Journalists and academics clash over the World Health Organization’s ‘gaming disorder’ classification


Ever since the World Health Organization decided it will include its “gaming disorder” classification in its upcoming disease classification manual revision, game journalists, mainstream journalists, and academics have been enjoying a field day fighting over whether it’s justified and what the ramifications will be. As we’ve previously noted, 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.”

Eurogamer, for example, ran a story from an editor who discussed how he personally was addicted to World of Warcraft. He calls the opposition to WHO’s classification “juvenile,” suggesting that it’s really about “the fear of facing up to uncomfortable truths about game design.”

“Developers want you to become addicted to their games, which is understandable because if people are hooked on your game it suggests it’s really fucking good. The grind, loot, loot boxes, levelling up, infinite progression, prestige, battle passes, experience points, the numbers, the numbers and even more numbers, all going up – this is the guts of popular video games today. Keep us in the game, keep us engaged, keep us caring and then the recurring revenue rolls in. In this context, it seems reasonable that something along the lines of a gaming disorder might actually be a useful thing to think about. To do the ‘talk to the hand ‘cos the face ‘aint listening’ thing to the WHO on this is, well, it’s not a good look.”

Of course, it’s not just childish gamers and self-interested industry reps sounding the alarm here.

Mainstream press initially embraced the classification, some in absurd, anti-gamer ways, but longer-form pieces now emerging are more critical. The Atlantic, for example, has taken up The Guardian’s suggestion that WHO is operating under political pressure – “especially from Asian countries,” one researcher admitted – rather than in the best interests of health or science. The Atlantic’s piece further echos researchers who’ve pointed out that WHO is muddying the meaning of “addiction” and essentially “cherry-picking” gaming as a target, rather than myriad other internet activities – like smartphones.

This week, The New York Times’ science page has joined the fray with a piece that lends credence to the idea that WHO is blowing a “bad habit” out of proportion.

“I.G.D. is a case study in what happens when researchers become convinced that a bad habit has become something different: a disorder. The studies pile up and the notion takes on a life of its own – one that may or may not be persuasive to putative ‘patients.'”

The American Psychological Association remains opposed to the classification as well, specifically because of the moral panic problem that could actually hamper not just emerging tech but research into potential disorders. “The Division is opposed to these new disorders as the division does not feel that current research is able to support the inclusion of this disorder as a mental-health diagnosis and the potential for unintended negative consequences is significant,” the APA says.

And of course, the widely distributed paper by three dozen academics from around the globe earlier this year agreed there may indeed be merit in the “gaming disorder” argument and acknowledged the social benefit in recognizing it, but it also argued that WHO’s conclusions aren’t supported by sufficient high-quality research and that even academics in the field 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.

Further reading:

Source: NYT, Atlantic. Thanks, Sally.
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