Is video gaming addictive? Inside the debate pitting gamer against gamer

A new NHS treatment centre takes on the new—and contested—social problem

October 24, 2019
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The World Health Organisation listed "gaming disorder" as an official condition last year. Photo: Prospect Composite The first specialist NHS clinic to treat gaming addiction in the UK will open at the start of November in London, allowing children and adults who are seriously addicted to computer games to access free treatment and support, according to NHS England. The move comes at a time when the gaming industry has experienced enormous growth over the past decade. Recent figures show that there are approximately 2.2 billion gamers across the world and the global video games industry is worth about £110bn, a number that is estimated to rise to £140bn by the end of 2021. Multiplayer games such as Fortnite, released in 2017, have become a genuine pop-culture phenomenon. However, their enduring popularity among younger players, has sparked concerns about the amount of time gamers spend playing. Reports of extreme gaming addictions have risen; one horrifying case resulted in a US woman being jailed in 2011 for allowing her toddler daughter to die of malnutrition while she spent hours playing World of Warcraft, another hugely popular online multiplayer game. More recently, a group of Canadian parents have issued a lawsuit against makers of Fortnite for allegedly making the game as addictive as cocaine and “ruining children’s lives”.

A problem or a hobby?

There is, however, much disagreement around gaming addiction, or “gaming disorder”, as it has been termed by the World Health Organization (WHO), which categorised it as a health condition last year. The official definition states that the disorder is a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour in which people lose control of their gaming behaviour, among other things. This definition has prompted both praise and criticism. James Good, a gamer who formerly suffered from addiction, told Sky News that these changes will help people get the support they need. Good now works at Game Quitters, a support organisation for those “fighting to take back their lives from video game addiction.” Conversely, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute Andrew Przybylski has insisted that gaming addiction is “absolutely not an addiction.” The global gaming industry is firmly opposed to the WHO’s categorisation and has urged the WHO to reconsider its decision. The Entertainment Software Association, the US trade association of the industry, recently stated that the decision “trivializes real mental health issues like depression and social anxiety disorder.” Meanwhile the NHS England has stated that psychiatrists and clinical psychologists will work with patients aged between 13-25 whose lives are being wrecked by severe or complex behavioural issues. Pamela Roberts, addictions programme manager at Priory Hospital Woking, says gaming disorder is a complex condition. “Addiction or internet gaming disorder is often caused by the involvement of different influences and experiences, including a person’s biology, emotional resilience, relationships and environmental factors. A complex mix of biopsychosocial factors contribute to the condition of addiction,” she explains. Roberts stresses that most people who play games do so responsibly and without significant harm: “According to WHO, about 1-3 per cent of the gaming population of people struggle with the symptoms of gaming disorder. But, when we consider the number of gamers is over 2 billion people, this means there are millions of people potentially struggling with addiction, as well as people at risk of developing addiction.” Roberts also says it would be wrong to suggest the issue primarily affects children, since the average age of a gamer is 33 years old. If it is stigmatised as a child’s problem, older people may find it harder to seek support, she adds.

Avoiding stigmisation

Some people who have struggled with an addiction to gaming don’t agree that is should be classed as a medical disorder. This is true for Elina Ollila, chief experience officer at, an online hangout platform. “This ‘disorder’ could span many hobbies and applies, arguably, to other groups of people as well,” she says. “It would be the same for someone who is a gym bunny or sports enthusiast, for example. Where do we draw the line for other activities that people are strongly dedicated to? I would compare this to when my uncle, who is a diehard golf enthusiast, missed my wedding because he was so passionate about playing golf at the time.” Ollila says better understanding of gaming behaviours is needed “before we start to tar gamers with the same brush and bring unnecessary worry to parents who may not understand video games. It puts a negative connotation on the millions of people who enjoy playing games and I think there are far worse addictions to have that are yet to be categorised.” A few years ago, Ollila became addicted to Clash of Clans, a wildly popular mobile strategy game which is estimated to generate $2.3m from users daily. “At that time, any game that had a very strong social component, such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games (World of Warcraft, for instance), was instantly attractive to me and at one point, the addiction got so severe that I even used three phones to play (my own and my games two children’s) with my colleagues and their friends from India. It took up so much of my life that I didn’t realise how much time I was putting into the game,” she says. Ollila overcame her addiction after she was recruited for a senior-level role at a gaming company and realised it was time to stop so she could focus on the new job and her family. She says scientists are treading new ground and while they may know how nicotine is addictive, for example, they can't pinpoint that same element in gamers as accurately. “I worry that it could potentially stigmatise players and lead to more misconceptions about gamers as a whole,” she adds. Most gamers are in control of their behaviour but those who are not may well need support to address the issue. As Roberts puts it: “Those people who become addicted also need to be taken into consideration. Denying there’s a problem at all leaves high numbers of people at risk. There is some accountability required [from gaming companies] in this case, even if the companies are not responsible for the disorder itself.” The global gaming industry is unlikely to change its stance, however, even as the first NHS patients begin receiving treatment for addiction in the coming months and years.