Playing video games too much might lead to a real problem, World Health Organization says

Gaming disorder has been added to an international classification of diseases.

June 18, 2018, 5:14 PM

"Call of Duty," "Grand Theft Auto" and "Fortnite" are just some of the super-popular video games that have captured the imaginations of gamers around the world. But health officials have become increasingly concerned about what all those hours lost in gaming worlds might actually be doing to mental health.

This week, the World Health Organization said that gaming can be highly addictive and that "gaming disorder" will be added to the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

In the U.S., 60 percent of Americans play video games daily, according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).

PHOTO: An image made from promotional video shows the video game "Fortnite" by Epic Games.
An image made from promotional video shows the video game "Fortnite" by Epic Games.
Epic Games

Video games are designed to be riveting, the reaction designers hope for is "I couldn’t stop playing." But the desire to keep players going and wanting more is actually becoming an addiction for many.

The definition of gaming disorder

The ICD defines gaming disorder as an "impaired control," meaning that increasing priority is given to gaming. Over time, gaming -- and the continuation or escalation of gaming -- can take priority over other interests and daily activities, despite some negative consequences.

For an official diagnosis of "gaming disorder," video game playing must have an affect on work, personal or family life for 12 months.

Who are gamers?

In 2018, more than 150 million Americans are playing video games and 64 percent of American households are home to at least one person who plays video games regularly, or at least three hours per week, according to the ESA.

Those who think it's just teens playing are wrong. The average gamer is 34 years old and 72 percent of gamers are age 18 or older, according to the 2018 ESA data report.

A research study in April 2017 from the Pew Research Center found that six in 10 Americans ages 18 to 29 played video games and half of Americans ages 30 to 59 played. This survey study counted video games played on computers, TV, game consoles and mobile phones. The most popular types of video games were puzzle and strategy games, followed by adventure games and shooter games.

Some health care professionals believe that depression or anxiety could be linked to video game addiction, but the jury is out on which comes first. Are addicts more likely to become depressed or are those who are depressed more likely to become addicts?

Gaming disorder labeled as a disease

Official designating "gaming disorder" as a disease serves a number of purposes, according to Dr. Shekhar Saxena, director of WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. It may help gamers to be aware that they have a problem, encourage psychiatrists and therapists to provide treatment and increase the chances that insurance companies would cover the cost of that treatment.

How is gaming disorder treated?

Mental health specialists are trying to provide therapy and medications, using treatments for anxiety or alcoholism as a model.

Wilderness camps and rehab centers are available for gaming addicts, but can be extremely expensive. Though they might work on a given gamer, there isn’t any medical proof that they work overall.

One of these centers, reSTART, offers residential treatment for problematic Internet and video game use. The treatment approach first takes the gamer through the equivalent of detox: A digital "de-tech" period. They work to address mental health issues -- depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder (ADD), while coming to grips with factors that might lead to increased virtual connection and developing an individualized plan for how to engage with digital media in a healthy way.

Should everyone be concerned about gaming disorder?

The WHO suggests that only a small number of people who play video games will be affected with gaming disorder. For people who play video games, the advice: be aware of the number of hours in front of the game.

It becomes a problem when people start to avoid daily activities, or when it affects their social lives, physical or psychological health.

In light of the new WHO classification, perhaps there will be a new awareness that too much "Candy Crush" or "Fortnite" may not just be a quirk, it could be a real problem.