Martyn McLaughlin: The '˜moral panic' over videogame addiction

The World Health Organisation's classification of gaming addiction as a mental health condition demands a more mature debate, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
At what point does gaming stray into obsession and then addiction?At what point does gaming stray into obsession and then addiction?
At what point does gaming stray into obsession and then addiction?

For decades, the perception of gaming as not just a solitary pursuit, but a ruinously compulsive one, has been perpetuated by the medium’s critics. Now, they can back up their argument with a formidable source.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has listed gaming addiction as a mental health condition, the first time it has ever been classified as such.

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In its 11th International Classification of Diseases (ICD 11) – an exhaustive guide utilised by doctors and researchers to diagnose various conditions – the WHO describes the malady as “gaming disorder.”

Its definition of the addiction is a pattern of persistent gaming behaviour so severe that it takes precedence over other life interests.

Symptoms to look out for, the WHO advises, include impaired control over the frequency, intensity, and duration of gaming sessions, the increased priority an individual gives to gaming, and the continuation or escalation of gaming, despite negative consequences.

The profile of the WHO and the weight attached to its scientific rigour will no doubt reignite debate surrounding gaming’s addictive qualities. It has, after all, never been far from the surface since the home computing explosion of the 1980s, and not without good reason.

There are players out there who have, and who will, succumb to their hobby. The long narrative documenting gaming’s addictive qualities contains several grim stories, such as the 2010 case in South Korea, where a couple starved their three-month-old daughter death, while devoting hours to playing a game which tasked them with raising a virtual character of a young girl. Yet addiction, while being problematic, is also a pull. Even today, magazines such as Retro Gamer continue to assess a title’s ‘addicitivity’ alongside its graphics, sound, and presentation when recommending whether its readers should purchase it.

There is an anomaly here which has been poorly served by the breathless arguments surrounding video game addiction. The advent of online multiplayer networks, and competitive games such as the massively popular Fortnite, with their built-in reward systems, actively encourages players to take part in lengthy sessions.

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For the vast majority of people, this is great fun. There is instant gratification derived from playing titles such as Fortnite and Call of Duty, and though their carefully sculpted ‘compulsion loop’ may be hidden in plain sight, they are examples of thoughtful but under-appreciated game design.

Yet the people and companies who make these titles rarely articulate such processes, explain why they are important to their business model, or consider the responsibility they have to their customers. Instead, they are too often guilty of prickly, defensive reactions to any perceived slight or criticism, even if, in the case of the WHO classification, it is an issue which invited a mature discussion.

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This is counter-productive on the part of an industry which rails against stigmas, but is reluctant to counter well-founded criticism with its own reasoned arguments.

A good start would be to look at how the WHO has arrived at its decision, which it says was guided by a review of all available evidence, with the views reflecting a “consensus of experts from different disciplines and geographic regions”.

That its work has been exhaustive is not in doubt, but there remain a few obvious difficulties with its new classification – not least how the WHO is unable, or unwilling, to explore the point at which obsession becomes an addiction, or separate the problem of excessive gaming from excessive screen time. Despite what the WHO might suggest, there is no universally agreed barometer for diagnosing a gaming addiction.

Dr Pete Etchells, a lecturer in biological psychology at Bath Spa University, made an astute observation about the WHO’s work, describing it as policymaking shaped by moral panic, which leads to hobbies becoming “pathologised”.

“What’s next?” Dr Etchells asked. “There are studies on tanning addiction, dance addiction, exercise addiction, but nobody is having a conversation about including them in ICD 11.”

What is more, the fact the largest single demographic of gamers is boys and young men aged between 15 and 24 complicates the assumption that an addiction can be diagnosed with any ease or certainty, at least using the WHO’s benchmark.

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Its definition of gaming disorder focuses on how it encroaches on other life interests, but how do you apply that rationale to a 17-year-old with no dependents, employment, or other responsibilities?

But as well as challenging the WHO’s rationale, the wider gaming industry needs to highlight the beneficial aspects of their games. The author, Keith Stuart, has written movingly of how games have helped his autistic son, revealing how Minecraft’s pixelated world became a permissive space in which they could talk, play, and explore their creative impulses.

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That is not a counter to claims about addiction, but it is an example of gaming’s positive traits, which are all too rarely given voice. The fevered debate around gaming addiction is only going to intensify, and with the WHO’s intervention, it deserves a considered discourse. While it would be easy for the games industry to bury its head in the sand, it would be smarter for it to play a leading role in shaping the debate.