How much Mario is too much?
There’s a certain point at which a hobby can become too much.
The World Health Organisation is considering adding “gaming disorder” to the list of mental health conditions in its next update of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), according to a beta draft of the document.
The 11th version of the ICD is not yet set, but the addition would be a recognition that a pastime can become problematic if it leads to a form of addictive behaviour.
Specifically, the draft’s language states that gaming behaviour could be a disorder if it meets three characteristics: if a person loses control over their gaming habits, if they start to prioritise gaming over many other interests or activities, and if they continue playing despite clear negative consequences.
This would add gaming to a list of other behaviours that can become problematic if people lose control over them, including gambling and disorders related to the use of substances like alcohol, marijuana, caffeine, or nicotine.
Gaming covers any activity from playing Two Dots on your iPhone to sitting down in front of a custom-built gaming PC for hours.
Putting that category of activities on the list would give doctors and mental health professionals a way to officially diagnose someone with the condition.
But to be clear, this doesn’t mean that all gaming is addictive or could lead to a disorder. It’s only if the behaviour is severe enough “to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning,” according to the draft.
In other words, it has to be intense enough to harm personal relationships or interfere with school or work.
The psychology of games
The psychological community has been debating whether gaming is addictive enough to be described as a disorder for some time.
So far, the American Psychiatric Association has declined to classify gaming addiction as a disorder but has said it merits further research.
Part of the problem is how to distinguish between simply spending a lot of time playing games and actual addictive behaviour.
Scientists need to “establish a clear-cut distinction between someone who may use games excessively but non-problematically and someone who is experiencing significant impairment in their daily lives as a consequence of their excessive gaming,” a group of researchers from Nottingham Trent University in the UK wrote in a paper published last summer in the Journal of Addictive Behaviour.
There are plenty of stories about individuals whose gaming behaviour has become problematic – people have gotten so caught up in online games that they have ruined relationships and lost jobs.
Compulsive gaming and problematic substance use can also go hand in hand.
But problematic gaming may also serve as a dysfunctional coping mechanism for some, according to the Nottingham Trent researchers.
Someone who is struggling with depression or anxiety may turn to gaming or abuse substances like alcohol as a way to relieve those symptoms.
Benefits and harms
Figuring out the degree to which playing games is harmful (or helpful) is all about context, according to Bruce Lee, an associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Lee wrote in a column for Forbes that gaming habits can also be psychologically beneficial.
On the positive side, research has shown that game playing can relieve stress, improve problem-solving abilities, and enhance traits like eye-hand coordination.
Technologies that we think of as for gaming, like virtual reality, can also be used in psychological therapy.
Yet people can struggle to find a healthy balance with gaming.
Researchers are still trying to understand the activity’s risks and effects, since it has only recently become such a common pastime – 63 percent of US households contain at least one “frequent gamer,” a trait that didn’t exist a couple of generations ago.