The Omnic View: Gaming Disorder
Every once in a while, major news outlets will run a story on gaming that they deem to be relevant to the general public. It happened with the start of the Overwatch League, as well as with the controversy over loot boxes and gambling. This month’s big story has to do with the World Health Organization, which recently classified “gaming disorder” as an official and legitimate illness. While the condition definitely exists and their reasoning is perfectly sound, there’s no doubt that broadcasting the story will result in legions of concerned parents. Do most people need to worry about gaming disorder? The answer is no.
Commonly known as the WHO, they are one of the world’s leading authorities on all manner of physical and mental illnesses, and they often combine their findings and statistics into the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). Standardizing information and statistics in one manual allows doctors and physicians from around the world to diagnose patients the same way and reference data from other patients and healthcare providers. In the newest edition of the ICD, gaming disorder will be included for the first time, which allows more information to be collected about the condition and presents it as an official diagnosis. This is wonderful news–it means that those who really need treatment will be able to access standardized care. Yet, as usual, it’s likely to be blown out of proportion by well-meaning news outlets and parents.
The symptoms of gaming disorder follow the symptoms of most other addictions, including alcohol and drug misuse. Are you or someone you know spending endless hours gaming, to the point where other responsibilities (work, school) are ignored? Are your relationships struggling because you can’t seem to get away from gaming? Have you dropped out of school just to game? If so, you may be suffering from gaming disorder, and you should definitely seek help. However, Dr. Joan Harvey of the British Psychological Society makes the important point that “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.” It’s important that family and friends who are concerned about someone take the time to speak to them and examine their habits before jumping to conclusions; otherwise, this could quickly become the next “Video game violence causes real-life violence!”
Just as some who play violent video games are drawn to them because of their interest in violence, some who become affected by gaming disorder start because of other problems. Children who are bullied or otherwise ostracized are at a greater risk; those who struggle socially may see games as a place where they can retreat from the real world. Those with autism often enjoy gaming because it is a place with a structured set of defined rules where the outcome of an action is always known. The most important thing you can do for someone with gaming disorder is offer support and listen to them if they choose to open up to you.
It’s highly unlikely that this will happen to someone you know; the WHO estimates that no more than 3% of gamers are affected by gaming disorder, while other estimates put the number at lower than 1% of all gamers. However, it’s inevitable that parents will begin to pull their children away from gaming because of the concern stirred up by this classification. If you’re a concerned parent, the first thing to do is not jump to conclusions. Keep an eye on what your child plays and how much they play. If you’re unfamiliar with video games, do a little research. Are they interacting with others online, or do they prefer single-player games? Are they neglecting schoolwork or friends in order to play? Only sit them down to have a discussion if you’re genuinely concerned that they are at risk of developing gaming disorder.
Perhaps more concerning is the continued demonization of video games that this will likely cause. Since their inception, games have been the target of stereotyping and vitriol from all directions. The aforementioned “violent games make kids violent” has continually been debunked, yet it still resurfaces every time a mass shooter is found to have enjoyed Call of Duty or similar games. Moreover, the classification of games by many as “children’s play” hurts those who really do struggle with gaming disorder and are trying to get help. Not taking gaming or the disorder seriously causes individuals to suffer in silence and feel as though they won’t be taken seriously. The truth of the matter is, there’s nothing wrong with gaming. Moderation is key: if you’re gaming for 16 hours a day, that might not be healthy. Like alcohol, gaming is great fun in small doses; problems arise when it’s used to avoid other problems or pursued to the exclusion of everything else.
It’s important to note that esports professionals, who often practice for 8-12 hours a day, do not necessarily suffer from gaming disorder. Whether you’re a musician, a football player, or a competitive Overwatch star, competing at that high of a level requires constant practice and the honing of skills. QA specialists, also known as game testers, also play games for hours a day, looking for bugs and issues with games prior to release. For those for whom gaming is their job, long hours in front of games are not unusual. However, it is true that the Overwatch League in particular should be more aware of players’ physical and mental health during strenuous training and long seasons, particularly after several stress-related outbursts from players.
No disorder is “one size fits all,” and gaming disorder is no different. Rather than panicking or banning our kids from enjoying games, we should look more carefully at what we’re playing and what role it has in our life. In moderation, gaming is a healthy hobby that can help improve hand-eye coordination, social skills, and critical thinking, among other things. The WHO has made a smart move by giving it an official definition and moving toward standardized care, ensuring that those who suffer will be able to access help more easily. For everyone else, it might be good to remember that it was once thought that watching television would destroy kids’ brains.
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