Gaming Disorder, Science Fiction or Science Fact?

Video game addiction is a controversial subject amongst health experts. For a long time it was rejected by many psychologists and the American Medical Association(AMA) – yet recently, World Health Organization (WHO) now recognizes a condition known as gaming disorder.

WHO gave the following definition for gaming disorder:

“A pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities […] For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.”



While many gamers and tech journalists were quick to defend video games, the WHO’s classification is not entirely without basis. The WHO is not stating that video games are addictive, but that a small percentage of people can become addicted to gaming – the same way a person can become addicted to gambling or pornography or drugs. So it’s highly unlikely you’ll become addicted to The Impossible Quiz – though maybe Stickman Rope has an increased risk. 

Is a Gaming Disorder Classification Necessary?

The WHO’s argument is that there needs to be research into how to treat people who do suffer from their definition of gaming disorder. It really has nothing to do with video games, per se, but is rather about treating addictive personalities – video games just being one of many things these people can become addicted to.  

Based on several research studies from AJP (American Journal of Psychiatry), NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), and others, only 1 to 3% of gamers are “at risk” to develop a gaming disorder problem. As we mentioned before, this can apply to other kinds of “addictions” like porn and gambling, or even drug use – only 8% of opioid painkiller users become addicted, for example.

What makes it just a bit concerning, however, is the sheer number of gamers in the world. There are currently around 2.3 billion gamers all around the world, according to Statista – so even 2% of 2.3 billion is 46 million. That’s a lot of people who could potentially suffer from “gaming disorder”, hence why WHO came up with this classification, and is pushing for research into it.

A cynic might say WHO is going after low-hanging fruit for easy research funding contributions (we’re not, just playing devil’s advocate). WHO is generally financed by the United Nations, as all member states pay “assessed contributions” – this only makes up 25% of WHO’s revenue. The second source of revenue is voluntary contributions, but not from private citizens. It’s actually voluntary contributions from governments who contribute beyond their requirement.

It’s fairly doubtful that WHO is targeting increased funding from government contributions. Yes, individual politicians tend to hype up scares about the video game industry’s influence on society at large. This is typically local politicians and policy-makers who drum up social panics to appeal to family-value voters.

It’s a strategy that tends to work well for the politicians in some cases, but it’s largely irrelevant in this scenario. There’s pretty much no evidence that individual politicians are contributing to WHO, or vice versa. Furthermore, WHO was pretty careful to keep things in context, mentioning that “gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities”.

“Video games raise dopamine levels about roughly the same amount as eating a slice of pizza.”

Thus, there does seem to be a bit of knee-jerk reaction to the classification, from the gamer community. It becomes a personal issue, where people defend video games because they are not addicted. Yet as a gamer myself, I can easily imagine an addictive-type personality being unable to pull themselves away from the screen.

A Symptom, Not A Cause

It is not the video games causing the addiction, but a range of other psychological issues – depression, anxiety, and antisocial personality disorders can individually contribute to an increased risk for addiction. In such cases, often the person is unable to pull themselves away from pleasure-inducing activities that alter dopamine levels in the brain. Given that context, anything that offers a reward / pleasure can potentially become addicting, video games included.

This Psychology Today article “Sense and Nonsense About Video Game Addiction” points out research that video games raise dopamine levels about roughly the same amount as eating a slice of pizza – nowhere near the same level of taking drugs like cocaine or amphetamine. Video games also activate many other parts of the brain, and can lead to improved cognitive benefits.

At the end of the day, whether or not WHO was technically right for creating the gaming disorder classification, its certainly possible that certain personalities can become “addicted” to video games, in the same way a person can develop an eating disorder or other behavioral addictions. If WHO is able to better research serious psychological disorders through observing the very tiny amount of people that can become addicted to gaming, all the more power to them.


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