The World Health Organization (WHO) will include “gaming disorder” as a new mental health condition in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), released earlier today.


Image credits JD Hancock / Flickr.

The ICD is the end-all-be-all authority for doctors who are issuing a diagnostics. This document defines all known diseases, disorders, injuries, and related health conditions. It’s also the standard researchers use to quantify deaths, diseases, injuries, and symptoms. The document also affects us laymen — healthcare companies and insurers use the ICD as a basis for reimbursement.

Now, the WHO wants to include ‘gaming disorder‘ in the new edition of the ICD. This official recognition of the condition will raise awareness among doctors and healthcare networks, as well as improving the odds that “people who suffer from these conditions [will] get appropriate help.”

Disorderly gaming

Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, a member of WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which proposed the new diagnosis to WHO’s decision-making body, said diagnosing gaming disorder comes down to three major features:

  • Gaming behavior that takes precedence over other activities. The extent of this behavior is such that all other activity is pushed to “the periphery.”
  • The second feature is an “impaired control of these behaviors.” In other words, even if a person suffering from gaming disorder experiences negative consequences from gaming, he is unable to change his behavior. Gaming continues unabated or even escalates. To establish a diagnosis for gaming disorder, a “persistent or recurrent” behavior pattern of “sufficient severity” needs to emerge.
  • Finally, this behavior needs to lead to significant distress and impairment in somebody’s personal life, family dynamics, social relationships or occupational functioning. The impacts of gaming disorder may include “disturbed sleep patterns, like diet problems, like a deficiency in the physical activity,” Poznyak adds.

All in all, these characteristics are very similar to what you’d use to determine similar addiction-related behaviors, such as substance use disorder or gambling disorder. As is the case with these more veteran disorders in the ICD, a diagnosis of gaming disorder can only be applied after negative behavioral patterns have persisted for at least 12 months.

“It cannot be just an episode of few hours or few days,” Poznyak said. “Millions of gamers around the world, even when it comes to the intense gaming, would never qualify as people suffering from gaming disorder,” Poznyak said, adding that the overall prevalence of this condition is “very low.”

However, he also notes that exceptions to the 12-month rule can be made if enough criteria are met and the symptoms are severe.

“And let me emphasize that this is a clinical condition, and clinical diagnosis can be made only by health professionals which are properly trained to do that,” he adds.

As far as insurance coverage goes, that’s still up to authorities — the ICD has no power over those decisions. However, by officially recognizing gaming disorder, the document paves the way for prevention and treatment options that “can help people to alleviate their suffering.” Poznyak adds that most treatments for gaming disorder are “based on the principles and methods of cognitive behavioral therapy,” and social as well as family support is very important in helping patients overcome the disorder.

Still, there is a lot we don’t yet understand about gaming disorder. While widely hailed as a good addition to the ICD, doctors also have some reservations — mostly that there is still relatively little research into this disorder. Some propose that it’s merely a coping mechanism for people struggling with anxiety or depression. We just don’t know yet.

The WHO hopes its inclusion in the ICD will stimulate debate as well as further research and international collaboration.