While the allegedly nefarious influence of video games has been debated for quite some time, the World Health Organization recently classified ‘gaming disorder’ as a mental health condition. Some have gone further and refer to the phenomenon as ‘gaming addiction’, thus making the association with established addictions like drug addiction. This raises the question of whether gaming disorder/addiction is a real thing.
One obvious point of concern is that some of those who are championing the classification stand to profit greatly from offering expensive treatments for this disorder. For example, reSTART charges $550 a day for the most intensive part of their treatment program. It is also presumably just a matter of time before pharmaceutical companies start producing medication for the alleged disorder. There is also a push to extend insurance coverage for the alleged disorder, which would really open the floodgates for profit.
It is important to note that the fact that some supporters of the classification stand to benefit financial from this classification does not prove that the classification is in error. To make an inference from the bias of the person making a claim to the claim being false would be a version of the classic ad hominem fallacy and thus poor reasoning. However, the fact that a person is an interested party in a matter does provide grounds for skepticism. This is especially relevant when the person asserts that they are right because of their expertise—bias is one factor that can transform a reasonable appeal to authority (that a claim is true because an expert says it is true) into a fallacious appeal to authority. At this point I should note that I am an avid gamer, hence I also am potentially biased in this matter—after all, who wants to admit that a favorite activity could lead to a disorder or addiction?
One obvious problem with settling whether gaming disorder/addiction is real is to work out proper definitions of “disorder” and “addiction.” In normal usage, people tend to throw around the term “addiction” without much rigor. For example, people often talk about being addicted to donuts or other delicious foods. On this vague concept of addiction, then video games can be addicting like donuts. That is, people will play the games far more than is good for them and do so even when playing is detrimental to their lives beyond gaming. But, of course, informal usage is not the final word on medical matters.
The easy and obvious approach is to go with the standard medical definition and hope that this appeal to the authority of the experts is a strong argument. On the face of it, there could be such a thing as gaming addiction. After all, almost any behavior could become warped in a way that meets the usually characteristic of addiction, such as inability to reliably abstain, a loss of control, cravings, and so on. For example, I have seen people become so obsessed with running that their behavior would seem to match up with the characteristic behavior of addicts. One problem with this approach is that anything could be an addiction, which makes the term “addiction” rather less useful. Another point of concern is that small samples of addiction like behavior and anecdotes from non-experts (like me) fail to support the claim that there is an actual medical condition of gaming addiction. What is needed is, of course, an adequate study to establish whether there is such a thing or not.
One 2017 study indicates that gaming addiction is not real. The study indicates that there are problems connected to gaming, but that gaming disorder seems to more of a symptom of other problems. To be more specific, the study indicates that gaming is a displacement activity rather than an addiction itself. To use an analogy, a person who drinks only because of their life problems is not addicted to alcohol, although they could certainly seem to have a drinking problem. Naturally, there are those who disagree with this study, contending that such a survey-based study will have the usual defect that people tend to underreport bad behavior and to present themselves in a better light. These are reasonable concerns.
It is also worth pointing out that there might be a gaming disorder while there is no gaming addiction. There are, after all, disorders that are not addictions. This is part of the problem of defining the terms, which is a universal problem of meaning. This also ties back to the problem of authority raised earlier; namely the challenge of deciding who gets to determine how things are classified.
Since I am not an expert in the field of psychology, I will not venture to assert that my view is correct. However, it does seem problematic to claim that gaming addiction exists, at least when rigorous standards are applied. There are, one must admit, certainly problems that can arise from excessive gaming—or perhaps it is that excessive gaming arises from problems.