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A Symptom, Not a Disease: Gaming Addiction and Isolation} ?>
With the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classifying “gaming disorder” as an addiction, parents across the nation are breathing sighs of relief that their concerns are validated; they may have access to more specialized services now to get help for their gamer children; they may feel they have even more reason to ban video games from their children’s lives.
In this eleventh revision of the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), gaming disorder is defined as:
“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.”
What the WHO doesn’t clarify, unfortunately, is that many of these signs can very easily be misread as coming from gaming when the source is actually something else, such as bullying, parental neglect, depression, social isolation, or anxiety.
Growing up, I was labeled a “video game addict” because I would come home from school, do my homework, then hide in the basement playing as many hours of Halo and Gears of War as I could squeeze in. My parents would often yell at me and take the games away, considering me lazy or entitled. What they didn’t know was that I was being bullied and abused at school, and depressed to the point of considering suicide. My parents targeted the only thing they could see, my gaming habit, and didn’t go deeper. I wasn’t articulate enough and didn’t feel safe enough to tell them about how awful life at school was. I had bad grades, didn’t want to be at school, and exhibited every sign the WHO names as symptoms of gaming disorder. What I needed, however, wasn’t fewer games, but a life free from the social anxiety I had been experiencing. The games were just a symptom.
After graduating, I moved out and my gaming habits changed overnight. Getting out of high school and leaving abuse behind, dating a wonderful person, gaining a spiritual mentor, and being independent all changed my context. Without any intervention, all the signifiers of a gaming addiction went away. I have always enjoyed games and will always enjoy games; I still play them for hours on end, just like someone else might golf, knit, garden, or play guitar for hours. As opposed to these other hobbies, video games are often considered inherently worthless, which is why they’re stigmatized. But I was never addicted; I was alone, afraid and hurting.
The WHO identifying gaming disorder as a mental health issue could, with the correct mindset, help those in need find help, and give those who are not addicted more breathing room. However, the reporting on this issue continues a trend of shaming, judgement, and harassment towards the gaming community, which is a strong basis for the addiction itself.
While gaming addiction is a real thing that has serious consequences, misdiagnosing it when there is an underlying cause is dangerous. When one of the reasons we retreat into exploring digital worlds to the point of shunning other people is feeling isolated, the solution is be very simple: connection.
Most parents look at their children’s passion for video games and think that limiting time on them, forbidding their children to play them, or throwing the games in the trash are good solutions for solving what they see as an addictive habit. However, more often than not, this drives gamers to extremes to seek out the hobby and escalates conflict in the home. When parents refuse to consider their children are investing so much time in their hobby because they have difficult lives, not because games are making their lives difficult, gamers can feel misunderstood and even more isolated than before.
Usually out of good will, parents will invite their nerdy children to go to the park with them, or go for a bike ride, or watch a hockey game. This invitation to interact is movement in the right direction, but not the best kind of movement. Most teens will see this as an attempt to force them to like the same things as their parents.
If parents engage through and with the games their children are playing, they may create a more loving environment that respects a worthwhile hobby they don’t understand. Asking questions, spending time watching the game, and even playing it to spur meaningful conversations about the game are the kinds of efforts that may break through a child’s isolation.
This is the best way to love a nerd—to show interest in the things they love.
This is our intention at Geekdom House, Area of Effect, and the Gamer Guild—to connect people who long to engage with others who understand, not just their hobby, but the stigma they’ve likely faced because of it. We seek to create a safe place of belonging, a community for nerds, geeks, and gamers of all kinds—the kind of community I wish I’d had as a teenager. I don’t believe our health depends on proper categorization in WHO’s official documents; I think the more crucial step to a healthy life is finding a safe community to belong to.
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