Studies have proven that video games can relieve stress and act as an escape from life’s obstacles. In fact, the list of benefits that gaming has on mental health, learning, and socialization is lengthy, but like everything else in the world, there’s a too much line to cross. Too much gaming can completely reverse these benefits and do more harm than good.

It’s perfectly okay to spend your free time playing video games as a hobby (or as an esports professional). But when that video game time starts to encroach on your work time, your personal relationships, and every other thought in your brain, you may have a gaming addiction – also known as gaming disorder.

As of 2020, only a small percentage of the population in Europe and North America fit the criteria for a gaming disorder; between 1 and 10%, according to studies compiled by Healthy Gamer. In other parts of the world, gaming addiction has become more prevalent. In Japan, for example, the percentage falls between 0.7% and 27.5%. The numbers may seem small, but mental health models only recently became more equipped to diagnose and treat gaming disorder. As these models adapt alongside the rapidly rising popularity of gaming, we may see more gaming addiction cases. In this Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s take a closer look at gaming disorder’s diagnosis and treatment, and how to prevent it.

The WHO’s decision to classify gaming disorder as an addiction

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified gaming disorder as a behavioral addiction in a 2019 revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the organization’s manual for diagnosing diseases. According to the WHO’s definition, gaming disorder is considered “a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.” The short definition: video games take over your life.

The WHO’s vote to include gaming disorder in the ICD-11 sparked controversy among psychologists and gaming industry professionals. While some argued that the official classification would help addicted gamers to recognize their addiction and seek help, others argued that there weren’t enough studies on gaming disorder yet to make the classification. For example, the Entertainment Software Association’s CEO, Michael D. Gallagher, noted in a statement at the time that “the WHO’s process lacks transparency, is deeply flawed, and lacks objective scientific support.” The main concern was that the lack of scientific studies could lead to misdiagnoses.

gaming disorder

Even the American Psychiatric Association refused to provide a gaming disorder diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The organization noted instead that the condition needed to be studied further. However, the American Psychiatric Association did propose some gaming disorder symptoms to be included in studies.

Diagnosis and treatment

According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms of gaming disorder include:

  • Preoccupation with gaming
  • Withdrawal symptoms when gaming is taken away or not possible (sadness, anxiety, irritability)
  • Tolerance, the need to spend more time gaming to satisfy the urge
  • Inability to reduce playing, unsuccessful attempts to quit gaming
  • Giving up other activities, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities due to gaming
  • Continuing to game despite problems
  • Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on gaming
  • The use of gaming to relieve negative moods, such as guilt or hopelessness
  • Risk, having jeopardized or lost a job or relationship due to gaming.

A person must experience “five or more of these symptoms within a year” in order to receive a diagnosis. As American Addiction Centers noted, an addiction to gaming can also pose various physical health risks, such as “weight gain and poor posture” from sitting in front of games all day or “stress injuries” in hands and wrists.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common form of treatment for gaming disorder. This method focuses on changing behavioral and thinking patterns. Some patients may also seek group therapy or family counseling for moral support. In cases where other mental disorders are present, treatment might include medication.

Prevention

Gaming disorder is still a very rare disease. However, anyone concerned about becoming addicted to video games can prevent the disorder with some discipline. Set a limit for the amount of gaming time in a day. If needed, you can set weekly goals to cut back on gaming time. You may wish to give yourself healthy rewards for achieving a weekly goal. Additionally, to make sure you get enough sleep, you may want to remove gaming systems from your bedroom. Most of all, it’s important to have support, so ask a friend or family member to hold you accountable for your goals. If video games do begin to negatively impact your life, please seek help as soon as possible.