‘Gaming Disorder’ is a mental health condition, and it’s time the industry accepts its social responsibilities.


Video game addiction is real. (WHO, 2018)

Big Gaming denies addiction problems for its users, while booming to record revenues.

Regulations and legislative efforts are on their way.

Over the past 40 years the video game industry has boomed into an industry worth an anticipated $138 billion dollars in 2018—larger than both the film and music industries combined 1 1. Video game industry is booming with continued revenue × . Growth is projected to accelerate as engagement with young people is high—over 83% of teenagers play video games regularly 2 2. Pew: Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018 × —and infrastructure for organized professional gaming (eSports) continues to develop.

As revenues and engagement have grown, so too has another phenomenon—gaming addiction, with the World Health Organization officially recognizing ‘Gaming Disorder’ as a mental health condition in 2018 3 3. WHO: Gaming disorder × . Yet the gaming industry continues to deny its existence, suggesting that its creation is “misguided”, “premature”, and has the potential to be “deeply harmful.” 4 4. IGDA Exec. Director's Statement on Gaming Disorder ×

Deceptive Denial

Instead the industry argues that gaming is safe for most people, and in fact, beneficial 5 5. Gaming Industry Statement on Who Icd-11 List and the Inclusion of Gaming × . They suggest that a diagnosis for gaming addiction will create a moral panic, even though no empirical evidence has been presented to make their case. They describe games as “fun”, while neglecting to mention that fun is a chemical response of dopamine in your brain, and hide behind the notion that they are simply “making what people want,” with no regard to the fact that “what people want” may not always be what is positive for their overall well-being 6 6. Michal Napora, Game Developer Comments on Industry × .

The decision whether or not to formalize a mental disorder should not be made based on a fear of potential miscommunication. -Lee Seung-Yup

While true that gaming addiction impacts only around 4% of the total gaming population, with billions of gamers worldwide, even 4% is a substantial number. Regardless of the percentage of people who are affected, the fact remains that people do suffer from severe impairment from problematic gaming, and they should not be blocked from receiving necessary support 7 7. Orsolya, Loránd, 2017: Inclusion of Gaming Disorder in ICD has more advantages than disadvantages × . As the gaming industry has grown, so too has the public health need for gaming addiction 8 8. Rumpf et al., 2018: Including gaming disorder in the ICD-11: The need to do so from a clinical and public health perspective × .

Big Gaming, like Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol before it, has a simple choice to make: become a part of the solution, or be regulated into compliance. Here are four solutions Big Gaming could implement immediately that would help to address addiction problems with their users:

Actionable Changes

1. Warning Labels and Notifications

“Take everything in moderation (even World of Warcraft)”
– Blizzard Entertainment (2007, World of Warcraft loading screen messages)

Adding warning labels to games about the potential harmful effects of overuse is a positive, albeit small, step forward. These are especially important to help parents understand when a game offers the opportunity for their children to spend additional money within the game through in-app purchases, micro-transactions, and/or loot boxes.

Game developers should also implement personalized feedback mechanisms, including time tracking, pop-up notifications and self-restrictions, to support extreme users in breaking their pattern of excessive play.

2. Ethical Responsible Design

Not all game design is problematic, but some features are worse than others. Games that are less predictable by using variable reinforcement ratio schedules, games that have no end (continue on endlessly), and games that include loot boxes are three such addictive features.

Instead of designing games to maximize the amount of time—and the amount of money—users spend in a game, game developers could be considering the potential harmful effects of addiction in the design phase itself, as pointed out by Shumaila Yousafzai, Zaheer Hussain, and Mark Griffiths 9 9. Time for the gaming industry to take addiction seriously × .

3. Leverage Esports for Good

Esports is growing rapidly with millions of players competing for the right to be the best in the world. Colleges are adding varsity teams and scholarships, and 19,500 high schools in the United States will soon have teams as well.

This is a great opportunity for the gaming industry to leverage eSports for good by, i) providing all eSports players with a well-being handbook, ii) showing commercials at all tournaments with warning signs of addiction, and iii) investing a percentage of eSports revenue into healthy gaming campaigns and addiction prevention.

4. Guide Gamers In Need

Gaming companies have massive databases of players and their behavior patterns, equipping them with the information necessary to identify at-risk users, which they can then offer resources and services that can help.

As Shumaila Yousafzai says, “it is not the gaming industry’s responsibility to treat gaming addicts but it should play a part in guiding them towards agencies that know how to treat them.”

Moving Forward

These four changes would play a significant role in combatting the harmful effects of gaming addiction on the lives of millions of people, a public service any company should be proud to provide. Not only will this help people who need help, but it will allow healthy gamers around the world to game in peace, without the risk of developing their own addiction.

However, until Big Gaming decides to be a part of the solution, we should continue legislative pressure to hold these companies accountable for profiting off of addiction.

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