Why the World Health Organization Changed Its Mind About Video Games

April 29, 2020

The debate over whether video games are good for you or not has been raging for longer than most gamers have been alive. And that debate got some extra juice last year when the World Health Organization declared video game addiction as an official disorder.

Now, though, WHO is actually encouraging people to play games. What made them change their minds, and what can we learn from all of this? We’ve got the full scoop below.

Officially addicted

In 2019, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to their International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. As disorders go, it’s basically adjacent with other non-chemical addictions such as gambling.

WHO’s verdict was very controversial, and not just among the gaming community. Certain health officials and even the American Psychiatric Association worry that WHO made its decision despite not having enough evidence, and that this might further stigmatize people who play video games. Furthermore, they fear this could lead to an increase in false positives — basically, video games being the scapegoat when someone is actually struggling with something else.

However, defenders of this verdict point out that this decision will make it easier to diagnose and treat actual gaming addiction. In some cases, it might make it easier to get insurance to pay for certain forms of treatment.

How do you know if you’re addicted to video games?

So, you’re a gamer reading an article about video game addiction. Your natural question is this: “how can someone know if they’re addicted to video games?”

Here’s some good news: there is no magic amount of gaming hours per week that means you are officially addicted. According to WHO, the biggest warning sign is “increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities… despite negative consequences.”

This is actually the key metric for most kinds of addiction. It’s not a problem to simply play a lot of video games. But if it is causing damage to things like your relationships, your education, and/or your job, then you have a problem. And if you can see the damage but can’t stop playing, that means you’re addicted.

COVID-19 changes things up

After COVID-19 took over our lives, video gaming went through the roof. In America alone, video game usage quickly increased by 45% as people stuck at home frantically sought out new home entertainment.

You might think these stats would cause the World Health Organization to freak out. Instead, they are actually encouraging people to play video games during this time.

WHO is helping support the #PlayApartTogether initiative. And they aren’t alone: this initiative also has support from industry heavies such as Activision Blizzard and Riot Games. Other supporters include Amazon, Twitch, and YouTube Gaming.

As the name implies, this initiative is encouraging participants to play video games. Their hope is that this experience will be educational. 

An educational experience

Why would WHO get involved with this initiative? It’s because the goal is to help slow down the spread of COVID-19 throughout the world.

A major part of the initiative is helping to educate people about social distancing and proper pandemic hygiene. In fact, this initiative is letting the world know about WHO’s own guidelines for staying safe and avoiding infection.

And, of course, it’s a pretty practical solution. The more people are at home playing video games, the fewer people are out risking the safety of their families and friends.

All about balance

It’s easy to look at WHO’s participation in the #PlayApartTogether initiative as some kind of major change of heart. In reality, though, this is just one more way that the organization can preach the importance of a balanced hobby.

Creating an official “gaming disorder” doesn’t mean that everyone playing games has that disorder. Just like defining alcoholism doesn’t mean that everyone who drinks is an addict. But without a definition in place, someone may not realize they are addicted to gaming until it is too late.

As long as gaming isn’t messing up different aspects of your life, you have nothing to worry about. As long as you keep a good gaming/life balance, even WHO understands that gaming is one of the best ways to keep busy while keeping safe.

The importance of taking control

Obviously, gaming makes for a fun distraction pretty much all of the time. But do you know what makes it a perfect hobby during social isolation?

It all comes down to human psychology. COVID-19 has many people worried about the future. You may not know what is going to happen to your health, your family, your job, your education… the list goes on.

Any one of these things would be enough to make you feel like you’re losing control. And when you combine them all together, it’s enough to make you feel like your entire life is out of control.

Video games, though, create the opposite effect. They give you goals and a sense of purpose. And by directly controlling the outcome of gameplay, you’ll start to feel in control of your own life once more.

Video games: healthier than you thought?

Even when we’re not in the midst of pandemic panic, video games are pretty good for you. In fact, studies suggest that gaming is good for both body and mind.

One study found that gaming (particularly VR gaming) was helpful for those suffering from mental or physical trauma. Basically, gaming is a pleasant distraction that gives your mind something to focus on besides the pain. 

That was corroborated by a later study that also confirmed gaming was a better form of pain relief than passive distractions. That means that if you’re in pain, you’re actually much better off picking up a controller than picking up a remote.

History worth remembering

Sooner or later, we’ll have the COVID-19 crisis in our rearview mirror. When that happens, it will be useful for individuals and international organizations alike to remember the role of video games during the pandemic.

Gaming is a healthy way to cope with pain and depression, all while providing a safe way to interact with your friends and family. And the next time someone wants to scapegoat video games for acts of violence and cruelty, the gaming community should collectively reminder the world of this simple message: gaming saves lives. Or, at the very least, saves our sanity.

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