Imagine the scenario:
You’ve got an 8 am class tomorrow morning and coursework due a few hours later. But it’s 3 am and you’re grinding out loot in Destiny, getting yourself thoroughly prepped for the raid you and your friends have been planning for the weekend.
Or maybe you’ve got a presentation to give at work, but instead of showering, scoffing down a quick breakfast, and making your merry way, you’ve been on the toilet for the last forty-five minutes playing Candy Crush or Kingdom Rush until your legs went numb.
Fess up, we’ve all been there.
But even though we might think of our time spent ignoring responsibilities in favor of distracting ourselves with Videogames, as a harmless indulgence, the World Health Organisation (WHO) seems to think otherwise.
Enter “Gaming Disorder.”
Yup, in the 11th Edition of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the WHO have newly classified something called “Gaming Disorder.”
Honestly, when I first saw the scandalized headlines in the gaming press, I legit thought it was some sort of disability. I imagined the ICD-11 or DSM entries would go something like this:
- Awful K/D ratio
- Inability to perform a headshot.
- Invading a nuclear Civilization with Stone Age weapons.
- Not knowing what any of the above means.
Turns out, no.
What the WHO say the condition amounts to, is “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, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”
Okay, fair enough, I’m listening. But if any reasonable person is to accept this as an actual condition, there needs to be evidence to back it up, right?
And that’s where we run into the real problems and controversies surrounding this classification. Most of the studies done into whether “gaming” itself has any addictive properties are of either extremely low quality or come to no actual consensus (a lot of the times even contradicting each other).
In a clinical sense, addiction means something very specific. We know, for example, how drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and even gambling affect very similar and specific parts of the brain, the patterns of behavior they produce, and why.
On the other hand, we have no evidence that “gaming” (which is such a ridiculously broad and undefined spectrum of entertainment) does any of these same things, because we haven’t studied it enough.
Two billion people on the planet play video games in one form or another, from your little cousin fragging friends on Fortnite to your aunt playing Words With Friends with her pals. To say that gaming itself is responsible for addictive behaviors is to say that any and all of these people are potentially susceptible to addiction.
The studies done on “gaming disorder” are absolutely shambolic.
Unfortunately, the studies that inform “gaming disorder” as a condition are based largely on casual admissions of addiction to games by online forum members, rather than being based on the medical and scientific standard of meta-analyses done on dozens of peer-reviewed, randomized controlled trials.
Anecdotal stories of addiction can’t form the bedrock of serious scientific study. I mean, my dad has casually admitted to being “addicted” to watching Netflix serials. I had an “addiction” to playing Solitaire on my Windows 95 PC when I was in primary school.
Saying that you’re addicted to something because you enjoy doing it a lot is sort of like saying you’re depressed because Game of Thrones is ending.
You’re not actually depressed in the clinical sense, you’re just bummed out that your yearly quota of televised nudity is over. The two things are conflated because there’s an overlap between colloquial and clinical language – just because someone says they’re depressed that they burned the handi they were cooking for dinner, it doesn’t mean that they have Major Depressive Disorder.
Similarly, the flippant comments of distracted forum goers don’t amount to criteria for a real diagnosis of addiction, nor should they comprise the evidence for a serious clinical study, or the underpinnings of a clinical disorder.
Speaking to The Verge, Oxford professor Andrew Przybylski says “You could easily take out the word ‘gaming’ and put in ‘sex’ or ‘food’ or ‘watching the World Cup,’” and that such entries in the ICD “could lead to a kind of pathologization of every aspect of life.”
In line with the reasoning taken by the WHO, If I and enough of my ADHD afflicted compatriots were to start binge watch box sets of Breaking Bad, instead of taking care of work and social commitments, “television disorder” could become a legitimate clinical diagnosis.
Instead, a more reasonable angle might be that my decision to forego work in favour of an obviously more pleasurable activity should be put down to, for example, dissatisfaction with my work life, or maybe even explained as something I’m using as relief from mood disorders like depression or anxiety, which make dealing with real-life problems and activities all that much more difficult.
Games, like all other forms of entertainment such as reading or watching movies, are a convenient escape when dealing with your actual life is a tall order.
Experts that are deeply embedded into research about the effects of technology generally agree that the problem in most cases probably isn’t gaming. The gaming or binge-watching of serials or overindulgence in sugary treats is just behavior that’s likely masking more serious and widespread problems like depression and an anxiety, which are known to produce symptoms of social withdrawal and compromised functioning.
Instead of “Gaming Disorder” perhaps we should look at more fundamental problems as the cause of overindulgence in gaming, or any other easy escape.
None of this is to say that all games are completely innocent either.
Video games are just a subset of games at large, and many orthodox (not of the ‘video’ variety) games are designed to encourage compulsive and addictive behaviors. Compare Chess to Roulette, for example. The former is purely skill based and non-addictive whereas the latter is based entirely on chance and a random reward.
You don’t see penniless Chess addicts but you do see and hear of people hopelessly addicted to Roulette, Blackjack and slot machines, because those are games of chance that have strong effects on the parts of the human brain that are to do with parsing statistics, predicting outcomes, and the feeling of reward. Similarly, there is a class of video games that are created and embedded with the exact same element of chance and reward, and the people who design them do this knowingly.
Are some games exploitative?
Jonathan Blow, a prominent, outspoken (and amazing) game designer went on record in an interview with PC Gamer back in 2011 calling social games (by which he means MMORPGs like World of Warcraft) “evil.” And he was serious. Because those kinds of games are designed to randomize reward and string an increasingly thin play experience out over as long a time as possible, simply because the game operates on a subscription model.
The longer you feel compelled to play the game, the more subscription bucks the company wrings from you. Doing repetitive tasks to increase your character level and farm for better weapon drops so you can participate in high-level raids with your friends, so you can level up even more and get even better weapons, forms an endless, addictive cycle that results in stories like this:
You see these elements of chance based reward creeping into more and more games.
Loot boxes are the exact same thing. Many games try to get you to pay real money to buy sets of cosmetic or in-game items – you pay the money and then open the pack, the contents of which are randomized.
Remember buying a booster pack of Pokemon cards, only to open them and find out that you already had all the cards inside? It’s the exact same thing, and several countries (most notably, Belgium and The Netherlands), have already passed legislation to ban this type of in-game content, and rightly so because it’s exploitative and gross.
There could be some credibility to the claim that certain video games produce addictive behaviors, but, again, the conclusive evidence for generalization isn’t very sound.
If anything, this should be a call to actually study the medium, and for said studies to be carried out by people who grew up with and understand video games, rather than older generations whose only exposure to games is through uneducated televised fear-mongering about games being to blame for all of society’s ills. Perhaps instead of scapegoating, we should look closer at our collective inability to tend to the most vulnerable and alienated of society’s members, with the intention of treating the underlying cause rather than the surface level symptoms.
Then again, this article was way late because I spent most of Thursday dicking around on Spelunky. So I’m not really one to talk.
Cover image via Dota Blast