Solutions to help balance your gaming habit with college success

By Melanie Hempe, RN

Did you know that video game addiction is one of the top reasons that freshmen boys drop out of college? Your gaming habit actually can change the structure of your brain by reducing gray matter, releasing an unnatural amount of dopamine and adrenaline, and overworking very specific brain pathways. At the same time, gaming will reduce your ability to focus, learn, and concentrate. Statistics also show that gamers are at risk for lower GPAs. In other words, this hobby, which may have grown into an addiction, can derail your academic success, your social life, your physical health, and your future.

Perhaps the biggest reason gaming is so dangerous in college is that your parents are no longer around to supervise your play time and prompt you to “do life.”  If your gaming habit does not get under control, a responsibility that is now in your court, you might very well become another college dropout statistic. You might end up back home on the sofa working full-time flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant. Is that what you really want for your future?

If not, then you first need to admit to yourself that you may have a gaming problem. Then consider changing some of your habits.  Gaming may have been a fun outlet that you have enjoyed in high school, but like any other adrenaline-producing activity, it can take over your life if you let it control you. Gaming minutes can easily turn into endless hours. In the college world of expanded freedom, this means missed classes, late homework, and no sleep–again, a sure-fire, one-way ticket back to Mom and Dad’s. Is that what you want?

Don’t despair. Here are some tips to help you go down the right path.

Your Identity

Create a new identity of who you are that doesn’t include your games.  Write out some statements that will shape your new identity and keep you focused–a mantra of sorts, such as:  

  • “I will put my friends first and choose the real-lfe company of friends rather than isolating myself in a game.”
  • “I don’t play MMORPG games as they are the most time-consuming and addictive.”
  • “I am the kind person who seeks out opportunities to help others.”

In other words, come up with three or four ideas of how you want to be defined and write them down.

Begin with the end in mind. Think about the person you want to be in four years. Again, write down your thoughts. If you don’t have a firm plan in place, your gaming may very well write your life story for you.  Come to the point where you say, “I want to be well-rounded.” “I want a lot of friends.” “I want to be personable and happy.” “I want to get a good job and make some money!” You get the idea.

Have a plan and make your own rules.  Yes, you need to have a plan and stick to it! Have a few standard go-to activities to pick up when tempted to reach for the game. For example, keep your running shoes near your computer so you can be reminded to take a run before you game. Read a favorite sports magazine. Keep a deck of cards handy and start a poker club. Go to the student center or gym to hang out and meet with friends. Go on a hike or bike ride. Think about what you want to get good at and work at it.  Aren’t these possibilities all better than playing more video games?  Another idea is to prepare some “brain prompts,” such as the following:

  • Today, I will replace one video game with taking a bike ride.”  
  • “I don’t game during the school week.”
  • “I don’t play first-person shooter games.”
  • “I don’t play a video game until I work out.”  

It’s important to use “don’t” instead of “can’t,” as studies show that using “don’t” results in a much stronger dedication to habit- building. Make your personal set of rules and don’t let the games make them for you. You can do this!

Your Time

Control the game so it doesn’t control you. So how much gaming can you do in college and still get good grades, maintain a vibrant social life, and stay physically active and healthy? Is it once a week? Once a month? Five hours a week? Twenty hours a week? Decide what games you are going to play and what games you are not going to waste your time on. Don’t be a gamer who plays games he doesn’t even enjoy just because they are available. Don’t waste your “game calories” on stupid games. Decide how many hours a week you will play and stick to it.  Oh, yes–write that number down!

Keep an exact record of your gaming time. No estimates. You’ll have more free time in college that you did in high school. Do you really want to game for 30 hours a week? What else could you do with that 30 hours? (Write those ideas down.) One of the harshest realities for a gamer to face is how many hours he is actually playing. Make a log of your game hours, for this will be motivating when you are trying to cut back.

