The World Health Organisation has announced that it plans to list excessive video gaming as an addiction and classify it as a disorder in its international classification of diseases.
While the announcement has caused a massive outcry from gamers around the world it is important to point out that this isn’t an official decision… yet.
“Gaming addiction” will still need to follow a formalised review process before the decision is set in stone.
Is gaming an addiction?
The international gaming industry has stepped forward to argue that the WHO made this statement without researching the industry or even speaking to key stakeholders.
However, Dr Vladimir Pozynyak, the co-ordinator for the WHO Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse spoke with Gamesindustry.biz and said the organisation chooses not to consult with the industry because they do not want interference from commercial and other entities which have a vested interest in the outcome of the process.
I’m pretty sure alcohol brands or cigarette companies have a very different view of addiction relating to their products.
But to be clear, no one has been able to medically prove that gaming can ultimately kill you so comparing the three seems disingenuous.
The debate around gaming addiction has seemed to bring us full circle. As a 13 -year-old girl I remember choosing NOT to talk about my love for The Sims or Mortal Kombat at school.
While I loved to come home and jam a multitude of games (Age of Empires was my all time favourite because it combined gaming with my love of history), I would never bring it up at school. My love for reading and obsession with Sci-Fi was bad enough, adding gaming to the mix would have been social suicide.
In my school, gamers were stereotyped as lazy, fat slobs who had no social skills and spent most of their time in the basement eating Flings.
As the world has become more connected, the stereotype seems to have shifted. These days almost anyone you meet is a gamer.
Someone, at some point, has played Candy Crush on their phone or given Fortnite a spin.
Yet, the WHO’s classification brings us right back to being the 13-year-old afraid to share a passion: it implies that a love for video games means there is something wrong with me, or you.
The term addiction tends to feel too strong in this instance but, if I play by the facts only, it could be fair.
Addiction is defined (by most mental health journals at least) as the repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it now causes, because the involvement was (and may continue to be) pleasurable and/or valuable.
Moving away from facts for a minute, let me share a personal anecdote.
More than 10 years ago my family went through an extremely traumatic event. For personal reasons I’d prefer not to over share (and I don’t think it adds value to this piece knowing the nitty gritty) but suffice to say it affected us all deeply.
My brother, at the time, seemed to take it in his stride with very little emotional reaction. However, 6 months later we had a problem.
He had started playing World of Warcraft (a popular online game) and it had consumed his life. He would return from university and switch on his PC, playing till around 3 or 4am (or until my mother went into his room and screamed at him to go to bed).
He’d struggle to wake up and during varsity holidays wouldn’t change out of his PJs. Electing to roll out of bed at 2 in the afternoon only to resume playing without so much as a second glance at the outside world.
His marks at school suffered, he hardly spoke to anyone (unless it was to shout at us to stop berating him to get off the computer) and he became consumed by the game.
One day he just stopped playing. He simply exited the game and stopped. Suddenly he was back and we now jokingly refer to his six month Warcraft stint as “the dark ages”.
My brother still plays video games and is an avid gamer. He now has two degrees, a successful career and a great group of loyal friends (who stuck by him despite him cutting them out for Warcraft a few years back).
Was he addicted to World of Warcraft? Yes. Was the game the problem? No.
Gaming, for him and for so many of us, is not only a form of entertainment but also escape. It is a few hours where we can escape from the real world and travel to a place of fantasy.
Our fantasy tests us, forces us to focus and generally allows us to switch off all those other thoughts that don’t necessarily pertain to helping us get to the next level.
I travel a considerable amount for my job (which, ironically, involves commentating on video games). I spend large stints away from home and my loved ones in foreign countries. So what do I do in my down time in another place?
It shuts off the homesickness and sadness for a while and allows me to focus on the screen rather than the pang of depression in my heart.
On paper, gaming might be the addiction but the real problem that is almost forgotten is the mental struggles that leads one to excessive video gaming.
For my brother, it was the anguish over a personal experience that he wasn't ready to confront or deal with.
Excessive gaming allows me to run away from depression and stop myself from being consumed by it.
For so many who have publicly spoken out about gaming addiction you’ll find their stories tend to include links to addiction, ADHD, social anxiety and the like.
The WHO needs to put stuff in boxes that conform to facts only (these were the same guys that said eating bacon could increase a person’s risk of cancer. It didn’t matter if the risk was somewhat tiny) but I don’t think it is fair to simply label social or mental issues as “gaming addiction” but rather as a far more complex and layered disorder that needs to be dealt with.
Much the same way drug addictions, eating disorders and alcoholism point to far greater illnesses that require assistance.
As a gamer I think the WHO has set us back. Their label will cause many 13-year-old girls, like me, to shy away from exploring a form of entertainment they might love.
WATCH: Fortnite fails on Nintendo Switch
More importantly, I worry that the label will cause people to trivialise real mental health issues and illnesses as “gaming addictions” and laugh them off.
So if the review committee votes in favour of “excessive gaming disorder” I do hope it is given the same respect as the company it keeps on the list.