6 Ways Games Fulfill the Needs of Folks with ADHD
What do games, gamers, and ADHD have to do with each other?
Just to be clear:
- ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and ADD (attention deficit disorder) are not the same thing, but I will use ADHD for brevity’s sake from now on.
- Here is the definition of ADHD from expert James Ochoa: problems focusing, concentrating, and being easily distracted. Additionally, the definition includes long-term problems with evaluating, planning, and prioritizing in a way that’s consistent and organized.
- ADHD is developmental, genetic, and does not just mean being easily distracted by technology in the modern age (although that is a struggle).
- People with ADHD have unique strengths.
- Not all gamers have ADHD and not all people with ADHD are gamers.
However, there are certain aspects of games that fulfill needs of folks with ADHD and certain parts of having ADHD that mean you might be likely to engage in games.
Here are 6 ways that games fulfill those needs:
1. Games are shiny!
Games are fast paced, exciting, highly stimulating, and engage you by jumping from one scene to the next. Often folks with ADHD are likely to engage with activities that heighten their adrenaline response to keep interest high.
2. Games engage the imagination.
Fantasy or roleplay gaming can involve using the imagination in the most thorough way. (In D&D you literally have to write a character from scratch). Folks with ADHD are easily able to think outside the box and may be able to use their imaginations more readily than neurotypical people.
Treatment bonus: using imagination in therapy can be useful too. Creating a safe place that allows you to rest and relax at the blink of an eye is something really cool your counselor (hi!) could walk you through.
3. Games involve instant gratification.
Leveling up, defeating a boss, and completing a quest happen rather quickly in games (relative to life, at least). For folks with a smaller than average prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in planning, evaluating, and delaying gratification), this quality serves them well.
4. Games activate reward circuitry in the brain.
The connection between dopamine receptors and the prefrontal cortex (see above) is different when you have ADHD. Therefore, often people experience no motivation to finish what task they started. The brain searches for something else shiny to engage attention instead: enter games!
5. Games set you up to win.
No matter what game you are playing, there’s a pretty good probability that you can win. When you fail a level or a boss fight it’s sometimes entertaining (epic fail)! Thus, the sense of shame that folks with ADHD might have about not completing a task, being a failure, or being called lazy is temporarily replaced with a sense of accomplishment and confidence. (See Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken for more on this topic).
6. Alternative reality games (ARGs) can help to organize reality and manage people’s lives.
Yeah, someone else has figured it out already. Developers are designing games to help people’s real life using the benefits of instant gratification, competition, and organization. (See Chore Wars for an example). This whole point is a treatment bonus because it involves the possibility of using an ARG to help with organization or planning in someone’s real life. I could write a whole blog on this so to spare you the details now, tune in later.
All 6 of these qualities of games may help you to see the connection between why some folks with ADHD play games more and for longer periods of time. It might also help explain why playing a game would be more appealing than doing whatever adult responsibility task is missing. As you can see there are layers here: emotional, psychological, and neurological reasons. These connections can be used for bad or good, the choice is yours.
If you’re interested in more support on this you can contact me for counseling. We can talk about your relationship with games and the intersection of ADHD.
I’m available for free 30-minute consultations in south Austin, TX to see if we would be a good fit for counseling. Email me today to schedule a time.
Julia Stamman, LPC
Hi, I’m Julia! I’m an LPC (licensed professional counselor) practicing in South Austin. I understand the personal importance of a therapist groking my lifestyle, so I started helping others who identify as geeks, gamers, and/or misfits. Over time, I realized that I’m passionate about attachment-related trauma, social anxiety, and neurodiversity. On this blog, I write on topics like the overlap of alternative culture and mental health, and how to find services catered to these lifestyles.