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‘Gaming Disorder’ Is a Problem—But It’s Way More Complex Than You Think

What is video game addiction, really? Experts disagree — and the World Health Organization’s announcement may be oversimplifying the issue

The debate over the legitimacy of video game addiction rages on following the World Health Organization’s proposal to add “gaming disorder” to its list of disease classifications.

That the WHO used “disorder” instead of the more colloquially used “addiction” speaks to the complexity of the affliction — and why that nuance so often gets lost when discussing it.

The WHO describes gaming disorder thusly in the latest draft of its International Classification of Diseases manual (aka the ICD-11): “Gaming disorder is characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior (‘digital gaming’ or ‘video gaming’), which may be online or offline.” The proposed entry for gaming disorder goes on to list a variety of symptoms that are startlingly similar to those of other, formally recognized substance addictions.

According to the WHO, gaming become a disorder when a person chooses to prioritize gaming over other life activities, including career, family, IRL friendships, social activities and physical health. And the biggest indicator is a a person who continues to game heavily despite it causing all kinds of disastrous consequences on their life.

“The behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months,” according to the WHO.

But while this is an encouraging development for those who believe in the dangers of excessive gaming, it’s telling that the WHO stopped short of describing gaming disorder as a full-blown addiction. And that’s where it’s tough to find a consensus.

Gaming addiction might have some of the markers of “actual” addictions, but it doesn’t qualify as an addiction because people can’t develop a physical dependency to it, as with alcohol and opioids. And only those diseases are classified as addictions, according to the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, its official manual for disease classifications. The DSM-5, the latest edition of the manual, does acknowledge gaming disorder as a disease.

There are some psychologists who reject this premise, however, and say video game addiction is an ailment on par with alcoholism and other chemical dependencies in how debilitating it is.

The debate over gaming addiction is similar to the debate over marijuana addiction in this sense. Critics rightfully point out these activities don’t produce physical dependencies. But those who believe in video game, marijuana, gambling, sex and other behavioral addictions say the people afflicted often have classic hallmarks of addiction:

  1. They continue doing the activity despite it having negative consequences in their life.
  2. They want to quit, but have trouble doing so.

You can understand the confusion, then. Gaming disorder is a problem people casually refer to as an addiction but which isn’t an addiction per se (at least not according to the textbook definition). Still, it has many of the same markers and characteristics of a formally recognized addiction, and some professionals insist it is an addiction in the literal sense.

And complicating matters further is the fact that gaming addiction oftens occurs in conjunction with other mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety and ADHD.

The downside to all of this disagreement is it prevents people with gaming disorder from receiving the help they need — so perhaps the WHO’s announcement will help lift some of the stigma.

“Until it’s recognized as a real problem by the medical community, you can’t get help for it. No one’s treating it. Insurance won’t pay for it,” says Iowa State psychology professor and video game disorder expert Douglas Gentile. “But now that it’s being recognized as a bona fide problem, hopefully now treatments will become more available.”