Is video ‘gaming disorder’ a real thing? WHO thinks so

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published July 18, 2018

Key Takeaways

Remember Pac-Man Fever? Now it’s official—excessive video gaming is a mental health disorder. In the recently released 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the World Health Organization (WHO) included “gaming disorder” as a new mental health condition. It’s categorized under disorders due to addictive behaviors, right after gambling addiction.

But some mental health experts, as well as members of the video game industry, think it’s just not necessary.

Gaming disorder doesn’t simply mean playing a lot of video games, according to the entry in ICD-11. The disorder involves a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior “of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning,”

Gaming disorder can occur with online or offline games, and it’s identified by specific characteristics, said Vladimir Poznyak, MD, PhD, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO.

“One of them is impaired control over gaming,” he said. “The second one is that the gaming behavior takes precedence over other daily activities and interests of a person to the extent that it results in impaired functioning or distress. And what is important is that this behavior continues in spite of these negative consequences.”

Before a diagnosis can be made, the patient’s gaming behavior and its consequences should be evident for at least a year. “I want to emphasize that a diagnosis of a gaming disorder can be only made by health professional[s] specifically trained in making such an assessment,” Dr. Poznyak added.

But months before the ICD-11 was released, some experts questioned whether such a diagnosis should be included. “Some gamers do experience serious problems as a consequence of the time spent playing video games. However, we claim that it is far from clear that these problems can or should be attributed to a new disorder,” wrote researchers in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions.

For their argument, these experts cited what they called the “low quality” of the research on the subject, the fact that the “current operationalization” is based heavily on substance use and gambling criteria, and the lack of consensus on symptomatology and assessment of problematic gaming.

Plus, they predicted, “The premature inclusion of gaming disorder as a diagnosis in ICD-11 will cause significant stigma to the millions of children who play video games as a part of a normal, healthy life.”

Said Michael D. Gallagher, president and chief executive officer, Entertainment Software Association, which represents the US video game industry, “Worldwide opposition to the WHO’s controversial and unproven classification of ‘gaming disorder’ continues to grow. The WHO’s process lacks transparency, is deeply flawed, and lacks objective scientific support. We urge this process to be halted.”

WHO acknowledged that gaming disorder affects only a small percentage of gamers. “However, people who partake in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behavior,” according to information on WHO’s website.

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