The World Health Organization released their 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) on Monday, June 18, and there’s been a lot of talk about one of the newest classifications: gaming disorder. Characterized by addictive symptoms while not relying on a chemical substance, gaming disorder is being considered in the same realm as gambling disorder, one of the other conditions that present addiction-like symptoms without a psychoactive drug present. Now, if you’ve read many of my articles, you’re probably expecting a contrarian opinion, railing on for too long about how the WHO doesn’t know what they’re doing and how video games shouldn’t be treated like gambling or cocaine. Surprisingly, I like this ruling. I’ll admit, at first I was actually infuriated about it, thinking that “gaming disorder” was classified differently from addictions like gambling and drugs. Then I did some research and found out that video game disorder is considered in the same category as gambling disorder. Now hear me out.
The same way that there are broke slot junkies sitting in casinos and video poker parlors spending the last dregs of their paychecks, there are video gamers calling in sick from work so they can get that last level and just finish one more raid. This addictive behavior is unhealthy; it doesn’t matter what the medium is, if there’s something that you pour yourself into to the detriment of the rest of your life, it’s unhealthy. And the WHO isn’t targeting video games specifically. The diagnosis of gaming disorder requires a pattern of behavior over at least 12 months, not just a few hours or days. If you call in sick Thursday and Friday to play the new World of Warcraft expansion, you’re not an addict, even if your wife thinks you’re an idiot. Taking Memorial Day weekend to ignore your in-laws and lock yourself in your room with Fortnite and a case of Red Bull may be strange and worrisome, but the WHO doesn’t consider you an addict (yet). It takes a year or more of repeated worrisome behavior to be considered for this kind of diagnosis, just like how a weekend at Vegas doesn’t make you a gambling addict, but when you bankrupt yourself every few months and ask your friends for more money it does.
I agree with this kind of diagnosis. Video games don’t necessarily do bad things to people, just like how gambling in moderation is a fun pastime. But everything can be taken too far, and if you are invested in video games to your own detriment, you cross the line from fun pastime to dangerous dependence. Video games offer a lot of different fantasies to their players, and those fantasies can allow people to escape the real world and delve into an unhealthy state where these players ignore reality in favor of their perceived priority. I think it’s decidedly harder to fall into this sort of addictive state due to video games rather than something like gambling, where the immediate payoff is real and consequential, but video games have serious addictive potential. Gamers die in internet cafes across Korea and China, while in Britain, a man claims disability while, as he claims, “sit online 13/15H a day on 2 accounts, I sleep for around 7-9” (his account has since been deleted). These individuals have serious mental health problems that manifest in strange and dangerous ways, but some would be hesitant to diagnose their condition as “video game disorder”.
While the WHO is taking a stand and classifying video game addiction as a specific issue, there are some psychologists who would rather focus on the causes of that addiction rather than the addiction itself. Anthony Bean of the Telos Project, a mental health clinic in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, would rather refrain from addressing this issue as a separate disorder from generalized addiction. He claims that video game addiction is in response to other mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and so would rather not go down the slippery slope of classifying specific addictive disorders. And, he also says, different genres of video games appeal to different types of people. Someone who plays Minecraft 24/7 is different from the Call of Duty player who refuses to eat. As I said before, video games off a lot of different fantasies to their players, and so these players are gaming for different reasons. Lumping it all under one disorder doesn’t take individual care of what and why the issue is. Finally, Bean is worried about going down a slippery slope of addictive disorders. His concern is that once food, gambling, and now video games are all addictive disorders, anything could possibly be claimed as a new diagnosis. Workaholic? Might be an addiction. Do you buy mechanical keyboards until your savings is dried up and your girlfriend has left you? You might be an addict. Bean doesn’t want all these other peripheral problems to come to the forefront as an entirely new disorder, so he’d rather table video game disorder and treat the underlying mental health issues instead.
I’m not a fan of people who use the slippery slope argument. There’s a reason that it’s one of the most commonly pointed out logical fallacies. Claiming that everything can now be classified as an addictive disorder now that video games are on the list is absurd. Pathological gambling was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980. Anorexia and Binge Eating were added to the DSM in 1952 and 1987, respectively. Now, three decades later, video game disorder has been declared a legitimate diagnosis by the ICD. It’s doubtful that other addictive disorders are going to start popping up in medical diagnoses just because video game addiction is a diagnosis. But I agree with Bean’s other point. Depression and anxiety hit gamers hard, and they turn to something familiar and comforting in their time of need. I’m sure many video game addictions can be turned for the better by addressing the underlying mental health concerns rather than classifying it as an addiction. You don’t need a twelve-step program for the kid who doesn’t want to go to school and instead plays video games all day. You need to help him overcome his anxiety and help him face the problems that make school such an unattractive prospect. For some, like the Taiwanese gamers who died in their chairs at internet cafes, a more serious rehabilitation program may be needed. But for the majority of those who struggle with video game addiction, this new diagnosis may bring increased awareness and speedy help.