WHO's Classification of Gaming Addiction as a Mental Health Disorder Could Do More Harm Than Good, Expert Says

The World Health Organization announced it now considers gaming addiction a mental health disorder on Tuesday/ The controversal classification could cause more harm than help, though, according to gaming expert Dmitri Williams, currently Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication.

Williams has seen the downfalls of excessive gaming, but doesn't think a mental health diagnosis is the best way to fix it. "Classifications like this shut down the very conversations that people need to find solutions," Williams told Newsweek. "While it's convenient to label something complex as simple, that doesn't make it so. More often than not, Western society has consistently pointed the finger at technology to avoid dealing with bigger, broader issues."

The WHO's definition of gaming addiction, as published in ICD-11, states that an individual shows signs that the objective of gaming takes over all areas of their life for more than one year, and the individual refuses to cut back screen time despite negative consequences.

To Williams, isolation and self-sabotaging behavior are problems resulting from techonology in general, not gaming specifically. "Players of all ages can have behavior patterns where they choose gaming over other activities, and it can become negative," Williams said. "The same can be said of mobile phones, televisions, exercise, or books for that matter. The question is whether this particular technology, which has many, many more varied forms than TV or books, can be said to be uniform in its effects and is different than those other activities. That is the wrong approach."

He added: "We wouldn't call excessive TV use a disorder but if someone watched too much, we'd want to intervene," Williams stated. "We'd ask what shows they were watching, and we'd try to understand why they turned to TV and away from other activities. It would be silly to assume that it is some uniform cause and effect issue and that 'TV' is the cause."

To those who would argue that excessive gaming fosters social isolation, Williams noted that in today's technological world, there are digital ways to form and foster relationships. It's not a one-type-fits-all formula, though. "For different personalities and circumstances, online relationships can be profoundly positive. In research I've seen strong friendships and marriages and connections made across social boundaries," Williams said. "For isolated people, it can be a healthy outlet, and can also be a dead end. And one game can vary drastically from the next. People are messy, and we have to see this as part of the mix of that overall messiness."

The WHO definition could form a negative stigma for a personal issue that likely has deeper roots, according to Williams.

"It's easier to say 'the problem is the VCR' or the mobile phone or the game, than it is to look at the real causes that drive most of our social ills: overworked families, not enough attention from parents, poor eating and sleeping, poverty, lack of access to basic health care, sexual abuse, etc. Those are uncomfortable, and real. It's comforting to say "it's technology's fault" rather than to deal with the yucky stuff. That's not to say technology doesn't play a role. But when I hear blanket explanations and moral panics around tech, it almost always covers up some deeper, less comfortable issue with the person or with society."