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The 'Gaming Disorder' classification: Is it premature and could it hurt gamers?

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Before I started work in the gaming industry, I received studied for and worked in psychology, criminology and forensic investigation. The move to gaming came with a lot of challenges to overcome, but as a gamer for over two decades now, it was well worth it in the end, getting to know the South African gaming community and all the wonderful people I either worked with or played games with.

In part, that is why the news that the World Health Organization has classified a new disorder, called the “Gaming Disorder” to be shocking and concerning. I will be discussing why this classification is a bit concerning, as it could be premature, too broad and even hurt gamers through stigmatization, but let’s first take a look at the classification of the “Gaming Disorder”.

What is the “Gaming Disorder”

In the World Health Organization’s ICD-11, “Gaming Disorder” is now a new mental health condition and classifying this as a separate mental health condition (as opposed to, for example, addiction) will "serve a public health purpose for countries to be better prepared to identify this issue".

The “Gaming Disorder” is characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour in either online or offline gaming. Such a diagnosis needs to meet the following three major criteria, namely:

  • Impaired control over gaming (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context);  
  • Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities;  
  • Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. The behaviour pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.  

The ICD-11 further goes into detail, explaining that:  

The pattern of gaming behaviour may be continuous or episodic and recurrent. The gaming behaviour and other features are normally evident over a period of at least 12 months in order for a diagnosis to be assigned, although the required duration may be shortened if all diagnostic requirements are met and symptoms are severe.”  

It is also believed that only 2 to 3 percent of gamers suffer from “Gaming Disorder”, while Dr Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University (who has studied video games for 30 years), reportedly estimates that Gaming Disorder affects less than 1 percent of gamers, but that many others have mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression and even autism.  

Thing’s are escalating quickly, aren’t they? That’s why it is imperative to look at the negatives surrounding this classification and how it can unfairly and negatively impact gamers.  

A broad and premature classification  

Diagnosing someone with the “Gaming Disorder” could prove extremely difficult, especially for younger people, as the classification of Gaming Disorder seems quite broad. It might not look like the case at first until you think about the pitfalls of cases on an individual basis.

Adding the “Gaming Disorder” diagnosis into the ICD-11 could be premature and stigmatize gamers, which could have a negative impact on their social functioning and overlook some important issues that have been well-documented and classified for decades.  

Anthony Bean, the executive director of The Telos Project (a non-profit mental health clinic) and licensed psychologist, reportedly told CNN that:  

“It's a little bit premature to label this as a diagnosis. I'm a clinician and a researcher, so I see people who play video games and believe themselves to be on the lines of addicted." Mr Bean continued by revealing that in his experience, some people use gaming "more as a coping mechanism for either anxiety or depression."  

This is where things get a bit dangerous. As some gamers use gaming as a coping mechanism for a variety of well-classified mental health issues, with a loose example being getting lost in an open-world game to relax and combat anxiety and societal pressures. What if this option gets taken away from gamers by their parents or loved ones in an attempt to save them, but instead, push them further into depression and their real condition remains untreated.  

A prime example of how gaming helped someone cope with a great loss is that of Danil “Dendi” Ishutin. He is one of the most famous Dota 2 players of all time and won the first The International with his team Na’Vi. His father died at a young age and he retreated even further into his gaming, focusing on one thing: To become the best. This helped him cope with his great loss and while others might have been sent into a depression, gaming helped Dendi persevere.  

Watch the video explaining the story of Dendi by theScore esports below:

It is just so dangerous to classify someone as suffering from the “Gaming Disorder” and then “helping” them by taking gaming away. There is a chance that people will overlook the core of the issues the person is facing. One of the points is also concerning when thinking about talented young esports stars: “Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities.”

Who is qualified to judge how much priority should be given to gaming instead of other life interests and what these other life interests should be? I wouldn’t want to judge this factor and how would this work when someone makes a living out of gaming or is a talented player climbing the ranks that could one day win a tournament like The International with $20 million or more at stake?  

Misdiagnosis and Stigmatization  

Above, I asked who is qualified to judge on the criteria set out by the World Health Organization and now, I would like everyone who has been to a psychologist or any other mental health professional to think about one thing. How many mental health professionals have you heard of that truly understands gaming, esports and the intricate details of competitive video games?  

I’ve seen so many people going through hell and back due to misdiagnoses of bipolar disorder, something which has been prevalent for many years and very well researched. The core issues were never attended to properly by mental health professionals and that is extremely concerning.  

This will all come down to the subjective experiences of each mental health professional and their thoughts about gaming in general. Further, the mild, moderate and severe version of the “Gaming Disorder” has not been properly detailed and defined, leaving this up to the subjective experience of the mental health professional as well.  

Even more concerning is that of the stigmatization of gaming. The classification can open up a Pandora’s Box which could lead to many gamers being stigmatized as having mental health issues. Think about it, if you are really into a new game and play it for what others consider an inappropriate amount of time, you could very well start falling into a category which others believe to be a mental health disorder.  

Doesn’t this open the door for everything to be considered a mental health illness as well? Watch too much TV (I am binge-watching 12 Monkeys right now) or stay on Facebook for too long and that could also become an issue.

Yes, addiction does exist, but then it should be classified as such if all factors and years of work have been put into the process for each individual person. We are at a big juncture here for gamers everywhere and this could very well lead to an unfair, subjective diagnosis wrapped in the stigmatization of gamers everywhere. 

Closing Thoughts  

Keep in mind that I am not saying some people don’t have an issue related to gaming. Those people might very well exist. However, the whole point here is that “Gaming Disorder” being classified as a mental health disorder could very well open the floodgates from schools, parents, friends and everyone else.  

This could very likely escalate quick, which is why I implore everyone to think critically, help those that really need it and most of all, not start stigmatizing gamers across the globe. It is imperative at this moment in time that we help each other, discuss the implications of this classification and not let things get out of control  

What are your thoughts on the classification of “Gaming Disorder” and what do you think about the points raised in this article? Let us know in the comment section below.  

Sources: ICD-11, CNN  

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"The classification can open up a Pandora’s Box which could lead to many gamers being stigmatized"

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