One of the biggest things that sets Millenials and Gen Z apart from previous generations is their relationship with technology, a common critique being that video games have replaced real life for many young people, particularly young men.
It’s true that many 20-and-30-somethings began playing video games when their brains were still malleable.This was before psychologists began raising concerns about the effect it may have on the brain, concerns that are now backed by a mountain of evidence. Frequent video game playing has been connected to a myriad of issues, including decreased life satisfaction, loneliness, decreased social competence, poorer academic achievement, increased impulsivity, increased aggression, and increased depression and anxiety.
These concerns have only been further highlighted in cultural conversation by the sheer number of people who play video games: 67% of Americans, to be exact, a number that has grown exponentially in recent years. Perhaps even more startling, according to Pew Research Center, 72% of men younger than 30 report playing games often. Scariest of all, Douglas Gentile, a psychologist who’s been studying the effect of video games on the brain for decades, estimates that roughly 8.5% percent of young people who play video games in the United States are addicted — not including the number of people who are inevitably underreporting how much time they spend playing.
There’s also plenty of evidence that video games can be a positive thing for brain development. According to Psychology Today, playing video games can help children develop “perception, attention, memory, and decision-making,” as well as “logical, literary, executive, and even social skills.”
But regardless of what side of the evidence you choose to believe, there’s a new factor to consider in the conversation about video games’ psychological effects: their relationship to porn. Most notably, according to a study by Laura Stockdale and Sarah M.Coyneif, playing an excessive amount of video games greatly raises your chances of becoming addicted to porn, and, likely, vice versa.
The correlation between video games and adult sexual content is because both sources of stimuli, primarily visual and aural, affect the same pleasure center in the brain, specifically the ventral striatum which helps elicit the good feelings you get when you do something good, can be done in the same environment (alone, in a technologically connected room), and are both sources of immediate satisfaction and escapism.
Prominent Stanford University psychologist, Phillip Zimbardo, conducted an in-depth study into 20,000 young men’s relationships with video games and pornography. He said of the experiment: “Our focus is on young men who play video games to excess, and do it in social isolation – they are alone in their room. Now, with freely available pornography, which is unique in history, they are combining playing video games, and as a break, watching on average, two hours of pornography a week.”
He goes on to say, “It begins to change brain function. It begins to change the reward centre of the brain and produces a kind of excitement and addiction. Young men — who play video games and use porn the most — are being digitally rewired in a totally new way that demands constant stimulation. And those delicate, developing brains are being catered to by video games and porn-on-demand, with a click of the mouse, in endless variety.”
As these commingled addictions develop, they soon (similarly to drug addictions) require greater and greater degrees of stimulation to get that same chemical release. But since these two addictions seem to affect similar demographics and often coincide with one another disproportionately, there’s something that sets them apart from other forms of addiction.
According to Zimbardo, porn and video game addictions are “arousal addictions,” which differ from drug and gambling addictions in that the attraction is in “the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content.” So while drug addicts need increasing amounts of a substance to get high, they still crave the same substance over and over, while arousal addicts need an increasing intensity and variety of stimuli, as well as more and more.
This leads to a desire for increasingly intense stimuli, leading addicts to more violent and bizarre video games and porn in pursuit of novelty. Fascinatingly, and perhaps disturbingly, while these addictions are interwoven, they used to require separate stimuli to satiate — but even that’s changing. In an inevitable progression, the two addictions have begun to seamlessly merge in the form of pornographic video games and video game-themed porn, allowing an addict to satiate both needs simultaneously, setting off a veritable fireworks display of dopamine responses — at least until the viewer becomes desensitized.
For example, Fortnite-inspired porn is apparently so widely consumed that “Fortnite” was one of the top 20 most-searched terms on Pornhub in 2018, and in 2016, when Overwatch rose to popularity, searches for Overwatch porn jumped by 817% in a matter of months.
Perhaps even more distressing is the advent of porn video games, where players take an active role in the plot of the explicit content they’re viewing, perfectly intermingling the already connected addictions. While some of these games show consensual sexual intercourse, many do not. For example, RapeLay, produced in Japan, is a game where a player plays as a disembodied penis to simulate rape of a woman and her child daughters over and over again. There was a massive outcry against the game when it was released, ultimately causing Amazon to stop selling it — but not before millions and millions of people purchased the game.
As an article on the topic in Men’s Health points out, this trend of combining two similar and symbiotic addictions is understandable as video games already often feature hyper-sexualized characters, porn is being watched more and more on video game consoles, and animated porn allows for a level of fantasy live-action porn can’t reach. If your brain is lighting up in a similar way when you play video games and when you watch porn, of course you’ll begin associating the two. Throw in the feeling of power that comes with having control over the results of the stimuli, as a player does in porn video games, and you have a perfect chemical spider web, one that ensnares young men in an endless and isolating cycle of escape.
There are legitimate physical issues that can result from addictions of this kind. There’s evidence that it can lead to debilitating sexual dysfunction in young men, called porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED), a term coined by Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, an associate clinical professor of urology at Harvard Medical School — an affliction that can get worse as a video game addiction feeds off a porn addiction in a vicious cycle of dopamine release. Many doctors are reporting that more young men than ever before are coming to them with ED, and they think the cause is, at least in part, because of this rise in virtual escapism in young men. “I have absolutely seen a pretty drastic increase in ED rates among young men, especially in the last two, three years,” says sex therapist Vanessa Marin. “My average client base is starting to get younger and younger.”
Even more troublingly, Zimbardo concludes that the effects go even deeper, and that this toxic combination creates a “generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships, school and employment.” Of course, this estimation doesn’t take into account countless other factors at play in the lives of young men, not to mention the risk that comes with shaming people for sexual exploration.
As Dr. Marin goes on to say, “We’re not having any conversations about what are healthy ways to engage in porn. So no one has a general sense of what’s healthy and unhealthy when it comes to porn. And of course it’s not black and white either, but I do see a lot of younger men engaging in porn in ways that aren’t healthy, in ways that make it more difficult for them to connect with partners and make it more difficult to engage in their own healthy sexuality.”
Perhaps the same can be said of video games, that are treated dismissively by parents, as a quirk of young men that should be, for the most part, discouraged until outgrown. Perhaps, the culturally polarized narrative surrounding video games and porn is part of the problem, and the conversation we need to be having is how young men can indulge in video games and explore their sexuality, without the shame that can often foster addiction — and without letting it consume their lives.