Video Game Addiction Is Real. Whether You like It or Not.
For years, video game addiction has been a topic of heated debate. Is it a real mental health condition, or simply bad parenting and a first world problem? Recently the World Health Organization weighed in and confirmed that it is, in fact, real, and they will proceed with an official diagnosis of 'Gaming Disorder' in the upcoming 11th Revision of their International Classification of Diseases, the ICD-11.
This decision came as no surprise to me, as I have personally struggled with a video game addiction. My addiction caused me to drop out of high school, never graduate, and while all of my friends were off to college I was living in my parents basement playing video games up to 16 hours a day. I pretended to have jobs, deceived my family, and eventually wrote a suicide note. Overcoming my addiction was the first step in turning my life around.
To others such as Chris Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University, who has previously written about how gaming is no more addictive than eating a slice of pizza - an argument I find intriguing when the U.S. is stuck in an obesity epidemic - this decision was "misguided" and "premature". Jen MacLean, the Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association described it as "extraordinarily prejudicial" against gamers, a sentiment they shared.
Sadly, those lost in the noise and outrage were gaming addicts themselves, of which there are many. Dr. Shekhar Saxena, director of WHO's department for mental health estimates between one to three percent of gamers meet the criteria. With upwards of 2.2 billion active gamers in the world, and growing at a rapid rate, even one to three percent struggling with compulsive addiction issues is staggering.
Beyond global estimates, there have already been over 50,000 gaming addicts across 92 countries who have come forward asking for help through online support communities like Game Quitters, StopGaming, and On-Line Gamers Anonymous.
This begs the question: should we help them?
Of course, that answer is yes! These are real people and human lives, not numbers on your research paper. These are your brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters, your fathers, mothers, friends, and fellow citizens courageously coming forward to ask for help. And more of them are coming.
A large-scale study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found 13% of students between grades 7–12 report symptoms of a video game problem, a 4% increase since 2007. Pew Research found 83% of teenage girls play video games regularly, and almost all boys. With the rise of esports, and the introduction of college scholarships for varsity teams, the opportunity for teenagers to justify their excessive gaming for the potential of a professional career is significant.
Further, as game developers continue to innovate with gambling-like features such as loot boxes, and their desire to profit at all costs with micro-transactions and in-app purchases, addiction rates will rise. Are we prepared for the tsunami of addiction that is coming?
We Are Not Prepared
We are not. Colleges, drooling at the gold rush of esports, continue to ignore gaming addiction challenges their students face on a daily basis. In a letter from the NASPA Annual Conference, I was told that video game addiction is "an untapped area that has been neglected and ignored by many professionals who do not have the expertise to delve deeper into this issue." The letter ended by rejecting me from speaking at the conference. The game industry, like Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol before it, continue to deny the obvious, and now, scientifically proven issue of gaming disorder.
Thankfully, the World Health Organization has taken an important first step in helping this epidemic. Next, a percentage of revenue from esports should go into addiction prevention work. This is especially important in colleges where students are struggling the most. Therapists, counselors, and mental health professionals will need proper training on how to support their clients. Finally, until Big Gaming decides to be a part of the solution, we should continue legislative pressure to hold these companies accountable for targeting vulnerable populations such as a teenagers with loot boxes.
Although video game addiction is a valid concern impacting millions of people around the world, the majority of gamers have no problem. Games can even be therapeutic, as Akili Interactive, a digital medicine company has proven. They are currently in the process of receiving FDA approval, the first for a video game. I support more of these efforts to use gaming for good, and also believe there should be opportunities for gamers to turn their hobby into a living. To recognize gaming addiction is not to pathologize passion as addiction. It's to separate between what is passion and what is addiction, to then provide affordable quality care for those who need it.