The Numbing Effect of Video Gaming

After a lifelong appreciation for video games spirals into escapism, a college student has to face the consequences of his addiction. Will he defeat the strong hold of problematic gaming or be stuck forever?

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I have been staring at a screen to win a gunfight, clear a level, or get a high score for as long as I can remember. After graduating high school, I had no real aspirations — I knew I liked creating videos, but I didn’t see it as anything more than a fun hobby. When other people celebrated graduating high school, I felt fearful — and started playing even more video games.

Then when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 and demanded a complete lifestyle change, I became complacent. I sailed through the days, months, and years with employment insurance and support from my parents. This complacency paired with my existing lifelong love of video games turned into addictive behaviour.

In 2022, I played nearly 600 hours of VALORANT (Reuben Pajemolin)

One night in August 2022, a year and a half into the pandemic, our group of five — my friends Brian, Charlene, Francis, Justin, and I — were playing the game VALORANT together. Despite my nearly 600 hours of playtime in 2022, I can still recall those high-octane moments play-by-play.

VALORANT is a round-based, first-person, team shooter game. An offensive team aims to plant and detonate a timed explosive in a specific location while a defensive team tries to stop them. A round of the game lasts approximately two minutes, and the first team to win 13 rounds, wins the game. That night, we tied one of our games at 12 to 12 after winning four rounds straight. The team spirit was high.

The game went into overtime and we needed to win two rounds in a row to win the game. The overtime walls dropped and the teams started to fight. Justin made a dumb joke, and I pushed forward on a zipline. I held a strange angle to catch our opponents off-guard. It worked.

BANG! One down, four more to go. Justin reminded me to back up. We needed to keep our extra-player advantage. I backed up but my confidence and adrenaline started to rise. I aimed my rifle.

BANG! Another one down, and as their teammate tried to avenge them, I also dropped her.

“Oh my God!” I said and launched forward.

Forget about playing it safe, I wanted to be the one to win it all. There were two more opponents left. I found another opportunity.

BANG! One left.

Before I reached that final player, my team joked about stealing my ace — a term that means one person eliminating all five opponents — but I quickly found the last person and won the fight.

“…I’m insane,” I said.

The score was 13 to 12, with one more round to go.

In early 2021 after much pushing from mentors and my parents to do something besides work part-time, I applied to Red River College Polytechnic’s Creative Communications (CreComm) program.

After almost missing the application portfolio deadline, I was accepted into the program three months later and went through my first semester entirely online. I was highly motivated by ‘finally doing something with my life’ and it was going well.

But things changed in the second semester. The high wore off and I realized I’d failed to connect with anyone in my classes. I started to escape with video games — that’s when my gaming addiction began.

After failing my second semester of college and taking a short month break from playing video games, I was ready to slowly get back into it with friends. The score was 13 to 12 in our favour, and we needed one more point to win. I had just single-handedly won the first round of overtime.

We were on the attack and I was focused. I wouldn’t let a misstep go unnoticed. I crept down a corridor with my finger ready on the trigger button of my mouse.

An opponent in blue teleported right in front of me. I jolted to cover before peeking out to see he put himself in a vulnerable spot, BANG! four more.

Suddenly another opponent appeared around the corner. They were looking to avenge their teammate. But, I was ready. BANG! Three more to go.

I cautiously moved forward to create space for the team. We were in their territory but had already lost two of ours in the process. I went to higher ground after doing a bit of damage to another person from afar. BANG! I swung my gun to kill the third — two more to go.

My teammate died, and I avenged them — one more to go.

“Back-to-back ace?” said Francis, whom I had overtaken on this match’s leaderboard.

It was two versus one and Brian decided to try and deny me the final kill, but I wanted the ace.

I found the final enemy and rained them down with bullets. Right before the explosion signifying our win, I landed a shot and got the back-to-back ace.

“Yes sir!” I yelled with a voice crack.

I pressed the Alt and Z buttons on my keyboard together to save the moment on video. Then, we returned to the lobby and queued for another game.

I remember sheepishly standing and staring at the word “victory” on my screen. It was like I won a World Cup the way the adrenaline surged through me. This hit of dopamine was great but clearly, it didn’t satisfy me. I played nine games that day.

In early 2022 during the second semester of the program, my gaming became nonstop.

When I asked my friend Justin whom I often gamed with if he remembered my gaming being problematic at the time he said “Oh yeah, so many times.”

“Remember when you pulled that 24-hour not sleeping because you were playing games and trying to catch up for that assignment? That was a big giveaway at the time,” he said.

There’s a website called Tracker Network that tracks player profiles for most competitive video games. VALORANT, the game that I invested a lot of my time in, had a colour-coded calendar on this website. A grey square meant zero games played, red meant at least one, and the lighter the red, the more games you played.

A scrolling calendar of my VALORANT activity (data from, video by Reuben Pajemolin)

According to that calendar, from January 2022 to April 2022, 70 per cent of my days had at least one game.

