Gaming addiction can now be treated on the NHS

Gaming addiction is now officially classified as a mental disorder, meaning those who fall under the definition can now receive support and care from the NHS.

Gaming addiction can now be treated on the NHS

The decision comes as the World Health Organisation (WHO) finally updated its International Compendium of Diseases (ICD). Last updated in 1992, the ICD is an important guide to help doctors and health practitioners diagnose and treat diseases. An update to the ICD was announced back in January but, as of today, the new document comes into effect.

Two terms for games-related problems are included in the compendium: “hazardous gaming” and “gaming disorder”. The former is filed under a section of factors that may influence a person’s health status, and notes the potential “neglect of other activities and priorities”. The latter forms part of a section on addictive behaviours, and is described as a pattern “of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning”.

The inclusion of video game addiction into the ICD is due to increasing belief that young players are becoming hooked on video games. Such a definition is clearly a contentious subject, with Stetson University psychology professor Christopher Ferguson telling the Huffington Post that the WHO’s decision is a “junk diagnosis”: “Of course, any fun activity can be overdone but there’s little evidence to suggest video games are more addictive than other behaviors,” he argued.

Another concern voiced by Dr Richard Graham, lead technology addiction specialist at the Nightingale Hospital in London, to the BBC is that the WHO diagnosis “could lead to confused parents whose children are just enthusiastic gamers.”

What is gaming addiction disorder?

The guidelines outlined in the ICD state that for a diagnosis to be made, the victim must be “of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.” Interestingly, the WHO expect a patient to have suffered from their disorder for at least a year.

According to Dr Vladimir Poznyak of the WHO’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse department, between 1% and 6% of adolescents and young people may be afflicted by gaming addiction – even if they were not yet as diagnosed.

Naturally, the games industry disagrees with the WHO’s decision and disputes its evidence.

“Just like avid sports fans and consumers of all forms of engaging entertainment, gamers are passionate and dedicated with their time,” the Entertainment Software Association – which represents the US game industry – said in a statement. “The World Health Organisation knows that common sense and objective research prove video games are not addictive. And, putting that official label on them recklessly trivialises real mental health issues like depression and social anxiety disorder, which deserve treatment and the full attention of the medical community. We strongly encourage the WHO to reverse direction on its proposed action.

In a somewhat perverse way, the WHO don’t consider social media or internet addiction as part of its updated ICD. The medical body decided that there wasn’t sufficient enough evidence to justify claims as a disorder. It’s not known if this is due to the monetary and family aspects of gaming addiction versus those of internet addiction, or if it simply just wasn’t considered due to its size and scope.

Are video games really addictive?

While research on the adverse effects of excessive game playing is nebulous, there is certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest that the positive feedback loops of many games can encourage addictive behaviours. The games industry recently faced criticism for its general approach to “loot boxes” as a reward for players, for example, and whether they constituted a form of gambling.

Perhaps the crucial part of the WHO’s decision is centred on how it draws the line between healthy and unhealthy levels of gaming. In its draft, the new ICD says that abnormal behaviours must be evident “over a period of at least 12 months” for a diagnosis to be assigned, although this time frame can be shortened if “symptoms are severe”.

The beta draft of the new ICD described “hazardous gaming” as follows:

“Hazardous gaming refers to a pattern of gaming, either online or offline that appreciably increases the risk of harmful physical or mental health consequences to the individual or to others around this individual. The increased risk may be from the frequency of gaming, from the amount of time spent on these activities, from the neglect of other activities and priorities, from risky behaviours associated with gaming or its context, from the adverse consequences of gaming, or from the combination of these.”

The draft described “gaming disorder” as follows:

“Gaming disorder is characterised by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour (‘digital gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’), which may be online (i.e., over the internet) or offline, manifested by: 1) impaired control over gaming (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context); 2) increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and 3) 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 pattern of gaming behaviour may be continuous or episodic and recurrent.”

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