Mental Health Experts Warn Against World Health Organization's Definition of 'Gaming Disorder'

'What, exactly, are the symptoms of gaming disorder? Or are we to presume that clinicians will know it when they see it?'
Image: Larry "Neocane" Gipson/QuakeCon/Flickr

Video games are great, but some people love them too much. Some people lose hours, days, or even their life because they can’t put down the controller. So it makes sense that the World Health Organization recently moved to define a disease called “gaming disorder” and add it to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD), a epidemiological dictionary of known diseases.

But not everyone agrees with the decision. Multiple video game lobbying groups from around the world have banded together to push back against the classification, and 36 academics, scientists, doctors, and researchers have drafted a paper that called the WHO’s methodology and motives into question. The professionals will publish the paper, titled “Weak Basis for Gaming Disorder,” in an upcoming issue of Journal of Behavioral Addictions. The article is a collection of well reasoned arguments against classifying “gaming disorder” as a disease, complete with references to extant research.


The paper is the latest in an ongoing academic battle about video game addiction taking place in the annals of medicine. The WHO first floated the idea of adding gaming disorder to the ICD in 2016 and professionals immediately voiced concern.

“We brought up our concerns and they fell on deaf ears,” clinical psychologist Anthony Bean—one of the members of the loose group of scholars—told me over the phone.

The paper—the third such paper the group has published—argued it’s too early to tell what’s going on with excessive gaming.

“We agree that there are some people whose play of video games is related to life problems,” said the article’s abstract. “However, moving from research construct to formal disorder requires a much stronger evidence base than we currently have.”

“Moral panic might be influencing formalization and might increase due to it,” the article said and might “result in poorly thought out and ineffectual public policy efforts to restrict gaming time.” The authors pointed to South Korea’s shutdown law, which keeps people under 16 from gaming after midnight.

“While such ‘solutions’ may lead parents, clinicians and society to feel that something is being done to address the perceived problem of excessive gaming, in fact, this intervention has had a negligible positive effect and even some negative outcomes,” the article said.

To be clear, the article doesn’t argue that something isn’t going on and that gaming addiction isn’t real and isn’t a problem. It just thinks that rushing to define it and put it in the the ICD is a bad idea.


“What, exactly, are the symptoms of gaming disorder? Or are we to presume that clinicians will know it when they see it?” The article asked. “Too many critical questions remain unanswered to support formalizing the disorder.”

The authors also pointed out that it’s possible excessive gaming is a symptom of a mental illness rather than the mental illness itself. “Is what we call ‘gaming disorder’ merely a coping strategy for those with depression, ADHD or other disorders?” They wrote.

They also pointed to hypocrisy on the part of the WHO for giving special attention to gaming and ignoring other addictions. “We acknowledge that some individuals may overdo gaming, just as they may overdo social media, work, or sex, or tan to excess or, indeed, dance,” they said.

There's a lot of research about addiction to plastic surgery, food, and exercise. “Yet, only gaming disorder has been proposed for ICD-11 inclusion, with no formal or transparent review of the evidence quality for any of the various addictions,” the authors said.

Some people have an unhealthy relationship with video games and the authors of this paper don’t claim otherwise. They just think that video game addiction is a complicated topic, the science isn’t in, and putting gaming disorder in the ICD will do more harm than good. “We would strongly encourage the WHO to err on the side of caution, halt further formalization of new gaming disorders and stimulate better research into the role that screen time plays in our lives.”