“I remember on the tracker, I would check the days and it’ll always be a few games,” said Brian, my gaming partner. “Say we play at three o’clock, we’d stop at say seven, take a break, and then come back maybe two hours later and play till like 2 AM.”

Brian described how we treated gaming like it was our full-time job — except instead of making money, I was spending it.

People spend money on things they enjoy. If you’re already spending time and energy on something that entertains, what’s a few extra dollars? This was my mindset on in-game spending, but it became an issue when I started spending money that I didn’t have.

Considering my minimum wage job paid $11.95 per hour and I was working about 10 hours a week, I spent a lot of money in a short amount of time. I didn’t spend every penny I made, but there were many uncomfortable questions when I couldn’t afford the simplest things like going out with friends. The most shameful moment was when I involved others in my obsession.

“I remember you were trying to convince me to help you buy this [RGX 11z Pro Blade] because the animations were cool,” said Byron, a friend I had built a friendship with mostly online, “We weren’t super close back then and this was like one of the first things you asked from me.”

RGX 11z Pro Blade showcase (Supplied by Riot Games)

The cosmetic item Byron is referring to is the RGX 11z Pro Blade. A light-up melee weapon that did in fact have cool animations. I spent $70 worth of in-game currency on this animated sword, and Byron and Brian paid for more than half.

This was the first item I got in VALORANT. I’d go on to spend over $500 more over the next year. It may not seem like much, especially when some people spend thousands on their hobbies, but I regret that I was so obsessed that I asked for financial assistance from a new-ish friend.

VALORANT is a free-to-play game. Its main income source is in-game purchases for virtual cosmetic items like weapon skins and player profile banners.

Each day, the game’s online weapon store gives each player a random selection of four items accompanied by a big advertisement for the limited-time bundle. These type of micro-transactions are a common income stream in shooter games. An article from The Society for the Study of Addiction calls these types of monetization schemes predatory. Players can feel trapped when they’ve invested money in a game.

“Predatory monetization schemes typically involve in-game purchasing systems that disguise or withhold the true long-term cost of the activity until players are already financially and psychologically committed,” the article says.

While this spending might have been one clue that my gaming hobby was getting problematic, more frightening was the time I continued to spend after I said I was done. I continually insisted on “one more game.”

“If I were to think of someone who would want to keep playing, you’d probably be the one who would always be down to play another game,” said Charlene, a friend I played with regularly.

It’s almost as if I coined the “can’t end on a loss” and the joking “can’t end on a win” or “can’t stop our win streak now.”

No matter the result of the game, I kept wanting to play.

“While the others could get tired, you wouldn’t,” said Charlene.

In addition to loving to play, I had gotten into streaming video games and started wanting to create clip-worthy moments. What started as a fun way to connect with friends, became an obsession. As I got more obsessed, I played on my own, queuing with strangers. I befriended people I met online through VALORANT, none of whom I talk to today.

While all my friends were also really into gaming, no one really fit the description of a gaming disorder except for me.

The World Health Organization defines gaming disorders in the following way: “For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour must be severe enough that it results in significant impairment to a person’s functioning in personal, family, social, education, occupational or other important areas.”

According to a study by the American Journal of Psychiatry, although many people in the study enthusiastically engaged with video games, two out of three people in the study did not report any symptoms of Internet gaming disorder.

In that second semester, my use of video games to avoid stress and responsibilities became more drastic. Late assignments piled up, and I had to make a choice. I could give up playing video games and catch up on homework, or I could give up on responsibilities and keep playing games. I did neither. Instead, I gave up sleep. There were 10 different nights that I didn’t sleep, the worst of which was a time I was awake for over 30 hours straight.

It was still no use. In what felt like a few over-caffeinated blinks of an eye, I found myself in the last month of that school year at a point of no academic return. I was going to fail the semester.

Psychologist Halley Pontes developed a short questionnaire, The Nine-Item Internet Gaming Disorder Scale—Short-Form or IGDS9-SF, to assess gaming disorder and its severity. Participants are invited to answer nine questions about how gaming is affecting them. The survey uses criteria developed by the American Psychiatric Association and a higher score indicates of a higher degree of Internet Gaming Disorder. Possible scores range from nine to 45. While I didn’t take the survey at the time (or even know about it), when I look back at that time now and fill out the questionnaire I score a 39.

I was at a breaking point, but wasn’t ready to admit it. At this time, the pandemic restrictions were loosening. The college permitted half of our program’s classes to be in person. One day after an in-person class, I was waiting in a nearly empty college cafeteria to leave for my bus. I got a call from one of my friends and mentors, Tim, who is a fellow disciple of Jesus at my church and like an older brother figure.

He asked me if it was a good time to chat. Neither of us remembers verbatim what was said that day, but I remember being oblivious to how serious my situation had gotten.

Tim and I would usually meet for an hour or two, every week or two, but I had cancelled many times before this phone call with hopes of using that extra hour to bounce back on assignments. The truth was, I needed much more than a few extra hours. Tim asked me some hard questions.

