A player holding a smartphone with Player's Unknown Battleground, also known as PUBG online shooting gaming. Photo for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Agency

Abu Dhabi: It’s not so far-fetched, getting addicted to gaming. It’s a rigmarole of validation and agonizing pitfalls, especially when you are playing in a group. And while a little engagement with an online buddy never hurt anyone - there are supposed benefits including better hand-eye coordination – too much of anything can be disruptive.

The UAE is consistently ranked amongst the world's top 100 gaming markets based on revenue source, with more than 80 per cent of smartphone users in the UAE identifying themselves as 'mobile gamers,' said a study by the gaming analytics firm Newzoo in 2019.

But gaming is a learned behaviour – and it can, say experts, be modified. In a bid to help those in the UAE afflicted by such a malady, the UAE's leading rehabilitation body National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC), will launch an out-patient clinic in the capital. The clinic, said Dr Hamad Al Ghaferi, Director -General of the NRC, is aimed at helping both Emiratis and expats in the country.

There is a caveat; the World Health Organisation only classified gaming as an addiction last year, and while there are strides being made in dealing with it, the centre - for now- is lacking in subjects.

"We did not receive any patients as such. We have to raise awareness within the community and we have to alert families about this possible problem," he was quoted as saying by WAM. It is the addicts' right to seek help and the NRC will offer the treatment, bearing in mind that each individual is different from others and he or she has to be tackled accordingly, the official explained on the sidelines of the 6th meeting on Public Health Implications of Behavioural Addictions, currently being held in Abu Dhabi, the news agency stated in its report.

"The participation in the meeting will give us more ideas about tackling this issue," Al Ghaferi said.

The NRC is working with Japanese experts who have conducted a study about gaming addiction in Japan. "We will work with them and utilise the studies they conducted," the report added. But of course with a few tweaks, to ensure its relevance to the UAE community.

The NRC offers treatment for substance abuse and other behavioural addictions. "We always welcome those who need help – both Emiratis and expatriates – to approach us," Al Ghaferi concluded.

How do you know a sufferer?

“If the person shows signs of restlessness if they don’t play or cannot stop, social isolation so they can spend more time playing, show physical symptoms such as obesity, poor hygiene, headaches, or muscle tension due to over sitting or over use e.g. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome [those are signs of addiction],” explained Fadwa L. Lkorchy, Psychologist at German Neurological Centre, in an interview with Gulf News.

WHO gives these symptoms about 12-months to resolve themselves – if they do not, the organisation says, it can be diagnosed as a disorder. Dr Mrabet Jihene, Assistant professor and Director of the Office of counselling and disability at the American University in Emirates, says before we begin to classify and treat a behaviour as an ‘addiction’, it’s important to figure out its cause and effect. "The question is, is gaming causing trouble in the child or teenager’s [life] or is it children who are experiencing depression or ADHD, or agoraphobia, or family conflict [and] are escaping those problems through gaming?”

It’s all in the head

Playing games involves repeated actions that spark connections related to memory and learning. Dr Jihene explains that it also stimulates the premotor and parietal cortex area in the brain - sensory movements in games that require real-time action - and the prefrontal lobe, which controls decision-making. Also stimulated is the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that controls cognition and running.

It’s basically hijacking these areas of thought.

Dr Jihene explains: “Even if a player fails in a game, the reward centre, which is the dopamine centre, is still stimulated – it’s correlated with deliberation time in beating risk taking. So they [gamers who are addicted] will continue to take risks. It will be very easy taking the decision to take a risk, because the centre of the stimulation will be stimulated all the time.” This risk-taking behaviour breeches real-reel life boundaries. ”There is continuous seeking of dopamine reward for the brain.”

It triggers cravings and compulsions and changes the structure of the reward system until it mirrors the mechanism as seen in the brains of those with other addictive disorders.

“Sometimes it will help reinforce isolation,” says Dr Jihene. That’s besides the eye strain and weight gain; “it can provoke obesity because the child/teenager will spend hours and hours doing nothing but playing”. Besides, “it will also provoke problem to adapt to the reality when the child will come back from game to reality.”

When the itch isn’t scratched

Like all addictions, it’s about the thrill. “That’s why there is withdrawal – people are having anger and sometimes depression” when they don’t get what they want. This is also why the need to take greater risks, to up the levels of gaming to create greater dopamine released in the body – which by this time is getting habituated to the rising levels of the hormone - and the failure to calm this obsession may result in rage, anger, or even depression.

Benefits of gaming

This doesn't mean you need to put away that gaming console just yet. It's about striking a balance. Here's a look at some benefits:

Socialisation: Dr Jihene says, even if the games are [played] at home…most of the games now are online and they are played on groups, so it will help in socialisation

Technology aid: She adds that it will help children be introduced to the technology; improve reaction time; improve creativity and imagination.

Dreams and wishes: The kids can realise all their fantasies which will give them some satisfaction and self-esteem, especially with kids who are shy.

It will improve the eye-hand coordination. It will help to enhance focusing process – we can focus on many factors at the same time without confusing them.

Cognitive benefits: Meanwhile, Dr Lkorchy says, “Some research showed some cognitive benefits to gaming such as improvement in memory, perception, attention, and decision making.”