Videogaming Might Be Classifiable as Mental Illness Even Though It Has Benefits

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Videogaming Might Be Classifiable as Mental Illness Even Though It Has Benefits

This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.

If you’re prone to lengthy Mario Kart sessions at the expense of everything but breathing, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is onto you. This health care high power proposed the addition of Gaming Disorder to the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases, edition 11), listed under “Disorders due to addictive behaviors.”

“Gaming disorder is manifested by a persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour characterised by an impaired control over gaming,” WHO’s proposal describes. So, what’s the difference between garden-variety gaming and full-blown Gaming Disorder? As it turns out, not much …

Why Gaming Disorder Has the Internet up in Arms

WHO’s proposed disorder has pushed buttons in both the gaming community and academia. In an open letter to WHO, 24 academics from eight countries described how formalizing Gaming Disorder would create “negative medical, scientific, public-health, societal and human rights fallout.”

An ICD-11 inclusion could turn a potentially healthy hobby into pathology, possibly even creating an over-diagnosis epidemic with Gaming Disorder as the condition du jour. It all depends on who’s analyzing the behavior. My mother still struggles to believe that I can participate in weekly raids and function optimally IRL, so here’s hoping her kind doesn’t have a PsyD …

What Pathologizing Gaming Could Mean for Mental Health Treatment

It’s reasonable to argue that pathological gaming behaviors do exist. Remember the baby who starved to death thanks to her parents’ addiction to a (now) discontinued MMORPG?

The problem is that Gaming Disorder diagnosis might not stick to true mental health diagnosis and treatment. Instead, its inclusion could popularize age-old narratives of children filled with murderous urges after killing too many prostitutes on Grand Theft Auto.

If politicized, Gaming Disorder’s inclusion could call the future of many health care advances into question. Games and gamification—game elements in nongame contexts—have enhanced mental health treatment in ways that cannot be ignored.

Innovations Merging Games and Mental Health Care

With WHO’s renewed focus on the evils of gaming, it’s time to celebrate innovations applying game elements to mental health care. Mental health movers and shakers have applied virtual reality (VR) technology and player interface elements to treatment plans with great success.

Here’s a roundup of innovations showcasing just how much videogames have contributed to helping us maintain healthy, happy minds:

1. Virtual Reality

2017 is set to be the biggest year for VR gaming yet. However, this year’s real VR talking point is this technology’s application to mental health care for the elderly.

Since the advent of Oculus Rift, we’ve all been waiting impatiently for someone to develop a real-life matrix (for better or for worse). For elderly patients in assisted living, simulated reality is closer than ever before.

Reality is often grim for care facility residents. After leaving their homes behind to enter assisted living, many elderly patients experience depression and anxiety. Dementia can cause and aggravate these mental health symptoms, too.

Thanks to MIT startup Rendever, the days of being confined to a nursing home could be over. Rendever’s innovative VR platform allows the elderly to virtually explore the world. By strapping on VR goggles, patients can revisit their favorite places and even travel to exotic locations like Machu Picchu.

2. Player Interface Elements


Avatars, or game-world alter egos, hold massive potential for healing in youth mental health care. Booster Buddy is a mobile app that harnesses the power of cute, furry avatars to tackle youth depression, anxiety and psychosis.

Created by Vancouver Island Health Authority, Booster Buddy encourages players to help their furry buddy improve its mental well-being through taking care of their own mental health. Players have the daily responsibility of waking up their companion character by completing a series of real-life wellness quests like taking prescribed medication or planning a healthy meal.

Booster Buddy celebrated over 100, 000 downloads in November 2016 across Android and iOS devices, boasting a stellar 4.4 star-rating on Google Play. If you ever felt passionately invested in your Pokémon trainer’s virtual quest to become Poké-Master, it’s easy to understand where this success comes from …

“Game-like tools [such as avatars] can provide prompts, responsive just-right challenges and markers of progress that can spark healthy behaviors and magnify positive emotions,” explains Booster Buddy clinical lead and occupational therapist Lauren Fox.

Avatars as found in Booster Buddy create a temporary shift in players’ self-perception. By allowing players to explore their personal mental health struggles through a game-world personality, the avatar mechanism makes developing healthy behaviors safe and fun.

•Visual Feedback

There is a wealth of mental health information available online at no cost. However, many at-risk communities cannot benefit from these resources due to low English language proficiency. Incorporating visual feedback elements—such as the menus, buttons and progress bars found in videogames—can help address this information access gap.

“Videogames have the advantage of being less text-based, and therefore less reliant on English language proficiency, than traditional informational sites,” says Sandra Davidson, Ph.D. Davidson, senior research fellow at University of Melbourne, is project leader for Driving for Change.

Driving for Change aims to make wellness resources easily accessible to Melbourne taxi drivers through a mobile app. Factors like irregular working hours, unstable income and threats to physical safety mean taxi drivers are extra-vulnerable to mental illness. Currently in the testing phase, this app provides drivers with mindfulness techniques to reduce stress in spare moments on the job.

As two-thirds of Melbourne taxi drivers are migrant workers born abroad, low English language proficiency contributes to their isolation from mental health resources. By sharing wellness strategies through visual feedback elements, Driving for Change communicates mental health advice in a way that meets this diverse community’s needs. As the majority of taxi drivers use smartphones to conduct business, Driving for Change may just be the best treatment tool to meet their occupational needs. Of course, this is not exactly a videogame, but it could be …

The deadline for WHO’s Gaming Disorder ICD-11 proposal is March 30, 2017.

Shannon is a freelance health writer despite consuming near-toxic quantities of caffeine on a daily basis. Her special interests include tech and innovation in health care. She has a soft spot for carnivorous plants.