on a trampoline
  • 30 minutes of jogging or running
  • 15 minutes on a punching bag
  • Skipping rope
  • One-on-one basketball

Make screentime (especially emotionally arousing games) dependent upon having done some physical activity.

Spill-Over into Social Circles

If your son is harping on about a friend’s failure in the game, talk through it and help him be empathic and forgiving. If you don’t, chances are the friend’s act will be an issue on the playground the next day at school. Some kids have a hard time separating gaming escapades from real life—or letting go of a big gaming disappointment, and this may lead to instances that resemble (or are) bullying or cyberbullying.

Remember, that your child might be the one who let the team down. Is he sullen? Does he seem cut off? Is he receiving mean texts or instant messages? His teammates or “clan members” may be giving him a hard time about some “grave error” he made in the heat of battle. Give your child strategies to bounce back and to deal with friends who are over-stimulated (and too intense).

Balance is so important. Gaming can exacerbate the emotional upheaval of adolescence. If your son’s behaviour is aggressive, relentlessly surly, or negatively impacting studies and relationships, he may need a little breather from gaming. Don’t “blame the game” or curse technology. Those rants merely build a wedge and make you lose credibility with your kid. Assure your child you want to help him find balance and regain the pleasant person you know he is. Be sure to make the break temporary and, if possible, limit only the emotionally arousing games; let the others stand. Remember, some good can come from limited, monitored gaming. Stress relief, for one!

For more info on gaming and emotional arousal issues, check out the e-Quipped posts below.

Extreme Cyber-Parenting: Combatting Gaming Addiction

4 Ways to Avoid Gaming Addition

Online Gaming and Gambling Primer

Do Violent Computer Games Affect Brain Function?

Five Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Minecraft

What Teens Really Want From Their Parents

NB: Again, my choice to refer mostly to “boys” in this article is not intended to discriminate. It merely reflects what I’ve seen in my experience as a school counsellor. Girls are gamers too, and some experience gaming-related issues.