Obsessively playing video games could be the sign of a serious mental health issue, officials have said.
The condition called ‘gaming disorder’ has been listed in the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recently updated International Classification of Diseases (ICD).
Playing video games compulsively now qualifies as an official mental health condition, according to the World Health Organisation. For UK citizens, that means that the National Health Service must offer treatment, for instance, and may spur new research.
The scourge of gaming addiction is not only damaging those who show signs of it but tearing entire families apart, experts have warned.
The WHO said victims of the disorder devote so much of their time to virtual worlds that it “takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities,” playing for increasingly long periods of time despite the obvious negative consequences on their real life.
The WHO said that including gaming disorder in its official list will help doctors and families identify the symptoms better and faster.
Linking routine gaming to actual mental pathology will allow health workers “to take action to prevent suffering and save lives,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.
Dr. Shekhar Saxena, director of the WHO’s department for mental health and substance abuse, said the agency accepted the proposal that gaming disorder should be listed as a new problem based on scientific evidence, in addition to “the need and the demand for treatment in many parts of the world.”
Experts from Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, who have witnessed entire families falling apart because someone was a compulsive gamer, applauded the decision.
Obsessive gaming has even drawn comparisons to gambling. “Gamblers use money as a way of keeping score whereas gamers use points,” Dr. Mark Griffiths, professor of behavioral addiction at Nottingham Trent University, said.
The American Psychiatric Association has not yet deemed gaming disorder to be a new mental health problem. In a 2013 statement, the association said it’s “a condition warranting more clinical research and experience before it might be considered for inclusion” in its own diagnostic manual.
The group noted that much of the scientific literature about compulsive gamers is based on evidence from young men in Asia.
“The studies suggest that when these individuals are engrossed in Internet games, certain pathways in their brains are triggered in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict’s brain is affected by a particular substance,” the association said in that statement. “The gaming prompts a neurological response that influences feelings of pleasure and reward, and the result, in the extreme, is manifested as addictive behavior.”
Dr. Joan Harvey, a spokeswoman for the British Psychological Society, warned that the new designation might cause unnecessary concern among parents., who has been researching the concept of video gaming disorder for 30 years, said the new classification would help legitimize the problem and strengthen treatment strategies.
Despite the risks, the number of people believed to be suffering from gaming disorder is relatively low – about three percent of all gamers.
Griffiths guessed that the percentage of video game players with a compulsive problem was likely to be extremely small — much less than 1 percent — and that many such people would likely have other underlying problems, like depression, bipolar disorder or autism.
WHO’s Saxena, however, estimated that 2 to 3 percent of gamers might be affected.
Griffiths said playing video games, for the vast majority of people, is more about entertainment and novelty, citing the overwhelming popularity of games like “Pokemon Go.”
“You have these short, obsessive bursts and yes, people are playing a lot, but it’s not an addiction,” he said.
This has led some experts to disagree with the new classification, saying the problem is being excessively dramatized. Dr. Joan Harvey, a spokeswoman for the British Psychological Society, warned that the new designation might cause unnecessary concern among parents whose children spend a lot of time playing video games.
“People need to understand this doesn’t mean every child who spends hours in their room playing games is an addict, otherwise medics are going to be flooded with requests for help,” she said.
Others welcomed WHO’s new classification, saying it was critical to identify people hooked on video games quickly because they are usually teenagers or young adults who don’t seek help themselves.
“We come across parents who are distraught, not only because they’re seeing their child drop out of school, but because they’re seeing an entire family structure fall apart,” said Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a spokeswoman for behavioral addictions at Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists. She was not connected to WHO’s decision.
Bowden-Jones said gaming addictions were usually best treated with psychological therapies but that some medicines might also work.
Saxena said parents and friends of video game enthusiasts should still be mindful of a potentially harmful problem.
“Be on the lookout,” he said, noting that concerns should be raised if the gaming habit appears to be taking over.
“If (video games) are interfering with the expected functions of the person — whether it is studies, whether it’s socialization, whether it’s work — then you need to be cautious and perhaps seek help,” he said.