As part of an upcoming update to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the World Health Organization (WHO) plans to recognize "gaming disorder" as a disease.
This news comes roughly six months after the idea of recognizing gaming addiction in the ICD was first floated at the end of 2017, sparking a lot of conversation (and a bit of anger) about what actually qualifies as an addiction to video games.
Fans of the interactive medium are, unfortunately, used to gaming being blamed for any number of societal ills. School shooting? Blame video games. Men aren't working as many hours? Blame video games. So when the term "gaming disorder" starts getting thrown around, naturally we're going to bristle and put our guards up.
Honestly, though, this move by WHO seems logical, and as long as the "gaming addiction" label isn't abused, it could be good for society as a whole.
Few gamers, I think, would deny that video games can be addictive. In fact, the word is often used as a selling point for certain games, implying that the experience is so fulfilling that you won't want to stop playing. The Civilization series of historical turn-based strategy games, for example, are famous for making you say to yourself "just one more turn..." until the next thing you know, it's 3 a.m.
But we use "addicting" here in the same way we call some TV shows addicting, or some ice cream flavors addicting. It's hyperbole — shorthand for saying we really like something and want more of it. If your friend says they binge-watched all of Westworld's second season in a single weekend, you likely don't jump to the conclusion that they need professional medical help.
Plenty of people can go to Vegas for a weekend without falling into a hole of gambling addiction. Many people can have a couple beers at a party without becoming alcoholics. Similarly, the fact that somebody plays video games does not mean they will become addicted to gaming.
The WHO, to its credit, seems to recognize this. According to Variety, Dr. Shekhar Saxena, the director of the WHO's Department for Mental Health and Substance Use, said the number of game players who need to be treated for gaming disorder is a "small minority."
A story from The Washington Post about the disorder says that "the agency and other experts were quick to note that cases of the condition are still very rare, with no more than up to 3 percent of all gamers believed to be affected." One expert who has been studying gaming addiction for 30 years, Dr. Mark Griffiths, guesses that the number of players affected by a legitimate addiction is less than 1 percent, according to the Post.
That's where the line needs to be drawn, and we need to be firm about it. We cannot allow the term "gaming disorder" to be abused by people who would unfairly treat video games differently than they treat things like TV, movies, sports or books.
Are you angry at your girlfriend for playing Fortnite all weekend with her friends instead of spending time with you? That doesn't mean she has gaming disorder. Are your kids always excited to hop on the Xbox after school, and they want to stay there for hours? That's not necessarily addiction, it just means they're having a blast with a specific form of entertainment.
A story from the BBC about gaming addiction features one Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, saying, "If you find yourself gaming late into the night, avoiding going to sleep in order not to miss out, this could be problematic." Sure, it could be a problem, but when was the last time you heard a psychiatrist warn you against staying up late to read a book or watch a movie? I've certainly fought sleep to finish the next chapter in a good novel. Am I addicted to books?
Speaking from experience, you can grow up spending 20 hours a week playing video games and go on to have a perfectly healthy, normal adulthood — where you might still spend a lot of time gaming. That's OK.
At the same time, addiction is a very real, very dangerous mental problem that can take any number of forms, and it is important to be vigilant about it. There is nothing inherently wrong or misguided about the WHO's newfound recognition of gaming addiction, so long as we're careful about who we diagnose with it.