UN calls video-game addiction a public health crisis. Public health experts already knew that

A cottage industry of treatment centers and specialists has arisen in response to a growing public health issue

Published June 22, 2018 6:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The World Health Organization (WHO), an agency of the United Nations, just classified video-game addiction as a mental health disorder. This might sound absurd to some: Aren’t games just harmless entertainment? And yet, public health experts, psychologists and doctors have been wary of the effects of gaming on public health for many years. Likewise, there are numerous documented cases over the past decade of gamers neglecting their kids, families and careers, and occasionally even dying due to excessive video-game playing.

According to the WHO’s 11th revision of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which was released June 18, signals of a gaming addiction include impairment and priorities based on gaming, continuation of gaming despite negative consequences, and impact on personal lives for at least a year.

Despite all the buzz that the announcement has generated, in many ways the WHO classification is late to the game. Gaming addiction rehabilitation centers, such as reSTART in Seattle, have existed for years, helping people disconnect from their virtual lives, and using various forms of therapy and life coaching to remedy that detrimental toll that excessive gaming can take.

According to founder and chief clinical operator of reSTART Hilarie Cash, the gaming addiction designation provides validation for those who are struggling.

“It legitimizes what people are already experiencing but haven't had the confidence to name as a disorder,” Cash told Salon.

ReSTART was the first operation of its kind in the United States. It opened its doors in 2009, and now it hosts eight- to 12-week programs for both adolescents and adults that help those struggling with addiction to learn basic life skills, focusing on health, communication and fitness.

For Cash, the announcement only backs up a belief she already maintained about the terminology surrounding video-game addiction, even though not all health experts are in consensus with the label.

“For people in the health field who aren’t accepting it, I think they just aren’t reading the research,” Cash said. “The research shows the brain lighting up in just the same way as cocaine.”

This is not to say that every screen-staring, video-game-loving person is at risk of addiction. The WHO report noted that diagnosed gaming disorder is rare, and only impacts a small number of players across the world.

However, for those whose lives are severely impeded by their gaming habits, rehabilitation may be a part of the answer — as long as you can afford it.

At about $26,000 for 45 days of treatment, this service is no cheap endeavor. And treatment may be off limits to those from less well-off backgrounds.

“They have to come from families that can afford it, since it’s out of pocket. These are bright men that have failed out of college or failed out of college and work. They’re socially quite isolated,” Cash said.

For programs like reSTART, the WHO designation does more than just legitimize their cause: It may also help get insurers on their side.

“We are forbidden by the State of Washington, which gives us a license for our adolescent program, from billing insurance for the services we provide,” Cash told Salon. “This is why the designation by WHO is really important because insurers are going to be prevailed upon to cover it.”

Though the games have changed over the years, Cash says that there are certain commonalities between highly addictive video games: namely, games with no definitive end and a multiplayer function that allows you to communicate with others in-game.

“When we opened it was ‘World of Warcraft.’ In more recent years, it was ‘League of Legends,’ and now it’s ‘Fortnite.’ These are games that are lighting up the pleasure pathways,” Cash said.

An important part of the reSTART program is its focus on life skills; because video-game addiction often goes hand in hand with other mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, these skills help to combat all the areas in which someone’s life may have been affected.

Helge Molde, a co-author of the study “Prevalence and Predictors of Video Game Addiction” and an associate professor at the University of Bergen in Norway, says that video-game addiction is like many other mental disorders in that comorbidity is more often the rule than the exception.

“The diagnostic categories are distinct, but in reality most youth and children don’t have singular problems,” Molde told Salon.

For retired “League of Legends” player Hai Lam, the effects of excessive video-game play impeded his lifestyle far before this addiction classification was released. Lam, who once made a living off of professional gaming, was forced to call it quits early due to a wrist injury.

Lam penned a letter in 2015, citing his injury as the reason he had to step down from his role.

“My wrist injury is something that I simply cannot ignore. It limits my ability to play as much as I need to and my ability to improve,” Lam wrote.

Professional streamer Jake Straus – better known in the gaming community as “GernaderJake” – said that he experiences back pain from his prolonged sedentary position, but he believes video games are not at fault for health complications, even in the case of death.

"I don't think that the video games itself has anything to do with it. I think it's long periods of sitting combined with unhealthy habits is what would lead to something of that nature," Straus said.

Straus said that the WHO classification has not been received well in the gaming community.

“I wouldn't want to say ‘laughable’ because that sounds disrespectful, but unsupported is how it was received,” Straus said. “It seems that the claims were made in a way that doesn't have proper research or merits.”

Straus told Salon he feels gaming is an “easy target” for blame, whether it be for violence, or now, he added, mental disorders.

"Gaming is a fantastic outlet for not only entertainment, but for community. I've met so many people that not only have I invited to my wedding, but people who I talk to on a daily basis. I would not have known these people if it weren't for our shared passion of gaming," Straus said.

By Nicole Stock

Nicole Stock is an editorial intern for Salon.

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