Gaming vs. life: dopamine and pursuit of satisfaction

Toy workers by JD Hancock on Flickr

My main drug of choice when I am trying to avoid stress is gaming. Sometimes I do it deliberately to give myself a fantasy escape.

Other times if a source of anxiety has not risen from the subconscious I might find myself compulsively gaming for hours and days on end. Like a computer virus it takes over too much of my time and resources. Emerging from such an episode of avoidance the past few days has given me to thinking about gratification.

Specifically I like to play computer strategy games like Catan and Civilization. Gaming releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the experience of problem-solving and success. Dopamine does not just make us feel good; it is involved in the initial impulse to explore and meet challenges. Games give us the feeling we are solving something. In fact, they can teach us valuable cognitive skills.

However, they also provide a shortcut to gratification. Like many other things in our souped up world, gaming can addict us to puny success.

It does not help you (unless you are one of the remarkably gifted, industrious few) pay the rent, get along with your household or make the world a safer place for our children to thrive. Those life challenges will teach bigger lessons about problem-solving and success, but the process requires far more patience, besides different skill sets.

Personally as a freelance writer, I face the immediate and continual trouble of finding good stories and selling them to clients. As a creative, moderately reclusive person, I do not have much trouble coming up with ideas. But finding the self-confidence to delve into them, framing them for a wide, more extroverted audience and then presenting my jewels for an unknown editor to accept, reject or ignore calls all my talents and some weaknesses into play.

I would proceed a lot faster if I could see it as the game that it is, and that is what I try to do, but life is never so simple. With real games we have a choice, and the cost of failure is not so high. We all have choices in real life, too (a freelance writer has lots of them), but ultimately to move forward we must all make compromises and some sacrifices to get along. Winning is not always possible and life is inherently tragic.

On the other hand, it can be tempting to make everything too complicated. We might choose only difficult quests to prove our heroism, but they will all miss the power of a subtle, thoughtful gesture. When we feel bad about ourselves it helps to start with small successes and build on them.

I suggest 10 small acts that will reap satisfaction:

  1. Plant a zucchini.
  2. Ask for help doing something you usually do alone.
  3. Leave a good book in a public place.
  4. Start choosing salad from the menu.
  5. If your loved one snarls, scowls or barks, give them a hug.
  6. Walk or use a bicycle.
  7. Focus on working hard today.
  8. Thank someone for doing their job.
  9. Commit guerrilla gardening.
  10. In your mind forgive someone and set yourself free.

Now tell me, where would you start?

Photo courtesy of JD Hancock via Flickr Creative Commons.

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