A new study suggests there is a correlation between video gamers, depression, and being overweight. According to the CDC, the average American gamer has a higher body mass index than his peers, and also tends to be more reliant on the Internet. Female respondents to the 500-person study, which was carried out in the Seattle-Tacoma area, had a higher correlation of depression than their peers.
Outlets like PC World and TG Daily have reported the news with appropriate caution, careful not to insinuate that correlation means causation. But the suggestion seems to be that there are only two factors at play—lifestyle and level of health—and that one of them has to be altering the other. Either fat, depressive people like gaming, or gaming makes people fat or depressed. But what if the real culprit is brain chemistry?
According to an article in Slate, part of so-called Internet "addiction" is rooted in an ancient brain mechanism that rewards discovery. Human beings, it seems, are engineered to reward themselves with shots of dopamine when they find something new, and the Internet has become a kind of dopamine drip—sites like Reddit and Digg, and the chance for new emails and texts, open up the possibility for endless "discovery" highs. (Image below courtesy of TwoPlayer Comics.)
Video games, it would seem, operate the same way: since every game's addictive trait is the achievement of a new level or a more advanced opponent, it's not a far cry to imagine that the real culprit behind gaming isn't laziness, or poor health, or introversion. Maybe it's just how some people are wired.
A complicating factor may be self-esteem. At least one study has shown that people who suffer from insecurity tend to think conspiratorially: They look for patterns in the world around them, even when no patterns are present. But in video games, patterns are everywhere; in role-playing games, they're the secret to unlocking new missions. If high BMI and depressive thoughts begin to effect a gamer's sense of self, it may drive them deeper into gaming, where their low-level paranoia is not only justified, but rewarded.
Is any of this actually bad? A study released last summer suggests that ADD and ADHD might actually have begun as evolutionary advantages. People that get a charge out of switching tasks on-the-fly, presumably getting the dopamine rush that comes with it, may have been more suited for exploration and innovation in nomadic tribal communities. (Above, a nomadic tribe in the Sudan, courtesy of UN.org.)
So what can a reasonable person gather from this debate? The next time someone gives you a hard time about your Xbox addiction and your beer gut, just tell them you would have made a killer nomad.