Experts disagree with WHO gaming addiction diagnosis
An expert in biological psychology has criticised the World Health Organisation’s recent decision to class gaming addiction as a mental health disorder, arguing that the decision risks pathologising a hobby that the vast majority of people can enjoy harmlessly.
In January this year, the WHO announced that their 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) would include guidance on ‘gaming disorder’. This is defined as “a pattern of gaming behaviour (“digital gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities […] and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”
Some countries had already begun to treat compulsive and excessive gaming as a public health crisis facing children and young adults, while some have stepped up their services in response to the WHO’s advice. The UK’s NHS agreed this month to fund an internet addiction centre in London that will focus initially on gaming disorders. The clinic’s founder, psychiatrist Henrietta Bowden-Jones commented, “I feel a moral duty on behalf of the NHS to provide the evidence-based treatment these young people and their families need.”
These developments have not been without controversy, however. Aggrieved, keen gamers argue that their hobby is unfairly being singled out as unhealthy – and some experts are agreeing with them. Increased concentration, improved mental dexterity and a heightened ability to process visual information are some of the benefits research suggests that playing video games offer. Many argue that playing video games should be seen as a similar (active) activity to reading, and not compared to the (passive) nature of watching TV.
On the other hand, the violence – and the casual way in which it’s often treated – in some popular video games, such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite, has attracted critics. There’s a pervasive suspicion that simulated violence both desensitises and inspires developing minds. In response to the Parkland school shooting, US President Donald Trump commented, “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”
It’s these kinds of statements in particular that are frustrating those who believe that the nervousness around this new(ish) technology is overblown and premature.
Of the WHO’s inclusion of gaming disorder in the ICD-11, Dr Peter Etchells of Bath Spa University said in a lecture at the Science Media Centre in London, “I don’t think policy should be informed by moral panics”.
The WHO’s announcement is far from a sweeping condemnation of all gaming. It states, “the behaviour patterns 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 in evidence for at least 12 months.” However, the fear is that in the current climate of widespread concerns about screen time, (which is also a subject of contentious debate among experts) the classification will act as a slippery slope.
The WHO’s statement also acknowledges that only a small proportion of gamers are likely to be affected, but advises people to be aware of the amount of time they spend gaming and any negative changes to their health or social habits they can trace back to the pastime.
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