The debate is hot, but what does research tell us?
When the World Health Organization officially recognized ‘Gaming Disorder’ in their International Classification of Diseases (ICD) 1 1. WHO, 2018 × , a common objection was that gaming is better understood as a coping mechanism for underlying mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and not a disorder in its own right. Is this true?
The short answer is no. Although this can be a tempting argument to believe, it’s simplistic, deceptive, and not based in research or clinical expertise. For instance, it is widely established 2 2. Müller & Wölfling, 2017 × that comorbidity—the simultaneous presence of two chronic diseases or conditions in a patient—is common, and gaming disorder is no exception. For some, gaming excessively will be a form of coping with another condition and may progress to a gaming disorder 3 3. Griffiths, 2017 × , comparable to the behavior of substance-related disorders, for others, gaming excessively will be a function of impairment.
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Our own internal data shows 48% of gaming addicts meet criteria for moderate or more severe depression, an important number to be sure, but one that also proves less than half of gaming addicts to have comorbidity with depression. Other research has found internet addicts (porn, gaming) do not have other impulsive/compulsive disorders 4 4. Chamberlain, Ioannidis, Grant, 2018 × , debunking the claim that they always have pre-existing conditions.
What Came First?
Whether problematic gaming came first, or as a result of underlying mental health problems, therapeutic goals should include treatment of the gaming disorder itself because this disorder can be the underlying agent of functional impairment, and its treatment might be a prerequisite for effective treatment of comorbid conditions.
I have experienced this personally as I struggled with not only a gaming addiction, but also anxiety and depression, and to improve my anxiety and depression required me to remove gaming from my life. Others in our community report the same, and we’ve found that quitting gaming for 90 days improved psychological health by 21%.
Many of those who struggle with a gaming disorder struggle with everyday responsibilities, and often this condition is associated with poor school or job performance. Quality of life has been found to be significantly impaired irrespective of whether individuals have comorbid impulsive/compulsive disorders 5 5. Chamberlain, Ioannidis, Grant, 2018 × , however those who have quit for 90 days have received a 2x improvement to their overall quality of life.
Is Controversy Helpful?
Although arguing that gaming disorder is merely a symptom of underlying mental health conditions generates headlines and gets your name printed in the press, it is not effective for improving the lives of those who struggle with this condition, and has the potential to cause significant harm.
Research shows the primary reason someone with problematic gaming will not seek help is due to stigma—the fear of being judged, dismissed, or misunderstood 6 6. Driver, 2014 × , all of which are heightened by this type of misinformation. Gaming addicts need to know that if they come forward to seek treatment they will be met with compassion. They need to know their concerns are valid, and that professionals are trained in diagnosis and treatment.
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