Your Gaming Habit

Be aware of your cravings and figure out why you play. Ask yourself why you constantly reach for the game. Are you hungry, bored, lonely, or tired? As discussed, gaming creates a happy feeling in your brain, because of the release of dopamine, and  so it is important to realize what emotional gaps you are trying to fill with gaming.  After figuring that out, then move on and fill those gaps with other healthy, fun things. Remember that one addiction often will lead to another, so if you don’t recognize the underlying causes of your game craving now, gaming addiction could lead you into other bad habits.

Make it hard to continue your bad habit. It you were trying to lose weight, would you keep a bag of chips on your desk? Similarly, if you are trying to cut back on gaming, would you want your games or game consoles in plain sight?  Remember: out of sight, out of mind!  Get your friend or roommate to really hold you accountable.  In fact, a good overall plan includes staying busy so you don’t have time to get sucked back into the games. This might be really hard at first, but it will get easier as you build self-control and realize that there is a big, beautiful world out there beyond gaming.

Need an electronic fix? If you are really craving playing your games, try watching a movie or educational/sports documentary instead. Get your mind on something else during your down time. While you think that you are relaxing when you play games, your brain is not relaxing! It is actually getting more and more anxious and stressed, which leads, of course, to more gaming.

Get mad. Get angry at the gaming companies for designing the games to be so addictive. You are being set up by a multimillion dollar industry to crave their games so that you spend the best and most creative years of your life beholden to them.  These companies don’t care about you! They are making a ton of money off of you, while you end up with an unhealthy imbalance that will dramatically affect your future. You have the rest of your life to play games but only one shot at thriving in college.

Your Real College Life

Join some groups or start a new hobby. It is hard to break any addiction alone, so get some help! Get a few good friends to hold you accountable to your new decisions.  Explain what you are trying to do and ask them to help you. As l already mentioned, keep busy and join some clubs or sports to fill your schedule with productive activities.  Replacing the video game habit will be easier than you think if you can pick at least three other hobbies. Not good at anything but gaming? Don’t worry–college is the perfect time to get interested in a new club, intramural sports, acting, music or other hobbies. In fact, large universities often have more than 400 clubs to choose from! You should never be bored to the point of turning to your games for entertainment in college.

Hang out with real people. While your tendency will be to seek out gaming friends the minute you get there, make it a point to find some non-gamer friends in college. Have multiple sets of social groups. This is the best time of your life to make lifelong friends and lasting memories. Grow up and leave your high school gaming world behind.

Take your one chance. You will never ever have another chance like you have during the first weeks of college.  It is a wonderful time to make new friends without the usual social awkwardness. Many of you could be meeting your forever-friends, but you will not meet them if you are sequestered in your room gaming away. Try this idea: Detox yourself by putting away your games until after Christmas. Give yourself the precious “gift of people” through real relationships.

Help others. While you may enjoy video games as a form of entertainment, you are not exercising empathy when you play. Be mindful of opportunities around you to make a positive difference in the lives around you. Think about helping others each day.

Exercise. Remember that your dopamine is artificially inflated because of your gaming, so you may very well get depressed away from your gaming time. Fortunately, physical activity can help you feel better and ease that post-gaming depression. Don’t be shocked if you get the blues at first from pulling away. Be ready with a plan and get a friend to exercise and do things with you.

Sleep. A healthy brain requires sleep, and gaming in college can easily rob you of your prime sleep time. Give yourself a game curfew and do some research on the importance of sleep!

Pursue your music. Replacing gaming with music is a wonderful solution for many gamers. Whether you pick up a guitar or simply load your iPod or smartphone with your favorite songs. Get music in your life and play it all the time. Music is very therapeutic.

Your Decision

You be in control–not the game! Research shows that gaming does affect college performance. Don’t be a college dropout!  Neuroscience tells us that you are at your peak performance academically, athletically, and creatively between the ages of 17-25!  Don’t waste your “awesomeness” by isolating yourself in a virtual world during this marvelous window of opportunity. Get out there and enjoy real-life college experiences to their fullest. You won’t regret it!

P.S. If you feel that you will not be able to control your gaming in college, tell your parents and take a year off to get your habit under control. Don’t waste your time or your parents’ money. Think hard before you head to school, if gaming still looms large in your life.