Dopamine is the neuro-transmitter chemical released by the pleasure/reward mechanism of brain function. It is responsible for feelings of pleasure and enjoyment and reinforcement motivating a person to perform certain activities such as eating, sex, drug taking and the neural stimuli that become linked to these activities.
Koepp and colleagues in 1998 showed a massive increase in the amount of dopamine released in the brain was indeed observed during video game play, in particular in areas thought to control reward and learning. The level of increase was remarkable, being comparable to that observed when amphetamines are injected intravenously.
The following instructive quote is from the 2007 Harvard Mental Heath Letter.
“Studies have shown that addictive drugs stimulate a reward circuit in the brain. The circuit provides incentives for action by registering the value of important experiences. Rewarding experiences trigger the release of the brain chemical dopamine, telling the brain “do it again.” What makes permanent recovery difficult is drug-induced change that creates lasting memories linking the drug to a pleasurable reward.”
So we can see that given the dopamine dump delivered to the brain from gaming, and the fact that this neurotransmitter feeds into mental processes of addiction, we can draw the conclusion that gaming can have a physiological hook.
As the only study I could find which actually measured dopamine output after gaming was carried out in 1998, I wonder if the fact that recent games are more absorbing and compelling will have an impact on the amount of dopamine produced?
Arias-Carrión O, Pöppel E (2007). “Dopamine, learning and reward-seeking behavior”. Act Neurobiol Exp 67 (4): 481–488. Accessed online at http://www.ane.pl/pdfdownload.php?art=6738 (13th Nov. 2011)
Koepp, M. Et al. (1998)‘Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game’ Nature, 393
Achtman, R. L.; Green, C. S.; Bavelier, D.(2008) ‘Video games as a tool to train visual skills.’ Restorative Neurology & Neuroscience, Vol. 26 Issue 4/5, p435-446