Charge your controllers everyone, video game debates just got a whole lot more interesting. The World Health Organization recently added ‘Gaming Disorder’ to their list of medical diagnoses, which means that by 2022, video game addiction will be officially recognized as a mental health condition. This addition could potentially lead to a number of changes within the medical community due to the fact that health care professionals and organizations often use the WHO’s classifications to help them decide on treatments and research.
Here is how the World Health Organization defines ‘gaming disorder’:
Gaming disorder is characterized 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. The gaming behaviour and other features are normally evident over a period of at least 12 months in order for a diagnosis to be assigned, although the required duration may be shortened if all diagnostic requirements are met and symptoms are severe.
Now obviously this definition is pretty clinical and doesn’t really address the issue in a way that most people will connect with, but the message is clear – health professionals are beginning to change the way they look at gaming and the negative ramifications that it can lead to.
It seems to me that this decision will also bring forth a lot of questions and concerns from parents due to the increased attention that mental health has received in the past few years. Seeing as though we are already on the lookout for signs of anxiety, depression, or other areas of mental health amongst young people, adding another thing to be mindful of could definitely lead us to feeling unsure about our children’s time spent with video games. The problem is amplified when we consider that the source of the problem, video games, was once thought of as a way to alleviate stress and escape from the anxieties brought on in our daily lives.
The addition of gaming disorder to the list of mental health conditions will undoubtedly cause a wide spread change in the way the medical community looks at gaming. On top of this though, I’m sure that it will also change the way that parents approach the use of video games with their own children. I’m sure that hearing video games can be linked to negative mental health will cause some parents to take drastic measures to ensure that their kids don’t ever experience this problem. However, before tossing out the PS4 or XBOX One, one may want to consider the following things regarding this new classification:
The Role of the Parent
As I stated in my Content and Playtime piece, conversations about appropriate usage needs to happen at an early age. As parents, we need to be able to confidently set expectations and guidelines about the purpose of games and the time spent playing them. If we don’t consider these as important when our kids are young, it’s going to be that much harder to stress that importance once they are older and more independent. Limiting play time and communicating the idea that gaming should be a way to unwind and relax are two ways that we can help our kids understand that video games and screen time should be a recreational activity and not a priority in their lives.
While it may hard to do this at times due to the fun and excitement that our kids experience when they play their favourite game, I believe it is absolutely necessary to be the gatekeeper of their gaming time so that they understand what their true priorities are. The ‘disorder’ defined above doesn’t just occur overnight, it is the result of prolonged use over a significant amount of time. If we set the proper expectation early, they will hopefully learn responsible gaming habits and not let it become an issue later on in their lives.
Types of Game
While we currently live in the golden age of video games in terms of narrative and gameplay, we are also living in an age where game developers are relying more and more on online modes to carry sales. The result of this is a new wave of games that focus solely on a competitive multiplayer experience. These games pit random players, sometimes as many as 100, against one another in a competitive situation that usually only last between 10-15 minutes. While these types of games (think Fortnite) are insanely popular, they also carry with them the need for just ‘one more game’. Due to their competitive nature and short game time, players can easily sink hours into a game without actually accomplishing anything.
The other unique thing that these games are doing are they are offering in-game/in-app purchases to entice players to buy better stats, equipment, and skills. These purchases will usually result in better in-game performance, so it becomes a pretty powerful motivator, especially for kids, to spend actual money on upgrades within the game. There have been enough reports of kids buying these in-game purchases using their parent’s credit card to acknowledge that this financial model is definitely having an impact on younger players.
Combine the competitive multiplayer experience with the economic model that these games rely on, and it is easy to see how someone could get wrapped up in an unhealthy cycle. With my own kids, I try to avoid having them play these types of games because I firmly believe that young kids playing games should be about fun and learning. While these games can definitely prove to be fun, their competitive nature could possibly fuel addictive tendencies in people who aren’t able to step back and see them for what they really are – games.
This is Worst Case Scenario
If you’re worried about your own children being susceptible to some type of ‘gaming disorder’, then you’ve already taken the first steps to ensure that they won’t. Most documented cases of video game addiction include family situations where the child either isn’t receiving the proper supports or has been given too much decision making independence too early. The fact that we care what our children are doing with their free time will hopefully allow us to feel comfortable with their gaming habits, but also step in and intervene if we see that they’re are becoming more than a game.
If you look at the three main points of the WHO’s definition, you’ll see that it identifies frequency, increasing priority, and continuation of use despite the occurrence of negative consequences as the three main signs of ‘gaming disorder’. All three of these can easily be avoided if we continue to talk to our children about the purpose of games and monitor their gaming habits to ensure safe and responsible behaviour.
As with anything in life, it’s about balance. While I don’t doubt that prolonged use combined with an addictive personality could lead to a potential gaming disorder, I do believe that video games can also be an enjoyable and educational part of a child’s life. With that said, it is our job as parents to make sure that they can maintain a balance in their lives so that they are not reliant on screens and video games as their sole method of entertainment. What this looks like can be different depending on the family dynamic and the personality of the child, but the approach should always go with what is best for the child, not the parent. For example, rewarding a child with some game time after homework is a great child centred approach that will go along way to teaching them about priorities and time management. On the other hand, having a phone or iPad in front of them when the family is out grocery shopping to avoid meltdowns or distractions is a parent centred approach that will probably not lead to positive gaming behaviour in the future.