Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) created a new disorder under its section on substance abuse and addictive behaviours. In an official update to the International Classification of Diseases, WHO has now added ‘gaming disorder’. This describes someone with an unstoppable desire to play video games. However, is it fair to class excessive video gaming as a true addiction?
Certainly, WHO’s new categorisation has stirred controversy, mostly and not surprisingly in the gaming industry. Like many pastimes, most people can enjoy the things they love and separate them from other parts of their lives, whether that’s using a website such as NetBet.co.uk, using social media like Facebook, or even sports such as football. Does not being able to make this separation and causing harm to one’s own life mean something should be classified as an addiction?
WHO’s classification defines video game addiction as a preoccupation that impairs work, social, or academic life for at least a year. It’s worth noting the world health body is not alone in its assessment, with the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (from the American Psychiatric Association’s clinical bible) detailing ‘internet gaming disorder’.
Much of the pushback has come from classifying what is essentially a hobby as something that can become addictive. Perhaps a good way to approach the subject is to take a look at what traditional mechanisms have pushed the concept of addiction:
- Scientific/medical – Research has shown excessive consumption of substances (alcohol, drugs, and even food) can cause physical and biological issues.
- Religious – Traditionally religion would say certain behaviors were moral transgressions, such as consuming too much alcohol.
- Colloquial – This is where the term addiction becomes a grey area as people use it colloquially to define almost any fixation. Video gaming and even gambling fall under this definition. However, it remains controversial that someone can be addicted to a behavior.
Of course, it is expected that the gaming industry would push back against WHO placing a possibility of addiction on video games. That said, there is some scientific backing that argues video gaming itself is not the addictive component but merely a symptom. Arguments against the idea of video game addiction include:
- Overplaying video games is not addictive and instead is a symptom of a wider problem the person has, such as anxiety or depression.
- The concept of video game addiction has not been grounded in science and is more of a moral concern (see colloquial placement of addiction above).
- If video gaming can be an addiction, then so can any hobby. Would someone who over-exercises, goes fishing too much, or likes baking cakes daily, be classified with addiction? Opponents say turning hobbies into possible addictions will result in numerous false treatments being developed that won’t solve the underlying problems of an individual.
Like many controversial subjects, the truth probably lies away from the extremes of the argument and in the grey area in the middle. There is a growing collection of research that shows behavioral addictions are very much a thing, although how problematic they are across the population may be overblown.
Video games are causing addiction, but the problem is not an epidemic. Instead, a small subsection of people are affected and their lives are being harmed by excessive use of games.
Helen Bradfield did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.