If you’ve ever played a videogame, you may have described the experience as ‘fun’ or ‘a good time.’ This has led some journalists to compare playing videogames to taking heroin. Why? Because a session of Minecraft, like a session of hard drugs, provides your brain with dopamine. But despite what sensational headlines may lead you to believe, videogames and drugs are not really comparable in terms of dopamine production. This isn’t to say that games aren’t a hell of a lot of fun, or that their ability to provide your brain with that all-important reward hormone isn’t key to their success as a medium and industry. Games can engage your brain in a far more direct manner than other forms of media, making you an active participant in problem solving or letting your instincts and reflexes drive action. It’s this engagement that provides the dopamine fix, and, in my view, herein lies the potential of games as both an artistic medium and as a utility, as well as many of the issues that face the games industry as a whole.

In my view, the primary function games serve is to offer escapism. The real world sucks in a variety of mundane and, lately, wildly apocalyptic ways. Games provide a break from this in the same way that other forms of media can, by providing a safe and easy source of dopamine and a platform for socialising, but games are more effective, thanks to the greater level of engagement they allow for. A classic criticism of games is that they are a waste of time when the player could be outside having ‘real’ experiences. Nowadays though, where those real experiences would still likely be indoors – probably entailing a Zoom call, or a cry – having a source of dopamine and a safe means of connecting with friends is vital.

Crucially, however, even in less extreme circumstances, having an escape from normal life is important. This is reflected in recent research about videogame addiction, where it is shown that when someone is engaging with videogames to a degree considered harmful, it is usually due to their life circumstances being so difficult that they are forced to rely on games as a coping mechanism. It isn’t games themselves that are the issue in most cases. Rather, the fact that videogames can provide such an escape is a strength of the medium. Through the active engagement they can provide, and that all-important dopamine fix, games can transport you outside of your own perspective.

Games can serve as an escape, but they can also provide a means for the player to think, act and feel in entirely new ways. Some games simply retell a tried-and-tested story in a unique fashion, as with the hugely popular Read Dead Redemption 2, a fairly standard western in terms of plot, but experienced entirely in real-time in a staggeringly beautiful simulation of the United States in the late 1800s. Games can also provide narratives entirely unique to the medium, as in Papers Please, a game which tasks you with keeping your family alive while working at a border checkpoint in a fictionalised version of the USSR. Other forms of visual media would find difficulty in presenting a story that might appear mundane on the face of it, but in placing the weight of every decision directly in the player’s hands and allowing consequences to play out, a game that mostly consists of stamping passports becomes a truly unique narrative experience. Games also have a unique opportunity to build empathy through their mechanics, and in doing so often have entirely new and unique approaches to representation. In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the player embarks on a quest through a dark fantasy world as seen through the eyes of a protagonist suffering from psychosis. The game ties the symptoms of psychosis into its mechanics – the player hears voices that attempt to discourage or assist their actions – and the puzzles involve seeing patterns in the game’s environments. The story deals with mental health and trauma, and its mechanics serve to build the player’s understanding of the experience of living with the symptoms as well as how trauma and stigma can affect someone living with them. While it is by no means a perfect solution, the game can foster a more empathetic understanding of living with psychosis through making the player act within that framework.

With the right design, games can engage players in a variety of ways to offer unique and eye-opening experiences. However, the games industry – like any other – is, at its core, driven by profit. While many studios manage to create worthwhile experiences within a profit-driven space, others have chosen to exploit players’ desire for a dopamine fix to drive up profits. Many games now employ microtransactions, allowing players to pay real money to bypass time-intensive in-game activities, and others include slot-machine-like ‘loot box’ systems which encourage players to spend real money to receive a random set of rewards. The latter became so exploitative that there have been calls for them to be banned. The systems are, essentially, an unregulated form of gambling. In these instances, the engaging, dopamine-fuelled nature of videogames can become insidious, as companies can capitalise on their products to target their most engaged or potentially addicted customers with experiences tailored to encourage further engagement and further spending.

Videogames now constitute the largest entertainment industry in human history. Gaming encompasses a wide variety of experiences, all unified by their unique ability to engage audiences directly, to whatever end. Much like many of the substances games have been questionably compared to, games should be enjoyed responsibly and with an awareness of what you want to get out of the experience, be it a hit of dopamine or anything else.