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The WHO Just Classified ‘Gaming Disorder’ As a Mental Health Condition. But Should It?

June 18, 2018, 9:52 PM UTC

It’s not every day that a group as significant as the World Health Organization (WHO) adds a whole new disorder to its official classification of diseases, appropriately dubbed the “International Classification of Diseases” (which is now on its 11th edition, or ICD-11).

Well, today is one of those days. The WHO is officially classifying “gaming disorder” as an “addictive behavior” included under the umbrella of “mental, behavioral, or neurodevelopmental disorders” in the ICD-11 unveiled Monday.

The ICD is, as the name implies, a global disease classification system. It’s meant for adoption by countries around the world for citing which conditions are afflicting their populations; ICD codes are used for everything from medical billing to gauging public health.

So what’s up with “gaming disorder”? The WHO lists a number of varieties (those related to online gaming, offline gaming, and unspecified gaming) in the ICD. It’s characterized “by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior… and is manifested by: 1) impaired control over gaming (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context); 2) increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and 3) continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Those are definitions that mirror the criteria for other substance use and gambling addiction disorders. And, in modern times, when video game and technology frenzy are undoubtedly on the rise, it may make intuitive sense to put some more emphasis on this kind of compulsive behavior. And it’s not like “gaming disorder” could be diagnosed just because your teenager spent a week playing video games for hours and hours on end; she or he would have to display the behavior for at least 12 months and to the detriment of social, family, or work life.

But not all mental health professionals are sure it’s entirely necessary (or, more to the point, more accurate) than pointing out underlying conditions that lead to what may seem like video game addiction. For instance, as psychologist Anthony Bean, executive director of the Telos Project mental health clinic, tells CNN, people who obsessively game may be using it “more as a coping mechanism for either anxiety or depression.” Those are conditions well-established under previous ICDs.

The issue reflects one of the broader controversies around new ICD versions—they’ve been getting more and more specific, at times to what some may consider comical degrees (the previous iteration, ICD-10, contained a whopping 68,000 billing codes, or more than five times the number in ICD-9, and including provisions for your second doctor visit after getting sucked into a jet engine—seriously).

Does that level of specificity really improve public health, or create more administrative headaches? There’s plenty of debate on that front. But, regardless, ICD-11 won’t be hitting doctor’s and insurers’ offices any time soon—it could take more than a decade to finally implement, if ICD-10’s history serves as an example.

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