Gaming addiction as a mental disorder—it's premature to pathologize players

February 14, 2018 by Andy Przybylski And Amy Orben, The Conversation
Credit: Shutterstock

Gaming addiction is expected to be classified as a mental disorder by the World Health Organisation (WHO) but – while concerns over the addictive properties of video games are reasonable – there is a lack of rigorous research to back it up.

Video games played on smartphones, tablets, computers and consoles have been a popular form of leisure for some time now. In Europe, recent figures indicate that games are played by more than two thirds of children and adolescents, and a substantial number of adults now play games – 38% in the UK, 64% in France, 56% in Germany and 44% in Spain.

The WHO will publish the next revision of its manual – the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) – by mid-2018 and gaming disorder has been included in the draft for the first time.

The ubiquity of mobile devices means electronic games can be played at any time and their sales eclipse both music and video sales in the UK. Given the growing popularity and motivational pull of video games, concern over their addictive potential is inevitable.

As psychology experts who have studied video games through an empirical lens for years, we share many of these concerns and fully endorse continued scientific research on the topic. But the WHO's tentative move to pathologise digital play is premature.

Last year, nearly 30 academics wrote a paper in which they opposed the gaming disorder classification, arguing there was a lack of consensus among researchers who study games and that the quality of the evidence base was low.

We have collected responses from researchers who disagree with our position that the WHO's move is premature and have addressed their points in a new paper. It highlights a key question that is still to be answered: how should gaming disorder be defined?

Gaming vs gambling

Criteria for gaming disorder in the WHO draft are very similar to those used to define gambling disorder. It's an interesting approach, but it risks pathologising behaviours that are normal for hundreds of millions of regular gamers. In technical terms, this means the criteria have low specificity: the thoughts or feelings of many normal gamers will be flagged as pathological. This could stigmatise many highly engaged people for whom gaming is one of their main hobbies.

It's been argued that – like debates surrounding gaming and aggression – concerns about gaming addiction might reflect a moral panic instead of solid science.

Because nearly half of gamers are under 18, there is a strong desire to "save the children" over concerns about the possible harmful effects of games. This anxiety incentivises scholars seeking grants, high impact journal articles, and prestige to mobilise against a possible social harm.

Though often well meant, the publish or perish culture in academia means that statistical noise can become part of the scientific record. Because null findings seldom get published, garner press attention or attract career advancing research funding, the false facts arising from a panic can take on a life of their own.

It's aggravated by the fact there is no consensus on the definition of addiction, the essential symptoms or indicators, or the core features of the mental health condition. Evidence from clinical studies show that problematic gaming is best viewed as a coping mechanism associated with underlying problems such as anxiety or depression.

Low quality research

Studies show that research on the effects of technology on human behaviour is riddled with methodological errors. They tend to lack scientific transparency, have low statistical power and show an alarmingly high level of statistical reporting errors. In our study of this literature we found nearly one paper in six has an error that changes the conclusions of the study. In our response to those pushing to pathologise play, we argue addiction research is no exception.

Estimates of gaming addiction vary wildly as a function of questionnaires used and samples recruited. Population representative studies using the draft official guidance suggest possible addiction rates are less than 0.5%, whereas other studies, carried out with a range of conveniently available samples (such as Reddit or online self-help forums), report rates that are ten to 100 times higher.

Although some portray the academic field at consensus on this issue based in solid research, it is important to understand this evidence is largely exploratory, where data analysis plans and hypotheses are settled on after data collection. What is currently missing is a body of studies where scientists preregister their methods and hypotheses prior to collecting data samples online.

We have conducted studies using this more stringent approach and our findings indicate gaming addiction may not be directly related to mental or physical health on its own. The results suggest that the diagnosis of is not stable over time, because scholars pushing for gaming disorder to be recognised do not distinguish between the different types of research. We argue the evidence supporting gaming disorder is based on an unsound scientific basis.

We are concerned that a small subset of gamers might be struggling, but we do not believe critical standards of evidence have been met to merit a new diagnostic category for gaming disorder by the WHO.

Instead, we believe rigorous scientific research into gaming is essential. Now is not the time to pathologise one of the most popular leisure activities of the digital age.

Explore further: Addictive gaming to be recognised as disease: WHO

Related Stories

Addictive gaming to be recognised as disease: WHO

January 5, 2018
"Gaming disorder" will be recognised as a disease later this year following expert consensus over the addictive risks associated with playing electronic games, the World Health Organization said Friday.

'Gaming Disorder' recognized as a worldwide mental health condition

December 28, 2017
Americans had "Pac-Man Fever" as far back as 1981 but it has taken until now for the World Health Organization to officially recognize that playing video games too often could be a mental health disorder.

WHO gaming addiction classification an important step for treatment, says expert

January 4, 2018
The World Health Organization's classification of video game addiction as a mental health disorder is similar to a decision in the late 1950s to recognize alcoholism as a medical condition, said Douglas Gentile, a professor ...

Video games can change your brain

June 22, 2017
Scientists have collected and summarized studies looking at how video games can shape our brains and behavior. Research to date suggests that playing video games can change the brain regions responsible for attention and ...

Video gaming addiction can control your thoughts, recommendation for further study

November 26, 2012
A psychology researcher from Canberra has collected some of the first scientific evidence that video gaming can be addictive in a way similar to gambling and alcohol.

In teens, strong friendships may mitigate depression associated with excessive video gaming

January 12, 2017
Teenagers who play video games for more than four hours a day suffer from symptoms of depression, but frequent use of social media and instant messaging may mitigate symptoms of game addiction in these teens, new Johns Hopkins ...

Recommended for you

People with family history of alcoholism release more dopamine in expectation of alcohol

May 23, 2018
People with a family history of alcohol use disorder (AUD) release more dopamine in the brain's main reward center in response to the expectation of alcohol than people diagnosed with the disorder, or healthy people without ...

Why we fail to understand our smartphone use

May 23, 2018
Checking your phone dozens of times a day indicates unconscious behaviour, which is "extremely repetitive" say psychologists.

Study confirms that men and women tend to adopt different navigation strategies

May 23, 2018
When navigating in a known environment, men prefer to take shortcuts to reach their destination more quickly, while women tend to use routes they know. This is according to Alexander Boone of UC Santa Barbara in the US who ...

Early life trauma in men associated with reduced levels of sperm microRNAs

May 22, 2018
Exposure to early life trauma can lead to poor physical and mental health in some individuals, which can be passed on to their children. Studies in mice show that at least some of the effects of stress can be transmitted ...

Training compassion 'muscle' may boost brain's resilience to others' suffering

May 22, 2018
It can be distressing to witness the pain of family, friends or even strangers going through a hard time. But what if, just like strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate ...

Study finds popular 'growth mindset' educational interventions aren't very effective

May 22, 2018
A new study co-authored by researchers at Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University found that "growth mindset interventions," or programs that teach students they can improve their intelligence with effort—and ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.