Korea Challenges WHO's Addition of "Gaming Disorder" as a Mental Condition

In December of 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed a new controversial addition to its official mental health classification guide. For its upcoming revision in May 2018, the WHO will be looking to add the term "gaming disorder" to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

The inclusion of a "gaming disorder" label as a mental health issue is currently under serious consideration, and if passed gaming addiction will officially be classified as a diagnosable mental disorder. Under the current ICD-11 Beta Draft, the proposed "gaming disorder" definition can be found under section 6C51, and is notably grouped with other addictive disorders such as substance abuse and gambling.

Gaming disorder is characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour (‘digital gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’), which may be online (i.e., over the internet) or offline, 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.

The behaviour pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.

Though the ICD merely acts as global guideline for disease classification, it is one which many countries defer to for their own health classifications, including South Korea. Various medical and socio-cultural experts in Korea have criticized the new definition as being "too vague", while others have hailed the move as a "necessary first step toward solutions".

Lee Jang-ju, a social psychologist and the current head of Irock Digital Culture Research Institute, is a prominent voice against the new classification. He argues that the formalization of a "gaming disorder" could lead to improper self-diagnoses and excessive concern from parents, with many "enthusiastic gamers...mistakenly labeled as a gaming disorder patient".

Lee also argues that many adolescents also "grow out" of their gaming phase, but if they have been diagnosed with "gaming disorder" as a mental condition, they may be stigmatized later in life as "the concept of 'full recovery' does not apply to mental conditions".

Gaming culture is one of Korea's most profitable industries and biggest global exports. Having produced top Esports talents such as Faker, as well as being home to numerous game companies such as Nexon, NCSoft and Netmarble, many in the industry are worried that the classification will foster "negative perceptions toward online video games”.

Just last month, the Korea Association of Game Industry has issued a formal statement in lobbying against the WHO's inclusion of "gaming disorder" as a mental condition.

“There is a logical need to review whether the WHO’s description and diagnostic criteria that categorize games, a cultural content regularly enjoyed by roughly 2 billion people around the world, as a disease.”

The Korean game industry is no doubt looking out for their bottom line, as they seem to be in strong denial about the true nature of gaming addictions. With reports of serious gaming-related health incidents on the rise, as well as the highly-addictive gambling mechanics that are found in most gacha and lootbox systems, there is cause for concern when having "too much" could lead to potentially lethal consequences.

“It would be like asking game companies to develop games that are fun, but not too fun as to get people addicted,” Lee said, pointing to the highly competitive nature of the global game market where only 0.8 percent of the games launched globally generate sales exceeding 1 billion won ($938,000).

Many games today, especially those that rely on the gambling mechanics of gachas and lootboxes, are addictive by design in order to keep users digging into their wallets. In reaction to this growing problem, the Apple App Store had recently passed a policy requiring all game apps to disclose lootbox probabilities, and just last year China had passed a national law that required lootbox probability disclosure as well.

Another worrying problem is the increasing disconnect from reality that some users experience (especially younger children and teenagers) while being immersed in the game, to the point where physical harm occurs. After several tragic incidents had been reported, Tencent had voluntarily imposed hourly limits on minors playing their mega-hit game Arena of Valor in China.

It can also be noted that Korea had already implemented similar time restrictions on games, having passed the "Shutdown Law" in 2011, a law which prohibits access to online games from 12-6am for minors under the age of 16.

While the new "gaming disorder" classification has yet to be official, this is a hopeful step in the right direction. With more awareness and the spotlight focused on the psychological damage that gaming addiction causes, publishers and developers can be held to a higher moral standard and accountable for the exploitation of these addictions for profit.

For a more in-depth look into the effects of gaming addiction, watch this sad yet touching documentary that follows the lives of a group of teenage boys undergoing treatment at an internet addiction bootcamp in China.