Understanding the backlash to gaming disorder

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases will have a new code: gaming disorder.

For those who eagerly await play-by-play updates to ICD codes, this may be old information. Others may have noticed the brief, but sensational media blip created in June after a few news outlets tasked their hippest interns to tackle the insurmountable task of educating the world on what exactly esports is and there now being a disorder associated with it. If you need help with the former, here’s a quick synopsis of E-sports.

For those inside the gaming world, the announcement, and the subsequent outrage by the community, was hard to miss.

Ready to move on? Let’s find out what all the fuss is about.

The WHO classifies gaming disorder as, “a pattern of gaming behavior characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

For those reading this who have never truly experienced the joy of video games outside of Mario Kart and Ms. Pac-Man, in order to genuinely understand the negative reaction this classification system has aroused in the gaming community, it is first essential to comprehend fundamental aspects of multiplayer gaming.

Gamers have evolved far beyond the overweight nerd in mother’s basement stereotype they have been so unfairly portrayed as.

First and foremost, gaming is a social experience. Nowadays, most titles are online, multiplayer experiences, meaning you work as a team with real people, using your microphone and headset to communicate constantly. Subsequently, social circles are cultivated, either comprised of real-life friends who you log on with reliably every few nights, or new friends met online, and strengthened after spending multiple months or years gaming together.

Whether your online social circle consists of those you have or have not met IRL (in real life), the social aspect is intoxicating. Often times, your success in the video game is directly related to your communication and teamwork. For example, in the widely popular video game Fortnite, you work with a squad of four in a Hunger Games scenario to eliminate your opponents and be the last remaining in matches of approximately twenty minutes. Traversing the enormous map of mixed tundra, gathering weapons to fight, materials to defend, all while remaining vigilant for enemies with the same objectives requires flawless communication, constant attention, and impeccable collaboration. The rush of adrenaline is intoxicating, the sense of accomplishment riveting, and the best part of all, you share it with your friends.

If this has conveyed even a tenth of the exhilaration (and dopamine) that gaming provides, is it so hard to see why “gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities”?

Gamers play Call of Duty instead of reading a trashy summer novel, log on to League of Legends rather than crafting miniature airplanes, and build cities in Minecraft in lieu of sipping discount margaritas at happy hour. Under this definition, if a gamer chooses to collaboratively game with friends, strengthening mental processing, teamwork, and hand-eye coordination rather than binging three hours of Netflix, they may now be diagnosed with a disorder?

Second, the handling of esports by the medical community risks treating gaming like a drug rather than what it truly is: a booming industry and viable career option. Esports is set to make over one billion dollars in revenue in 2019. By 2021, viewership will top 557 million (toppling every other sport besides the NFL). Would the WHO consider dropping out of community college to play video games a negative consequence? Most certainly.

However, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins and his 22 million YouTube subscribers would vehemently disagree. Skilled gamers, their craft honed by thousands of hours of practice, are earning salaries akin to NBA superstars. Colleges now offer scholarships to esports athletes, opening up educational opportunities that might have otherwise not been available. Furthermore, with the growth of the field, countless career opportunities, unrelated to gaming prowess but very related to familiarity with the industry, are popping up.

Despite the flagrant advocacy for gaming evident in this article, you do not need to look far to see the negative consequences of gaming. Awareness of the esports industry by the medical community can and will be beneficial. Esports athletes are susceptible to a unique set of injuries due to their lifestyles, and are desperate for educated and informed healthcare professionals.

However, certain interpretations of the WHO’s abstract wording of this disorder may further stigmatize gamers, pushing an already medically-wary population further from treatment.

Lindsey Migliore is a physiatrist and can be reached on Twitter @DrMigliore.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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