It is a sad consequence that a product meant to be consumed purely for entertainment can sometimes be too entertaining. That is why many lotteries around the world have strict responsible gaming guidelines. But the threat that people can get addicted to gambling products helps the industry understand the potential severity of their product. A similar threat is present with video games; however, people are failing to take notice.
Neuroscientists have learned that drugs and gambling alter many of the same brain circuits in similar ways. But while gambling and drug addictions are now commonly understood as viable problems for society, internet and internet video game addiction isn’t as readily accepted. “My research… shows that there appears to be a reward system deficiency in individuals who are addicted to the internet and to online gaming, and this is the reason for why they seek pleasure and rewards in the form of gaming. Natural rewards (such as food and sex) are not experienced as rewarding enough and therefore these individuals seek stronger rewards in order to recreate a balanced state in the brain, which will drive internet use and gaming behaviors,” Daria Kuss, Course Leader MSC Cyberpsychology, Nottingham Trent University said.
“Internet games are built in such a way that they provide intermittent reinforcements, so that rewards in the game are being produced irregularly, which keeps the gamers playing,” Kuss explained.
This coincides with the study discussed earlier about an increased dopamine rush when the reward is not certain. “This is a conditioned response, similar to classical and operant conditioning principles, where individuals learn to engage in a particular behavior (i.e., gaming) to produce a pleasurable experience, which is then continuously sought, and therefore the gaming behaviors are maintained,” she added.
Gambling and Gaming
To review, both video games and gambling activate dopamine releases and both can be addictive. Is gaming a viable substitute for gambling? Could the gambling industry be losing potential players to video games?
Video games make gambling more enjoyable. Gamers maintain larger dopamine releases when gambling than non-gamers. In an experimental study, “Video Game Training and the Reward System,” a team of scientists took 50 young adult participants who didn’t play video games and had them play a slot machine. Everyone in the group saw an activation in the reward center. Afterwards, half the group (the video game group or VG) played a video game for 30 minutes a day for two months, while the rest (the control group or CG) continued to avoid video games.
After the two months had concluded, all 50 people played a slot machine again. The VG showed a similar strong sense of reward, like they had the first time they played the slot machine. Those who did not play video games for two month showed significantly less activation of the reward center. “This longitudinal study revealed that video game training may preserve reward responsiveness in the [reward center] in a retest situation over time,” Robert C. Lorenz wrote in his paper.
According to this study, video games have a very positive effect on the gambling industry. Since more people are playing video games, that means more people are, hypothetically, enjoying gambling experiences.
But it’s important to factor in cost. Each gambling session always requires payment, while this isn’t the case with video games. Basic economic theory states that some users prefer to gamble than game, but the cost pushes them to spend money on video games because they want to spend less.
Unless the actual reward that gambling offers is so much better than the reward that a video game offers that it makes them incompatible substitutes in players’ minds. Video games offer social rewards after all. They make players feel better about themselves by using leaderboards and other social mechanics, but social rewards can’t buy a player a new car or a jet ski. When a lottery player is given the option between a cash prize or an alternative prize, they almost always pick the cash prize. It seems natural to assume money is the king of prizes.
However, according to this experimental study, “Processing of Social and Monetary Rewards in the Human Striatum,” Keise Izuma found that gaining a good reputation activates the same reward circuitry as monetary rewards. The team asked 19 subjects to take part in a simple gambling task while undergoing an fMRI to test their monetary reward response. Afterwards, the subjects recorded themselves on video introducing themselves. The following day, the subject were told while undergoing a second fMRI what people thought about the videos the subjects recorded.
“fMRI data in the social reward experiment showed that, as predicted, the acquisition of a good reputation activated the striatum and that the activated areas overlapped with those activated by monetary rewards,” Izuma wrote.
This study gives credence to a neuroeconomic theory of a “neural common currency,” which suggest that every reward, whether it be social or monetary, has a shared evaluation process in the brain. The brain exchanges dollars and popularity points into a currency that it can evaluate the two equally, like exchanging francs and pounds into euros so they can be easily compared.
This theory suggests that for every monetary award, there is a social award that could be chosen over it. For the gambling industry, our monetary prizes do not own a special monopoly on the brain’s reward system. On one hand, this presents the opportunity to explore more prizes that dabble in both social and monetary rewards, like PowerCruise. On the other hand, it suggests that social prizes that are an inherent mechanic in internet video games (leaderboards, winning games against peers) can compete with monetary prizes.
The problem is that these social prizes aren’t regulated.