It's not simply the occasional Call of Duty marathon.
Video games can be a huge time suck—it’s easy to get caught up in a gaming session and suddenly realize six hours have gone by. And there's not necessarily anything wrong with that—as long as you balance it with something healthier, like a long hike or, you know, maybe drinking a glass of water.
But as part of its International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organization is addressing what it sees as a more serious problem: “gaming disorder.” Basically, it’s codifying the common sense idea that if video games are taking over your life, you may have a mental health issue.
According to the draft guidelines, first noticed by Forbes, gaming disorder isn’t simply the occasional Call of Duty marathon. It’s a “pattern of gaming behavior” that results in “significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” That’s actually pretty straightforward: If a devotion to gaming is torpedoing your human relationships, your career, or your schooling, it may be time to reevaluate why.
“Gaming,” in this case, can mean any kind of video game, online or not, and the unhealthy symptoms of gaming disorder should sound familiar to anyone who’s read about addiction. (In fact, “gaming disorder” is categorized under “disorders due to addictive behaviors,” right next to “gambling disorder.”) There’s the “impaired control” over gaming time: when it happens, how often you play, for how long, whether you can stop, and so on. There’s prioritizing gaming to the exclusion of other activities and, well, normal human functioning. And there’s the refusal (or inability) to curtail gaming even as it leads to negative consequences.
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The WHO is describing something more serious than the stereotype of waking up covered in Dorito crumbs and realizing you’ve burned a whole weekend in the world of Grand Theft Auto. “Gaming disorder” is still a beta draft guideline; it’s not final. But a key part of the concept is the pattern of behavior, and right now the WHO believes the pattern should be present for at least 12 months to offer a diagnosis. That time, though, may be shortened if symptoms are severe. There’s also another beta category, “hazardous gaming,” for gaming that “that appreciably increases the risk of harmful physical or mental health consequences” for the gamer or others.
It’d be hard to argue that video games can’t be addictive—they’re designed to keep us playing, after all, and there are plenty of examples of people taking that too far. At the same time, we’ve also seen that games may be able to improve attention spans for people with ADHD, though they’re not going to be a cure-all for mental health. The WHO guidelines seem like an attempt by the medical community to reiterate what we already know: Video games can be fun and even improve your life. Just don’t let them take it over.
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