World Health Organization Says Video Game Addiction Is a Mental Health Disorder—Are They Really That Bad?

A teenager plays a video game at a trade-show booth during the "Intel Friday Night Game" organized by the Electronic Sports League at Tonhalle on November 13, 2009, in Munich. Getty

A draft of the World Health Organization's (WHO) 2018 International Classification of Diseases includes "gaming disorder." The new disorder, however, doesn't mean playing video games is terrible for you or qualifies as a mental illness on its own. Some research indicates positive benefits of playing video games.

The gaming disorder is included in a section on "disorders due to addictive behaviors." To warrant a diagnosis of the new disorder, excessive behavior should be evident for a period of at least a year. But playing lots of video games doesn't necessarily mean a person has the disorder—the behavior has to significantly impair personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other aspects of your life.

Children's learning, health and social skills could be positively impacted by playing video games, according to a review of research published by the American Psychological Association. Even video games that have violence may have some benefits. People who play "action" video games, many of which are deemed violent, could improve cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception. One study found that "shooter" video games improved spatial skills just as well as academic courses specifically designed to enhance those same skills.

Those findings should not replace other studies delivering a more wary message about video games. "Important research has already been conducted for decades on the negative effects of gaming, including addiction, depression and aggression, and we are certainly not suggesting that this should be ignored," said lead author Isabela Granic, developmental psychopathology professor at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, in a 2013 statement when the review was released. "However, to understand the impact of video games on children's and adolescents' development, a more balanced perspective is needed."

Another study published in 2013 in the Journal of Adolescent Research found that playing video games can enhance motivation, cognitive effort, and increased efforts over long periods of time, as many games require players to reach multiple levels for an ultimate long-term goal. These benefits are similar to what children gain from sports, arts, clubs and hobbies, reported Forbes. University of California, Irvine, researchers found in 2015 that playing 3-D video games can boost memory formation—adding to the literature that shows those types of games can improve hand-eye coordination and reaction time.

Competitors play video games on monitors during the Major League Gaming Pro Circuit event on June 8, 2007, at the Meadowlands Expo Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Getty

Designing video games specifically to improve health could also boost their benefits. STAT reported earlier this month that a new video game from Akili Interactive Labs aided attention and inhibitory control in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in its late-stage study on the game. Those findings were in comparison with children who played an action-driven video game that was designed as a placebo. Another recent study in mid-December revealed that people who play action video games performed better in a challenging reading task and in visual attention span. Visual attention span is one component of visual attention that has been linked to reading development and dyslexia, and researchers said that combining visual attention span training with specific aspects of action video games could help build future programs to improve reading acquisition and remediation for dyslexia.

In light of the WHO's definition of the new gaming disorder—like much of anything that has negative consequences—moderation is a key factor in reaping the benefits.