Why ADHD and Video Games Can Be a Brutal Combination

I remember my rock bottom — I was playing Fallout 3 and I was stuck. I couldn’t get past a certain area without being annihilated. I was backed into a corner and I didn’t have a save that helped me out.

In the game you can see how many hours you had put into the game. My count was 57 hours. I had put 57 hours into a game that was now fruitless. I remember setting the control down and thinking 57 hours.

How did I get here?

I looked around my apartment and it was thrashed. Dishes hadn’t been done, garbage hadn’t been taken out, and my apartment looked like a fraternity had blown through it.

57 hours. I could have started a small business, got in shape, and on and on. Ten minutes after I set down the controller, my ADHD wanted me to pick it up once again. One more try. I sighed, deleted everything and realized that I had nothing, absolutely nothing to show for those 57 hours.

Except a lot of regret.

ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is something that affects 17 million people and to many of them, video games are a serious addiction. Video games constantly feed our ADHD’s need.

Immediate Feedback

When you make a mistake in a video game, you know it. You turn down the wrong corridor, take the wrong path, fight the wrong monster. Done. Game over. Our ADHD loves immediate feedback because it knows what it needs to change.

When things are ambiguous and obtuse, our ADHD wails like a 4 year old who didn’t get a piece of candy. Video games offer that feedback and we can make adjustments quickly.

Leveling Up

In many video games we can gain levels. We improve because of the work we put in—we see the results of our effort and we can then have better and harder challenges. We learn exactly what we need to do to earn experience points. Unlike our job or relationships, we can quantify our actions and risk to see the benefits.

Watch: How Video Games Fulfill Your Need for Growth and Progress


When we are playing an MMORPG, we have a guild, and “friends” that we talk with. But this is the equivalent of eating Milky Way bars for dinner. It tastes great, but the nutrition it provides us is lacking.

In those relationships there is no give and take, no doing life with each other. We are living in a virtual world that ends once the power is cut off, once a simple button is pressed. Those relationships have zero risk and therefore, zero reward to them.

Unrelenting Challenge

Video games provide level after level of challenge. They prod you to keep conquering, gaining and winning—and when you figure it out—you get rewarded.

But it teaches that in life, the risk can fail, but you get to try again and again. This isn’t true. We have consequences to our failure. Risk is good, but video games don’t let us have a healthy prediction of risk.

I felt a bit lost.


When I detached from my video game addiction, I wondered what do I do with my time now? So I started a couple of things.

I joined a board game club. I started learning about all the other board games that were out there. I loved the challenge, learning the rules, but I found that there was a much stronger social cohesion there. I was actually making more friends. We even went on a cruise together, just to play board games.

I also started making money on the side. I needed a challenge, an area where I could “level up” myself. I started editing writing for people. I soon got better and better and got more (and better paying) clients.

I didn’t have the immediate results from video games, but I could spend 2-4 hours editing and have something substantial to work on.

Watch: How Gaming Gives You a False Sense of Achievement

That was years ago. Since then I’ve been able to travel with my side money, hitting Australia and most recently, China. I’ve started expanding my side hustle into coaching. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never played another video game since, but I only play in social settings (party games) and I don’t have a system in my house (or will I ever.)

My ADHD railed against the thought of being without my video games. They fed my ADHD’s worst traits. But the time I’ve gotten back, the freedom to things that actually make an impact has made all the difference.

Today’s guest post is by Ryan McRae. Ryan is the founder of The ADHD Nerd, a blog dedicated to helping people with ADHD be more productive, focused and happy. He recently wrote the book Conquering the Calendar and Getting More Done (which you can get for free here). He has spoken all over the world, including Afghanistan. He can be reached here.

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