Scott was well aware that he needed to concentrate on his task. His superiors were growing increasingly dissatisfied with his work, and he was struggling to support his wife and son. “I was falling behind on my job,” he explained to me.
Scott’s attention had been drawn elsewhere: he couldn’t stop playing video games.
Scott, now 45, was able to turn on a game at any time because he worked from home as a computer programmer. And he began to spend more time playing than working, which was a concern for someone who got paid by the hour and reported his hours accurately.
Scott enjoyed playing online card games such as Absolute Poker and Bridge Base Online, as well as massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI. He was “infatuated” with the escape they afforded him, he said. Scott, who asked that his last name not be used, told me, “Even when I wasn’t gaming, I was thinking about gaming.”
The vast majority of these individuals will not develop a video game addiction. According to some of the most recent study, 1 to 3% of gamers are at risk.
This is true for different types of addiction, including those caused by extremely addictive substances. According to some studies, about 8% of opioid painkiller patients get hooked – still a significant number, but far from the majority.
However, when billions of individuals play games around the world, even a small percentage might cause issues for a vast population – literally tens of millions.
The WHO’s classification is intended to help prevent the situation from worsening. It establishes a foundation on which the health-care system can build a response. Doctors will be able to diagnose individuals with a condition. It makes it possible to conduct further research into the illness. Insurers will be pressured to pay for therapy because it is now recognised as a legitimate medical condition.
That, according to Jol Billieux, a University of Luxembourg professor who works on gaming disease in both clinical and academic settings, is why the WHO label is important.
Billieux, who sat on the WHO’s gaming problem committee, told me, “It will allow the systemization of teaching and prevention.” “There will also be greater opportunities for study and a better knowledge of the disease.”
“However, it is appropriate to be cautious about the potential of pathologization of normal behaviour or unneeded treatment,” Billieux noted.
Much of the opposition to the WHO’s categorization stems from this latter worry. Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson is particularly concerned about moral panic, a type of negative overreaction that frequently follows new trends and technology, based on his study on video games and violence.
“These kinds of emotional, unpleasant reactions to new technologies are common, and they can lead to some fairly extreme claims,” Ferguson said. “It’s easy to see that in the world of video game addiction, where headlines proclaim that video games are ‘digital heroin.’”
Consider the following: President Donald Trump recently speculated that video games could be to blame for mass shootings. There simply isn’t enough evidence to back up this allegation. But it’s the kind of stuff we’ve seen time and time again, from parents calling rock and roll “the devil’s music,” to comic book censorship, to anxieties about violent films.
What exactly is addiction?
There is still a significant gap between public perceptions of addiction and expert opinions. It’s typical to hear someone casually refer to a pleasurable hobby as “addictive.” Despite what major public health and medical organisations have emphasised for decades, some people continue to view addiction as a moral failure rather than a medical issue. There are still misunderstandings that addiction has a physical component — such as physical reliance that results in withdrawal — or that physical dependence is convincing proof of addiction.
Experts, on the other hand, have long since abandoned these antiquated notions of addiction, if they ever did. Addiction, according to experts, does not even involve a physical dependent component.
Robert West, editor in chief of the scholarly journal Addiction, told me, “We long ago moved away from thinking about addiction as a medical or physiological need for a drug.” “In most cases, the problem isn’t physiological [dependency], since you can get them over that very easily” — for example, through supervised detoxification. “It’s a behavioural issue,” says the narrator. The issue is that certain drugs and behaviours in particular persons cause such strong motivation to engage in the habit that it is harmful or potentially harmful.”
It’s the last portion of West’s statement that’s crucial to grasping addiction: It occurs when a person performs something obsessively despite the fact that it has negative consequences, whether physical dependency or not.