Game Over – Gaming as an addiction and mental health disorder


Addiction is a devastating concept that millions of individuals and families grapple with. Year after year, various addictions are reported as being epidemics and global. Drug addicts seek help in the form of drug rehabs. Individuals with dependencies on alcohol attend AA meetings. It seems that the mainstream addictions, the ones that are most commonly spoken about, are experiencing a revitalisation of awareness, open conversation, and treatment opportunities and formats. Addiction of any kind of renowned for impacting an individual’s health on a variety of levels, with most of them being the result of, and impacting, physical and mental health. Individuals who experience addiction find themselves in a disturbing state of mental dependence and, as a result, physical struggles as well. Addicts devote their lives and a significant amount of their time to their addiction…even their very thoughts are fuelled by their next hit. Addiction becomes all-encompassing. Gaming is no different. It is just less talked about.

Gaming as an addiction and a mental health disorder is one of the lesser known addictions, and it certainly impacts a lesser number than the mainstream addictions (such as alcoholism and drug abuse). However, the negative impacts on the mental health of gaming addicts is not to be underestimated. As more young people struggle with their dependence on virtual connectivity and virtual worlds, they find themselves inadvertently pulling back from the real world and thus isolating themselves from those around them. Ultimately, what this leads to is an increase in mental ailments such as anxiety, depression, and subsequent isolation. Despite these mental health symptoms, as well as the physical impacts of being glued to a screen all day, it was not until this year that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised gaming disorders as a genuine mental health issue. This is the first time that gaming addiction has been officially listed as a genuine cause for concern.

While gaming addiction affects a set demographic and hence is unlikely to evolve into a full-scale mental health epidemic, the effect is significant enough, on enough people, that it warrants treatment clinics. Interestingly enough, the first ever NHS-funded addiction centre for young persons and adults affected by gaming disorder is being launched online. It may seem strange that a mental health issue born of a mass popularity of online games is being treated online, but the argument is clear: the best way to treat those who are wholly or partially reliant on virtual connection, is by providing them with a treatment option that is available on much the same platform. The specifics of gaming disorder are critically important because, unlike with other, more obvious addictions, the fine line between obsession and addiction is difficult to diagnose with ease.

For gaming disorder to be definitively diagnosed, the behaviour pattern of the individual being assessed must be of such severe levels that it impacts not only themselves, but their families, social standing, education, occupation, and connectivity to the real world. When a player becomes so actively engaged in their game of choice that they actively pull away from the outside world in favour of one that has been designed for them, there is a clear issue at play. Willingness and conscious action to pull away from the real world and instead invest in virtual connection and stability suggests that an individual is struggling internally, and mental health becomes an active, central concern here.

Mental health struggles being a cause of gaming dependency seemed at first an odd concept for the majority to grasp, but these days it makes more and more sense as time goes on: individuals turn to alcohol, drugs, and gambling as coping mechanisms – and most of these addictions offer no end game, no positive reinforcement that is tangible – so it makes perfect sense that gaming, an outlet that provides players with tangible, evident reinforcements to continue improving in the game, and thus the self. Not everyone agrees that gaming disorder is a mental health concern, but the evidence is mounting and, coupled with the steady increase in individuals coming forward seeking help for gaming addiction, the mental health acclimations are clear: when a gaming addict turns to gaming, they are often seeking to escape their true reality. Gaming offers a type of mental stabilisation that many gamers do not get from real life connection and advancement, and so these players invest more and more energy and time into their virtual realities, effectively further removing themselves from everyday life.

Gaming disorder is a relatively new, but entirely valid, mental health concern. As the World Health Organisation validates its stance as a mental health issue, the rest of the world has finally begun to pay attention to it. Dependence, obsession, and potential addiction to gaming results in an active removal from real life on the player’s part, and it essentially forges a reimagining of their world that puts them dangerously out of touch with reality. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with enjoying playing video games, the increase in addictive reliance on them is troubling and warrants the attention it has begun to receive. Mental health is a fragile aspect of humanity, and any outlet – including gaming disorder – must have active and open treatment methods and support systems to help addicts transition back into a healthy, full life.

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