The WHO Classifies A Gaming Disorder. Here’s What That Means.

health Sep 11, 2018

Gaming Addiction: What’s The Problem?

Robert House, the Coaching for Geeks health correspondent, talks about the evidence behind the WHO’s recent classification of a Gaming Disorder.

Today I want to talk to you about the World Health Organisation (WHO) classifying gaming as a disorder. I wanted to let the heat die off a little and start a conversation after the initial emotion of it has died down, so that we can get into the science and truth of it.

Who’s WHO?

The WHO is an organisation that began when a constitution came into place on the 7th April 1948, which the golden-eyes out there will have spotted as World Heath Day. Its aim is to achieve better health for everyone, everywhere and they are very good at it, having grown into a multinational organisation with over 150 offices all over our little big planet.

On June 18th the WHO released the 11th revised edition of the International Classification of diseases (ICD-11) which will come fully into effect in 2022 and this is one of the most important ‘go to’ documents for clinicians across the globe, it looks at global trends in illness, disease and deaths, it gives a common language for health professionals everywhere to share and has around 55,000 unique codes for clinicians to wade through. In short, its portal to greater understanding and health.

The ICD-11 has been in development for over a decade but earlier this year a rather interesting addiction was added. Gaming. And it caused quite the division amongst people. So, is playing Mario comparable to drinking and driving? Is Zelda the new cocaine? Let’s go on an adventure together, work out any mass effects and try not to get burnout! Too much?


Psychology today defines addiction as a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behaviour for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behaviour despite detrimental consequences. This means that if you are doing something to escape, hide, substitute normal day to day life and it has negative effects on your day to day, like not eating, sleeping, going to work, avoiding mother and other family and friends etc, then you may have an addiction.

The WHO took the advice of specialists and experts the world over, and concluded that, a small minority of gamers can exhibit behaviours outlined in the definition of addiction, and as such, had to classify a gaming disorder. It’s not all doom and gloom though! Because of this classification they now must look at how to help people who are addicted. This includes standard addiction therapies.

Should all people who engage in gaming be concerned about developing gaming disorder?

“Studies suggest that gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities. However, people who partake in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behaviour.” – The World Health Organisation (WHO).



The WHO took a lot of criticism from gamers and the gaming community as a whole because of this decision. Developers spoke out publicly in defence of gaming and how it benefits lots of people, gamers expressed how gaming has gotten them through some very difficult levels in their lives. YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, everywhere was now full of defenders talking about the tarnished halo of gaming and the dark souls of the doctors at the WHO who just don’t get it. Was the negativity warranted? Well, no. sorry. The truth is that there are some people out there who can become addicted, can have their lives ruined by spending 18 hours a day on the World of Warcraft, League or Legends, Tetris, any game.

But this doesn’t mean that gaming is bad or that anyone who plays a lot has a gaming disorder. I have put way too much time into Pokemon and Zelda in my time, but that doesn’t mean I am addicted. It is important to remember the extent of the person’s playtime and how it impacts their life is what dictates this as an addiction. And that’s why the WHO have had to do what they did. But if you really want to be angry at someone, then be angry at the media, because there has been some awful journalism on this topic, from use of the term digital heroin on CNN to  misrepresentation of the evidence saying its ‘still incomplete’. Sadly, these sorts of approaches just push the emotional side of this whole thing. It’s understandable, human even. But it doesn’t accurately represent what’s happening and is more of a rally cry to the cause.

Why the reaction?

Gaming is wrongly blamed for a lot of negativity in the world. A lot. Games are thought to influence violence, and cause aggression. (They don’t). We all probably know someone who thinks that playing video games rot your brain. (They don’t.) With this decision there is a fear that it is going to give the ‘anti gaming’ side leverage in further arguments and the fallout, right or wrong, damages the gaming industry. Naturally ‘pro gaming people’ feel the need to defend their hobby.

Is it fair though to classify an official Gaming Disorder? In the context of what true addiction is, for the small minority it’s a yes. But it feels disingenuous to say that, because casual gaming is hugely beneficial to people, unlike casual drinking, smoking, drug use. This is because they are not hugely beneficial to people’s health in that casual setting (though there is some evidence to the benefit of a glass of wine or beer a night). A gambling disorder is the most common addiction that has been compared to a gaming disorder because it’s not a direct health issue but the psychological reward, but to me, gambling is still a far cry from gaming.

Gaming sits in the same hobby bracket in my mind as movies, books and music. So do we open pandoras box and add those to the list of addictions? Because, like anything else, people can become lost in those and they can have hugely negative effects on their lives because they are watching too many films, too much Netflix etc. but they won’t be added and will be treated case by case for addiction.

Because of the negative press, again very wrongly, regarding gaming and its considerable more time in the limelight of monster hunters, it was always going to be first. Personally, I feel in a few years’ time, when more and more research is done, it will be reclassified as entertainment addiction, or something along those lines – as that’s more fully encompassing the disorder and nature of why it becomes an addiction and doesn’t highlight just the one area. I hope that the mass public learns that anything in moderation is good and that gaming stops getting the negative press that it gets.


Punch out

Addiction is very real and very damaging. And this shouldn’t be brushed over, but we need to educate ourselves on the dangers, how to identify when it’s getting bad and look after ourselves. It is a shame there has been so much emotion brought into this as the WHO have identified a very real problem but so many have used it or taken it as a personal attack. This debate will continue as virtual reality gaming becomes more and more immersive, and it’s important that we look after our own health as the first priority.

I hope this has clarified the situation on why the WHO classified a Gaming Disorder and how we move forward together to have happy healthy lives.

As always, take care of yourselves and happy geeking!

Robert House – Operating Department Practitioner and the Coaching for Geeks health correspondent

Follow Robert on Twitter @Roberthouse1985





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