Earlier this year the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognised “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition.
Playing a lot of video games isn’t enough to count as a disorder. According to WHO, gaming disorder is a “pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour” and a person typically needs to have symptoms for a year in order to be diagnosed with the disorder.
Dion Howard is a nurse based In Wellington who works with young men and girls with depression and anxiety.
He says there are many reasons why some young people end up gaming too much. And for some boys and teens who game excessively, the consequences can have far-reaching effects on their development.
“Gaming in and of itself is not anti-social; in fact, it can be a very social thing to do, and adults frequently misunderstand that. But play enough every day and in the blink of an eye that boy has spent one or two years mostly in their bedroom.
“Some are living like vampires and become anti-social, withdrawn, very shy and anxious. Often bullying has occurred and so they avoid face-to-face contact. Basically, it can crowd out opportunities and challenges that help with maturing – they can miss some of the typical milestones of their peers, like having a girlfriend or boyfriend, getting a job, flatting.
“They end up being 25 and living at home; sometimes they are very good at gaming, but they don’t have any social skills, and are not work-ready.”
There are many great benefits to gaming but that misses the point that some people aren’t flourishing with it, explains Dion.
“We think of it as “failing to launch”. There are 18, 19, 20 and 21-year-olds still at home who haven’t completed any undergraduate study or started work – and are home all day every day. It creates conflict because the parents come home, and the child hasn’t contributed.
“There’s a physical element too. These men aren’t moving and they’re eating two-minute noodles and drinking energy drinks. Then the boys can get bigger than their parents and sometimes be physically intimidating, which can add to an already uncomfortable mix when conflict occurs.”
He says, just as when you watch a pet training show or shows like Supernanny, it doesn’t take long to realise when dealing with children addicted to gaming that there is a problem in the whole family system. The owner, or in this case the parent/s, also need support to make changes.
“They are playing in virtual rooms; they’re doing something with someone else. So when a parent calls, for instance, to come for dinner, they’re being asked to abandon their mates. When you combine that with fierce adolescent male loyalty, it’s a difficult force to counter.
“In motivational interviewing, which is a prominent therapy for dealing with substance use – you never shame a person about their substance use, because you want to be able to get an accurate picture of [it].”
Dion points to the cultural shaming that has occurred in relation to gamers – the overweight Simpsons comic store guy, for example.
“They’ve been conflated with geeks. They desperately want normal social lives and to enjoy gaming as well.”
He says families and professionals need to figure out whether the gaming is an addiction or a perpetuating behaviour, and if it is enabling social isolation and perpetuating anxiety and depression.
Dion says parents need to take responsibility for what they gain from gaming too.
“When children are occupied online, families gain peace and quiet, and the chance to get things done. You can’t wake up when they’re 15 and say ‘that’s enough! No more gaming!’ because by then it’s a learned behaviour. It’s how they live life.”
Conversely, Dion warns that the idea of internet gaming addiction can be too simplistic, and people only seeing what they perceive as wrong about gaming denies the gamer’s enjoyment and the skills they are learning when playing.
“Gamers get identity and validation online too. Often those young people are very good gamers they have a lot of expertise in gaming. And they build strong and honest relationships with those with whom they play online.”
Simple and difficult advice
So what is the way out of gaming addiction? Dion says the advice is as simple as it is difficult at times to encourage and enforce.
“I’m working with young people with clinical depression or anxiety. We would frame it as a person having that as a primary problem, and that the way they game – the frequency and duration of gaming – keeps him that way.
“It helps to see gaming in context. And we all need to set limits early.”