What is gaming addiction and it's history?

The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged what is understood as “gaming disorder” in their 11th edition of International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in early 2018. The disorder is characterised, much like other addictive disorders as a pattern of persistent gaming behaviour that develops in severity, taking precedence over other life interests such as school, relationships, sleep, or work.

When WHO announced this inclusion, Dr Richard Graham of Nightingale Hospital was quoted as saying, “It is significant because it creates the opportunity for more specialised services. It puts it on the map as something to take seriously.”

The medicalisation of excessive gaming was controversial at the time, with many professionals warning that it could lead to parents pathologizing their children’s behaviour when they simply enjoy gaming over some other more “acceptable” hobbies such as sports etc.

As always, or rather, as it has been since the early 90s when video games rocketed to popularity, their effects on young people’s minds has been a consistent hot topic

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is also used by many in Europe but founded in the US noted in their 5th edition from 2013, that internet gaming disorder should be thought of as a “condition for further study”, further cementing it as a contentious subject matter.

Following on from this announcement, in the UK, as of 2019 the NHS created a pathway for young “gaming addicts” to be referred on for expert counselling. The referrals were set to accept people between the ages of 13 and 25. Established in partnership with the Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorders, the NHS national mental health director said, “The NHS is rising to the challenge – as it always does – with these new, innovative services”.

The UK Addiction Treatment Centres note the following signs for gaming addiction:

  • becoming more introverted, argumentative or having big mood swings – which could all be linked with how “well” the game is going
  • unusual preoccupation with the idea of getting back online to play
  • self-imposed isolation in order to guarantee uninterrupted play
  • feelings of irritability and restlessness when not playing games
  • lying about time spent gaming
  • persistent headaches caused by too much screen time
  • ditching or avoiding other interests and hobbies
  • poorer performance at school or at work
  • diminished personal hygiene and poor diet
  • fatigue due to lack of sleep

The figures obtained by the Guardian show that during the period of January to May of this year, 57 people entered Nightingale Hospital’s specialist gaming addiction treatment clinic, in comparison with only 17 over the same period in 2020.

This increase could simply be due to more knowledge and information being accessible about gaming addiction treatment or the easing of restrictions meaning more people feel comfortable with travelling to hospitals.

However, with the majority of inquiries to the treatment clinic being from parents who are concerned about their children, it does also suggest that this could be a problem that is quickly developing with younger people specifically.

There is also a suggestion that lockdowns and school closures exacerbated already existing gaming disorders that had been kept in check by the structure of school, socialising and other extra-curricular activities or hobbies.

Dr Henriette Bowden-Jones, who leads the board on gaming addictions at the Royal College of Psychiatrists has said, “Many of our young patients reported [that] the loss of structure caused them to game for longer hours and more compulsively, to the detriment of other interests and activities…The last year has brought far more patients into treatment than we had expected and we now need to review how we will support both parents and children”.

It’s very easy to panic at the idea of thousands of young people being so negatively impacted by the past year that they develop a gaming addiction

However, following the UK Addiction Treatment Centre’s list of signs to look out for mentioned above, parents, teachers and guardians can have candid conversations with young people around this topic with a focus on their wellbeing, not dictating or judging their gaming itself.

In contrast, there is also evidence that suggests games such as Animal Crossing, The Last of Us franchise, Hellblade and even Grand Theft Auto have positively impacted people’s mental health; from representation of marginalised people to creating communities online during lockdowns, there is a silver lining to the ever-growing popularity of gaming.

This year has put a strain on almost everyone’s mental health, wellbeing, or stress levels in one way or another, young people are no different. In fact, all the research suggests they have been the most impacted.

With a perspective of not wanting to fan flames of worry or panic that many parents must already be feeling, instead there needs to be a real emphasis on open dialogues with young people about mental health from now and into the future.