There is still a huge stigma around mental illness. People’s reaction when reading a news story about a man dying in an internet cafe after a three day gaming spree, generally speaking, would be one of horror. But the word disorder is kept away from it, not least because it's something that could never happen to us. But in the case of gaming disorder, it may be more common than you think. There are dozens of extreme examples out there, and no universal rule about the types of games involved: it could be an MMORPG, Call of Duty, FIFA, or a browser game.
A couple of weeks ago the World Health Organisation (WHO) decided to classify gaming disorder: “a pattern of gaming behaviour (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences."
Many in the gaming community immediately dismissed the WHO’s recommendations. Some saw this as a situation that would never impact them directly. But others shared their own experiences of video game addiction, admitting their past problems and how it impacts their current gaming habits. Gamers responded to individual stories with concern, horror, and perhaps even a moment of self-reflection.
I could relate, because between 2004 and 2006 I lost control over my videogame consumption. It might have started earlier, but I could only identify the disorder when it was at its worst, starting with the release of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness in the UK. I was doing well in my AS-Level exams, so I treated myself to the game at launch, tempted by the promise of hundreds of hours of content.
Those hundreds of hours later, I had become consumed by my own disorder. By the end of my A-Levels, I was shutting myself in my room at almost every free moment. Whenever I saw friends, I’d constantly think about the next few hours of grinding and attempting to unlock the next secret boss. My grades held surprisingly firm despite this and I was accepted into university.
Things went well in my first semester, as I had found a decent group of friends to hang out with, but that November saw the launch of World of Warcraft. I had been waiting for it for years and quickly bought a subscription, bypassing the university internet restrictions. It soon consumed every waking hour. At times I was locking myself in my dorm room, losing sleep as I grinded to the next level. I missed lectures. Soon I had lost track of my finances, owing friends money to the point where I fell out with them completely. By the end of the year, I'd failed to pass the minimum grade to advance to the second year.
Rather than drop out of university entirely, I retook my first year with a different course and tried to change the environment to remove temptation. This didn’t go all that well as, without an internet connection, my compulsive behaviour simply moved from World of Warcraft to Guitar Hero.
Soon I had dropped out of university. It was only at this desperate moment I realised that I had a genuine problem, similar to what the WHO are now recognising. I slowly came to the conclusion that I needed to press the reset button and start again.
For me, recovering from gaming disorder did not mean giving up on gaming completely, but developing a healthier relationship with entertainment. I started a gaming blog that was, in a sense, my recovery technique: I played a diverse range of games to avoid getting sucked into one in particular, which worked for me (though everyone's case will be different). With the support of family and friends, I had a network that stopped me from slipping back into old habits.
I still have lapses: like the time I spent 6 hours straight playing Chrono Trigger at my in-laws house during Christmas, or a few sleep-deprived nights thanks to Fallout 4. But I also have ways to prevent things from going too far, commitments that prevent me from playing games for hours at a time. If I'm slipping back into old ways, there are people who will tell me to stop.
The WHOs classification of gaming disorder made me not only reflect on my own experience, but recognise that not everyone is so lucky. My personal circumstances meant I had to change. For some people, there is no equivalent trigger for them to receive help. You could coast along for years. It makes me wonder how many people are out there with an unhealthy relationship with video games, like myself at university, or are struggling in their own way with the hobby.
Ultimately one of the major values of the WHO's classification is that it increases awareness and makes help more accessible. An organisation like that defining gaming disorder as a treatable medical condition may, as it did with me, prompt some folk into a little self-reflection – maybe even enable them to come forward and seek help. The classification will also lead to further study, and in turn future professionals will be better informed about the various sides of gaming. For those who are going through a tough time because of a gaming disorder, and want to take that first difficult step, I wish you the very best.
For the majority of this article's readers, gaming disorder is something you’ll probably never experience.The WHO itself says "gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities." But it's worth remembering that, even if you're not touched by this, it's a very real problem and acknowledging it is, for some people, the first step.
If you felt you could relate to anything in this article, the below organisations may be able to help.
- The World Health Organisation on 'gaming disorder'
- Samaritans – UK & ROI – 116 123
- Lifeline – Australia – 13 11 14
- Nami – US