The World Health Organization advances its ‘gaming disorder’ classification in spite of heavy criticism


The World Health Organization has gone ahead with the inclusion of “gaming disorder” in the publication of its most recent edition of its disease classification manual. It’s expected to be adopted by member nations next year and won’t take effect until 2022. According to WHO,

“Gaming disorder is characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour, which may be online or offline, manifested by: 1) impaired control over gaming; 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 organization announced its proposal for the new classification last year and was met with considerable pushback from a wide cross-section of both industry partisans and independent academics.

You might expect groups like the Electronic Software AssociationUK Interactive Entertainment, and the Higher Education Video Game Alliance to oppose the move – HEVGA said it would “stigmatize a pastime that billions of players enjoy without issue around the world” and “warp continued research” – but it’s the academics that ought to give us pause. Multiple experts have already pointed out the flaws in the classification, noting that the American Psychological Association does not recognize gaming disorder as an addiction, that existing research does not support the conclusion, and that more research is badly needed before WHO’s conclusion should be taken seriously. A paper by three dozen academics from around the globe earlier this year admitted that there may indeed be merit in the “gaming disorder” argument and acknowledged the social benefit in recognizing it, but it also argued that there exists insufficient high-quality research undergirding the WHO’s conclusions. The researchers further noted that even academics still do not agree on what exactly constitutes gaming disorder, never mind the clinicians who will be expected to diagnose and treat such a condition.

When GIbiz interviewed WHO earlier this year, the group claimed to the publication that “there is increasing and well-documented evidence of clinical relevance of these conditions and increasing demand for treatment in different parts of the world,” but it either didn’t provide those sources or provided links that did not sufficiently support its claims. The GIbiz piece also made clear that at least one of WHO’s goals is to legitimize the idea of a disorder for those countries that refuse to fund health services related to it otherwise. The Guardian further exposed this bias, noting that WHO has admitted it’s “been under enormous pressure, especially from Asian countries,” to include the classification.

We’ve covered the subject of online games and internet addiction at length over the last few years; this piece by MOP’s Andrew Ross is worth a look if you’re interested in an overview of actual modern research on the topic. Gaming psychology expert Patrick Markey is another good follow to bring you up to speed.

Further reading:

Source: WAPO, GIbiz, CNN, BBC. Thanks, Alex and Sally.
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There was a point just before I quit playing WoW where I did a /played on each of my characters, then added up all the numbers and looked up the date I got my WoW activation email.

Turned out that I’d averaged around 8hrs per day over the 7 or so years I’d played WoW. That’s AVERAGED. There we days or even weeks I didn’t play and characters I’d deleted, but clearly not playing was the exception for me.

I lied to people about how much time I spent online. I sought any opportunity I could to log in, even occasionally playing during periods where I was “working from home”. I chose to continue to play, even after I realised it was causing issues both personally and at work.
I didn’t quit WoW to stop playing, I just switched to SWTOR. (before later quitting that).
From what I understand, those could be indications of addiction.

Was I addicted? Possibly. I was able to walk away, so possibly not.

From what I can (briefly) see, WHO are simply trying to say “it exists”. Not for everyone. Not in easy ways to spot. But to deny it’s existence is to ignore it’s harmful effects on those it does affect.

I’m sure if someone interviewed 3,500 people at a race track that allowed betting you’d find a gambling addict or two. THESE DAYS. In the past, I do wonder if people were equally dismissive and failed to spot the (now obvious) signs of people who aren’t willing to openly admit their addiction. In short, I wonder if the sample sizes have been too low and the methodology been too willing to accept conventional wisdom. But I’m not an academic, so what do I know.

To those suggesting that some form of gaming addiction should just be considered another (already existing) category of compulsion, I’d perhaps consider that could be applied to something like gambling too – yet we choose to recognise it separately. Maybe that should be true here too.

Based on personal experience, I think they’re on the right track – even if perhaps (oh, humanity – how predictable you are) people can’t agree on the details.

Kevin McCaughey

Surely us lot, of all people, know that this exists?? We have either been that person or played with that person who is hooked and is neglecting themselves and possibly family due to gaming addiction. I did it after my Mother died in 1999 and I just threw myself into EQ as a bad way of coping with grief. I have known MANY many people who seemed to be online 24/7 and are there for everything then suddenly go MIA as they have to quit what is becoming an addiction. I think it is long overdue that this has an official name. It may not (in most cases) be the most serious of mental harms, but it IS an issue that we should all be aware of since we play online games. I suspect there is a bit of denial going on here with some people (Ed included! ;)

Kickstarter Donor

Let’s not forget Heroine Hero (from South Park).
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Geoff Bogaert

In the 1800’s they locked people away in insane asylums for reading too much. Google it, it’s quite funny if you forget the horror these people were put through.

I don’t see anyone telling gym junkies that they have a disorder. It’s quite acceptable to binge watch series. Being obsessed about your job or making money is even glorified.

Some people have issues with moderation we can all agree on that. But I don’t think the people who see gaming as the problem are asking the right questions.

Then again, some games are designed with the help of psychiatrists to entrap players. There is an issue in our hobby but as usual the debate is not being done in an honest way.

Sally Bowls

I read some of the articles and I am not sure I agree with the “HEAVY CRITICISM” These days, there is almost always two sides in a story. In the CNN piece, the subhead for the against section was ‘It’s a little bit premature’ which I would not characterize as heavy criticism.

Dušan Frolkovič

That definition sounds to me like a template for compulsive behavior in general.

For all who like to play games (pun totally intended), just replace XYZ with a hobby or activity of your choice:

“XYZ disorder is characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent behavior, manifested by: 1) impaired control over XYZ; 2) increasing priority given to XYZ to the extent that XYZ takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and 3) continuation or escalation of XYZ despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Try “work” or “family” ;)

Sally Bowls

This was the way Tobacco companies argued it.

Levounis said he hoped WHO’s designation would boost research that got sidelined in the 1980s, when tobacco companies, then being sued for selling addictive and deadly products, argued that tobacco was not unique and that companies should not be penalized for selling addictive products.

“They basically were saying that any behavior can be addictive,” Levounis said. “This whole mayhem set us back maybe 20-30 years. Now there is renewed interest and excitement.”

Dušan Frolkovič

Good point.
I am right now not sure though, does tobacco also not have a physical withdrawal component? That is what i usually use to distinguish between behavioral addiction and “real” drugs.

Otherwise i find the best rule is: “Too much of something will be bad for you” (loose translation, not sure what the english proverb would be)

Bryan Turner

Oh well I guess if gaming is some sort of addiction disorder I might as well start drinking again too.


This is all the reply I can come up with for now…

WHO are you?
Who, who, who, who?
I really wanna know
WHO are you?
Who, who, who, who?
Ah, WHO the fuck are you?



Lol – why single out gaming when in the end, it’s just like any form of addiction or obsessive behavior? (IE – You could classify anything someone obsesses over to the point it affects their life a ‘disorder’.)


I support this, but for a different, perhaps even Machiavellian, reason: if gaming addiction becomes a recognized health issue, then devs adding features that use research into addiction mechanisms to get players to spend more money with the game could be regulated as a health issue.

Or, in other words, I believe this will make it easier to regulate lootboxes, and thus I’m all for it.