I sat there staring at the floor and felt guilty and confused. I spent my time horribly and it was obvious to the people around me and even to myself. Yet, I couldn’t seem to let go of video games. My failure felt like it happened in a short amount of time. It didn’t feel real — my confusion turned into numbness, and then I felt nothing.

I had let myself get to this point and I didn’t even see it coming. I pushed away the people who could’ve seen it and would’ve told me. I was stuck. Dopamine hit after dopamine hit had left me in an emotionless void. I didn’t feel sad. I don’t think I was capable of feeling sad.

The worst part, I probably went home and played more games.

When I asked Tim about this conversation, he remembered my behaviour of stress and my desire to escape.

“When I think about the video games, whenever you were feeling stressed about the amount of work you have to do, you were running away, you were escaping, you were turning to video games as your safe space,” said Tim.

“You kind of made everything seem like it was okay,” said Tim, “I don’t think you were lying to me. I think you were lying to yourself.”

A blurred and blocked off grades report. Six letter "F"s and one "D". Between

A final report of my second semester (Reuben Pajemolin)

By the end of the semester, my report was Fs and one D. It would have been all Fs, but one class needed me for a group assignment, and I didn’t want to let them down.

The first-year students oversaw a live stream and each group of four was responsible for an hour of the stream marathon. The position I signed up for was to do all the technical stuff. I had streamed for over a year and was very familiar with the software.

Tim encouraged me to try to finish this one class.

“It was very all-or-nothing thinking,” said Tim, “What I was encouraging you to do was to finish strong. Let’s make a victory in whatever way we need to.”

Then on April 11, 2022, I sent our program coordinator my letter of withdrawal from the program.

The coordinator later replied to let me know I had missed the voluntary withdrawal date, and this would show in my record and there’d be no chance for any refund.

Tim had given me the advice to keep moving forward. I was at a loss, but it wasn’t time to mope. Maybe that career path just wasn’t for me. I looked for other pursuits in continuing education or joining the workforce, but each road led me back to try CreComm again.

Maybe it was part of my ego — I wanted to prove to myself I could finish something I started. Maybe part of it was a passion — I wanted to be in an industry where I could see my talents being put to use. Maybe part of it was other people’s expectations — people believed in me, and they also thought the program was a good fit.

Whatever the reason, I needed to change. I needed to give myself more respect and recognize gaming was an area of weakness. I re-applied to CreComm a few months later, got a spot again, and worked some jobs till January 2023.

When I returned to school, I set some clear boundaries for myself around gaming. It helped tremendously. I called quits on gaming online and alone — if I did play, it would be through a local gaming console with others. I stored my computer in a closet, out of sight, out of mind. And I asked people to hold me accountable.

My return wasn’t perfect. There were many moments of withdrawal where I only thought about gaming, but I learned from hitting that low point. I haven’t gotten close to the same level of obsession again.

My relationship with video games has changed for the better, but I still have my dicier days. I now mainly stick to board and card games to keep the social aspect and scratch my competitive itch.

Reddit user, Agitated_Outside_400, explains how hard it is to quit gaming in a post on r/StopGaming.

“…the hardest part of quitting is when the honeymoon phase is over… That new game is coming out, you almost always have a little free time on your hands…And so, you play and it’s awesome and maybe you’re even able to control it for some time… but you’re already back in the trap,” they wrote.

There aren’t many resources for gaming disorder, but subreddits like r/StopGaming and resources like Game Quitters are two places available for help.

I’ve faced challenges of video game obsession from a very young age and patterns suggest that I haven’t seen the last of its temptations. I’ll need to continue to set boundaries to make sure it never affects me the same way again.

Left to Right: 6 years old gaming playing on the Vectrex, 16 years old creating videos on my phone, 22 years old creating videos on games.

I asked my buddy Francis, whom I played with often, if he regrets the amount of time he has spent gaming?

“Nah, nah, nah, nah, I don’t regret any of it,” said Francis, cutting me off, “I don’t regret it because it led me to where I am now.”

I agree with him. Yes, it would’ve been nice to get through without the headaches, but ultimately, I was looking to have fun with friends and got carried away in the process. Now, I have the benefit of that experience to help me set boundaries and be more disciplined going forward.

Since cutting down on playing video games, I’ve had more free time to go back to video creation. Instead of spending so much time and energy on a hobby, I’m focusing on my editing skills and building an identity as a creative. I needed those harsh lessons to be where I am today: on track to graduate in spring 2024.

Some multimedia in “The Numbing Effect of Video Gaming” uses assets owned by Riot Games and is under Riot Games’ “Legal Jibber Jabber” policy. Riot Games does not endorse or sponsor this project.

Headshot of Reuben Pajemolin

Reuben Pajemolin

Reuben (he/him) is a shy extrovert early in his journey to become the world’s greatest video editor. He’s sadly gold in every game he plays, can recite 100 digits of pi, and probably just started a new passion project.
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