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 Dr. Lisa discusses if there is a possible way to have a healthy balance with video games for NBC News.  Read the full article below!


It all started with Candy Crush Saga. I discovered it not long after it was first released in 2012, when I observed my then-roommate playing it. She said it helped her unwind after work.

“It’s so addictive,” she said giddily, like “addictive” was a good thing.

I was intrigued by the sounds of the game — twinkly small crashes — and the theme track, a whimsical bell-laden waltz like something that would come out of a dollhouse merry-go-round.

I downloaded the game that week and to my surprise (I’ve never been much of a gamer), I was instantly hooked. That first night I played it until I ran out of lives and then, as soon as I was on the subway the next morning, resumed. The commute flew by. I didn’t feel any of the typical anxiousness or irritability that I normally did during the rush hour shuffle. I was lost in the game.

I soon learned how to hack the clock on my phone’s clock to get more lives. This caused several glitches in my device, but I was willing to make the sacrifice because I was so obsessed with this game.

What had me so hooked?

Part of it was this surreal passage of time component — not tampering with my phone’s clock, though in retrospect, that hack seems profound, but the way minutes and hours glided by. I liked that I could just plug into another universe when I was feeling bad and tune the real world out.

With addictive mobile games, our perception of time changes

This escapism element factors into what makes mobile games so addictive.

“Any gamification platform is explicitly designed to make you want to not put it down and is designed to [stimulate the] reward pathway in your brain which can suppress your perception of time,” Dr. Joseph F. Chandler, assistant professor of psychology at Birmingham-Southern College tells NBC News BETTER. “Your brain stops keeping track of time and instead measures units of pleasure in the game. The next level becomes the marker of the passage of time. This is why you lose an hour or three without feeling it.”

Chandler also notes that people with anxiety disorders such as myself, can be particularly attracted to the distraction of mobile games.

“When you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, a major symptom is hypervigilance — being hypertuned to your surroundings,” says Chandler. “Slipping through time with something pleasurable can be very inviting.”

Those bright colors and hypnotic sounds are no accident

Also inviting are the game’s colors and sounds.

The bright colors that we see in mobile games beg for our attention and tap into a primal recognition of alarm, notes Dr. Lisa Strohman, a clinical psychologist, author and founder of the Digital Citizen Academy. “Think of the red underbelly of a black widow spider,” she says, referencing the concept of warning coloration in the animal world. “Bright colors are dangerous but satiate the brain in certain ways.”

Throw in some exciting sounds and a constantly changing screen — where visuals and audio shift as you go along — and you’ve got yourself a seductive elixir.

“Mobile games like Candy Crush are particularly addictive because everything shuffles and changes and then you level up so if you have any competitive nature, you can feel successful,” says Strohman. “The [mobile gaming] industry knows that, so they take highly engaging colors and sounds and create a classical conditioning loop that increases the dopamine rewards push.”

Even meditation game apps can be addictive

Pretty much every mobile app with a gamification component is designed to lure your focus and cordon off the outside world. Meditation apps are no exception.

“Even games that are not designed to simulate stress, like the app Headspace — which I use and which has good empirical research behind it, can be addictive,” says Chandler, who limits his usage of the app, fighting the temptation to “do five sessions a day.”