Understanding gaming and mental health is important - but the World Health Organisation is doing it wrong

Gaming Disorder has just been made a thing by the WHO, but there are better ways to approach the issue.

Understanding gaming and mental health is important - but the World Health Organisation is doing it wrong

There seems to be something in the water at the moment that is making people stark raving stupid when it comes to video games. First the NBN chief blames gamers for clogging up the National Broadband Network (Narrator: It is not), then the breakfast talkshow circuit got its teeth into Fortnite and how it is corrupting our youth (Narrator: Still not true), and now the World Health Organisation has updated one of its documents - ICD 11 - adding 'Gaming Disorder' (among other changes) as a real thing that health professionals should now consider a thing, and report back on.

Where do I start?

I had a good old rant about this last night on Twitter, and I'm basically going to say the same things here. As a gamer (and one who makes their living from said games) and sufferer of mental health issues, I feel like I've a unique take on this news. I also like to think I have a modicum of common sense, and even from that angle this seems like one hell of a slippery slope.

To put things as bluntly as possible: I've been diagnosed with non-clinical bi-polar, C-PTSD, and all the anxiety and depression that hangs thereupon, and I deal with that in a regular basis. Rating video games as a mental health issue is a deep disservice to both. Which is not to say there's a certain validity to ranking gaming within certain patterns of addiction, especially if you're looking at what drives those addictions.

But too often its the substance that is focused on, not the drivers of why people are turning to it. 

This is the same thinking that has lead numerous countries to wage a so-called 'War on Drugs', wasting vast amounts of money, devastating entire communities, and generally contributing to a system where outlaw suppliers that thrive on the conflict. All this effort, and in the modern era restricted substances are easier to get than ever before. 

Classifying gaming under the same umbrella as substance use sends a deeply troubling message. Gaming's not going to go in the same direction as drugs - well, I don't think we're going to see a Pablo Escobar of gaming, but what do I know? - but this kind of nomenclature and classification causes a stigma which does precisely no one any favours. 

'GAMING IS A DRUG AND DRUGS ARE BAD!" Is what this says, and yes, it pretty much does so in ALL CAPS. So anyone who does have an issue with managing their game time and behaviour - and I've been there - will be far less likely to ever address that, or talk to someone about it. 

Even more troubling, in the light of that recent reporting on Fortnite, is that this suddenly validates the fear-mongers and naysayers. A parent may well feel justified to send their children to a psych, based on this nomenclature, and I guarantee that psych will have no fucking idea what the deal is with games. My last psych was a lovely person, but they had zero idea about how I could make a living writing about games, so I'm not at all confident they'd be equipped to deal with this new Gaming Disorder.

Troubling definitions

But more on that in a bit... Part of the problem is that WHO's own definitions are a mealy-mouthed mess. I mean, this is the same outfit that classes 'substance intoxication' as a related disorder to substance use. It's not a disorder - it's the whole point. So when it comes to defining what a Gaming Disorder is, the definition is kinda massively open to interpretation (italics added for emphasis):

"The pattern of gaming behaviour may be continuous or episodic and recurrent. The gaming behaviour and other features are normally evident over a period of at least 12 months in order for a diagnosis to be assigned although the required duration may be shortened if all diagnostic requirements are met and symptoms are severe."

It could be this, or it could that, it might be long, it might be short? It's like that fable about the blind men trying to describe an elephant. This is a document written by people with no idea.

But yes, it is an issue. I guarantee you there's probably someone dead at their keyboard at in internet cafe somewhere in the world right now. Except, now the talking heads can point at 'Gaming disorder ZOMG' and shake their heads and make the lives of us actually in the industry just about ten times worse.

Which addresses nothing. Because there's also someone ODing in their loungeroom right now, too, because despite the no doubt well-meaning classifications of substance abuse in the WHO's now decades old document, it's still done precisely nothing to address the issue.

So what is the ICD?

This new document is the 11th version of listing that first started in 1900. The full name of the report is the "International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems", and to be honest, that makes things even worse.

This is a document built around reporting, collating statistics, identifying trends, and shambling towards addressing them. Now consider this: a whole mess of topics regarding sexual orientation and gender identity have ONLY JUST been removed from the ICD. So, win some, lose some, but ICD 10 has been in circulation since 1999 - which means the impact on statistical reporting of gaming addiction is going to get massively over-reported by comparison and is likely to keep being over-reported for more than ten damn years.

How long until someone reports a 'MASSIVE INCREASE IN THE REPORTING OF GAMING DISORDERS" in the mainstream news? I mean - if you get ten diagnoses, that's over 'ten times more than last year' for the morons on breakfast TV, and I guarantee to you that's how it will be reported.

And the beat up, in the media, has already started.

Their healthcare dollars at work

Here's an article that came out on the back of ICD 11 in The Times of India. And remember all those "it may" and "normally" and other "we really don't know" bits in the classification? The article ignores them in favour of saying "This is how it works, folks!"

"The agency described the addiction as a "pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour" that becomes so extensive it "takes precedence over other life interests"."

Well, I'm sold. There you have it, and if you were in any doubt it's a problem, the Times also trots out an 'expert' in the field:

"Psychiatrists are emphasising the need for a digital detox as a cure. Dr Sameer Malhotra, director- mental health and behavioural sciences at Max Healthcare says..."

... Some bullshit, basically, about going cold turkey and seriously my eyes rolled so hard I got a migraine. 

The important thing is that Max Healthcare is a private (that is, for profit) medical outfit that recently had the license of one of its hospitals revoked because they kinda diagnosed a live baby as a dead baby. Ex-FUCKING-sperts in the field of healthcare.

So, there it is - hack journalists already overstating the case, and profiteering medical outfits keen to point out that they have the cure on hand.

And if you think I'm angry, yeah, I really am. 

If you or a family member are experiencing mental health issues, and you need support, you can find a range of support services here

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