Video games are fun...until they start intruding on students' academic success in college and university

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      Anyone who pays attention to gaming likely recognizes that ESports is thriving in Vancouver. And that’s despite a pandemic that’s kept fans from congregating in large groups to watch their favourite players.

      A Valorant tournament is scheduled for this weekend (August 22 and 23). That will come in the wake of UBC Esports Association Hearthstone Heroes: UBC Academy Invitational.

      Then, on August 30, Stack Sports will present its first FIFA Open for ESports players. And this fall, Douglas College is hoping to host Super Mario Bros. and FIFA 2020 tournaments.

      These events are just a tiny part of a the burgeoning, billion-dollar ESports industry that’s appealing to college and university students across North America. Here in Metro Vancouver, ESports clubs have formed over the years at Simon Fraser University, the B.C. Institute of Technology, and Langara College, in addition to UBC and Douglas College.

      A former gamer turned registered clinical counsellor, Benjamin Shing Pan Wong, has some words of wisdom for young adults caught up in this craze.

      “I want to say ‘Good work, congratulations, you’ve found a niche in which you are willing to devote your heart and mind to. Keep looking—diversify your interests further,’ ” Wong said.

      Then he added: “I am quite certain that a good majority will not continue on in this arena as a career.”

      That's because it's a sheer numbers game. 

      "The likelihoood of making the National Basketball Association as a professional basketball player is way higher compared to any gamers becoming pro for the long term," he explained.


      Wong draws from personal experience

      Wong’s professional focus is offering psychological support to people who are affected by “problematic use of screen technologies”. And that includes those who become addicted to gaming.

      In this area, his clients have ranged from 13 to 42 years old, and are mostly male.

      “The gamer needs to gain some sense of awareness of what their choice of behaviours is doing to them—both the positives and the negatives,” Wong explained. “A lot of times, it’s justification for their own self-efficacy.”

      Wong not only has professional insights, he also has personal experience.

      As a UBC student in the 1990s, he became immersed in playing Warcraft between his second and third years.

      He eventually realized that he couldn’t afford to devote so much energy and time to this activity for so little return.

      “I do recall tallying up the hours,” he said. “It was just under 3,000 hours I had gamed in that period of time.”

      Gaming enabled him to escape thinking about his personal life, relationships, schooling, and future.

      “I was getting stuck in my life,” he recalled. “It was a way to cope to begin with—and then it became something else.”

      Wong thinks it’s important for gamers to realize that the skills they acquire are transferable to other areas, including the corporate world.

      i-Minds author Mari Swingle has observed two distinct brain patterns in those addicted to video games.

      Excessive gaming hampers creativity

      Mari Swingle is a Vancouver-based practising clinician, researcher, and author of i-Minds: How and Why Constant Connectivity is Rewiring Our Brains and What to Do About It.

      When reached by the Straight, she declared that ESports actually have very little in common with sports.

      “With gaming, the brain goes into a state of hyperarousal—we can play for hours upon hours, if not days,” she noted.

      Because of that, gamers can lose balance between work, play, scholastics, and socialization.

      By examining electroencephalographic programs, Swingle has observed two “very distinct brain deregulation patterns in those who become addicted or otherwise play to excess”.

      She calls the first a “Constellation Pattern”, in which many areas of the brain are affected, similar to other addictions.

      “The second is a very distinct Alpha spindling pattern I discovered in 2012,” she added. “It appears to be directly correlated with excess and is inversely related to another pattern we need for quieting. Meaning, the higher the amplitude of the Alpha spindle, the lower the brain ‘protection’ from agitation—hyperarousal, stress, insomnia, et cetera.”

      She emphasized that for those seeking to succeed in college or university, this spindle hijacks creativity.

      “I’m rather conservative as I am an active therapist who sees the ‘train wrecks’—those who drop out of school to game, fail classes et cetera. As such, I say ‘Quit.’ In my experience, once you have crossed the line into addiction it is very hard to only play ‘a little’. And the way most games are now designed, there is no such thing as ‘a little’ gaming: you are in or you are out.”

      Gamification of life

      Swingle pointed out that some can indulge in gaming for five hours a day and not show any effects, but they are "few and far between". 

      "If you are spending your college or university years on a barstool chances are your studies will be compromised," she stated. "The current situ is a gaming chair. That said, just as with alcohol, we all have different tolerance levels. 

      "In science speak, epigenetics will determine both how much you can drink as well as how much you can game."

      For his part, Wong sees similarities between the positive reinforcements that the brain receives when a person is gaming or repeatedly checking their social media feeds.

      In fact, he said what's really taking place is the "gamification of life".

      Often, he works with family members of game-obsessed young people to help them get off this electronic treadmill.

      "I intervene by offering the adults the necessary psycho-education to understand how they can become more of a resource as opposed to a liability for the situation," Wong said.