Addictions in general are only a very recent inclusion in psychology as psychological problems. Psychology itself is often under fire for its often less than exact scientific approach to some things. So when psychology begins labeling things like “gaming addiction” as a mental disorder, arguments about whether or not they’re a legitimate “disease” are going to get heated.
Recently, the “bible of psychology” – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – has been undergoing the process of revision, as is the requirement of any medical dictionary describing the illnesses that health care providers use to define a diagnosis. This may seem like boring egghead stuff to many, but the DSMMD is what insurance companies use to define what they will and won’t cover and in many states, it’s the reference used to define laws about what is mandated to be covered by various benefits packages. So if your doctor diagnoses you with something that’s not in that book, you probably won’t get insurance to pay for it nor will it be seen as a legitimate reason to miss work or apply for additional benefits from government, unions, or employers.
The current revision is not likely to include “gaming addiction” in it. The current revisions include a new section, “behavioral disorders” under which only one thing appears: “gambling addiction.” That one, as generally well-defined as it is, is a contentious entry, so less well-recognized possibilities like “gaming addiction” and such don’t have a chance.
Which for some of us will mean that our friends or family aren’t likely to suddenly stage an “intervention” and have us dragged off to some rubber room for treatment, since our addiction isn’t official. This doesn’t mean we can heave sighs of relief and go back to our button pushing, though.
The “addiction” (officially called “Internet use gaming disorder”) will be listed in the appendix to the DSM, which is where concepts needing more study are listed. This is usually a fast-track to consideration for inclusion the next time around.
So why the focus?
The occasional story about people with what are obviously serious problems – for which either games are blamed or are used as a focus – crops up in the media. Parents in China letting their kids live in squalor and near death because they’re too busy playing games or some 400 pound mouth breather who has to be extracted from their home using heavy machinery because they’ve become almost literally glued to their chair playing some game.. these stories make headlines because they’re freak shows. Nothing but pure blood and guts gets better headlines than a good, old fashioned freak show. And even that is not immune from a game tie-in.
The thing is, it can be argued that the common definition of “gaming addiction” isn’t really defining a problem, just a symptom of other problems. Most seriously problematic gamers are using games as an outlet or focus for other issues they have. The drooling pedophile playing games to “pick up chicks” isn’t addicted to gaming, he’s addicted to a twisted sexual deviance. The parents who ignore their children to play a game are seriously mentally ill and obviously unfit parents, but they are just as likely to manifest this with an addiction to watching TV or drinking as they are gaming. The morbidly obese freak show that has to be extracted from his chair using the Jaws of Life isn’t addicted to gaming, he’s just as likely to be addicted to Jerry Springer or Twizzlers.
The argument for these types of behavioral addictions being legitimate is based on (limited) studies showing that those with proported psychological addictions can have the same neural activity changes that substance addiction (long held as legitimate in psychological circles) can have. This means that the same neural activity associated with alcoholics or drug addicts can be found in serious game addicts.
In fact, some psychologists and treatment centers actually treat “gaming addiction” even though it’s not officially recognized as a problem. The issue here, however, is whether or not this is really a problem. Survey-based research suggests that it could be “one in 11 gamers”, which is a not insignificant number. Still, it’s easy to blame gaming on underlying issues and the surveys often don’t include questions that might find another cause.
For example, asking school-age children if they have ever had their school work suffer because of gaming or their friendships suffer because they’d rather play games does nothing to find out if they used games as a distraction because something else (depression, anxiety, trauma..) might have been involved.
Considering the questions asked by one survey (listed here at Kotaku), I’d say every school-age gamer (and even some of us who are adults) could score “pathological.”
So not only does more study, but I’d say a lot more study needs to be done before we can clearly define what is gaming addiction.