World Health Organization plan to declare gaming addiction a mental disorder 'inevitable', Calgary expert says

The World Health Organization has announced plans to add gaming addictions to its international list of mental disorders — a move a Calgary psychologist says makes some sense.

'As soon as you press a button, you're getting a ... very powerful reinforcement', says psychologist

Gamer plays with an Xbox console during the 2017 Paris Games Week exhibition. The World Health Organization is adding gaming addiction to its list of mental disorders. (AFP/Getty Images)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared video game addiction a new category of mental disorder.

That won't come as much of a surprise to parents of young gamers — which is where Dr. Brent MacDonald often comes into the picture.

MacDonald is a Calgary psychologist who spoke to The Homestretch about the WHO decision, and how parents or others should deal with someone they think may be addicted.

While there has been a debate raging for years over whether or not to declare video game addiction a mental disorder, MacDonald said the move makes a certain amount of sense.

"Its kind of inevitable," MacDonald said. "When you look at some of the behaviour associated with gaming, and [when you] compare it to a lot of behaviour associated with other kinds of areas people get addicted to, there's a lot of overlap."

Super Mario Odyssey is the latest in a steady stream of well-received games over the year from Nintendo. Calgary psychologist Brent McDonald recommends gaming parents avoid playing violent games with children under 14 or 15 years old. (Nintendo)

What makes games so addictive?

The basic element that gets so many gamers hooked is the instant gratification of it all, MacDonald said.

"As soon as you press a button, you're getting a very basic but very powerful reinforcement, be it sound, be it light, be it an achievement of some sort," MacDonald said. "It's very reinforcing. So it's not surprising to see it become something people have a lot of problems with."

The organization's decision to add video game addiction to its International Classification of Diseases might seem inevitable, but in the United States, there has been a debate raging about that designation — a situation MacDonald says owes more to the nature of scientific research.

"The science of psychology is a bit of a slow moving beast," MacDonald said. "But I'd rather see them take their time and do the scientific research, rather than just say this is just another area of mental disease or mental disorder that's popular right now."

A video game enthusiast plays Pac-Man at Tilt Arcade Bar in Toronto in December 2017. (CBC)

What parents can do

The WHO decision to include video game addiction as a mental disorder does not come with a prescription for how to fix it.

"The diagnostic processes really aren't in place right now," MacDonald said. 

Even if the World Health Organization isn't providing much help with how to help kick the habit of Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, MacDonald suggested a few recommendations for anyone who knows someone who needs to get away from their computer screen.

  • Set boundaries. "Around an hour a day, depending on the developmental level of the student or child," he said. "When you get to three hours plus — which is not uncommon — unfortunately three hours plus actually has a fairly significant detrimental affect on social interactions and social impact."
  • Set those boundaries early in the gaming life of your loved one. "Most parents listening are probably saying, that sounds really easy to do but really impossible to actually apply in life. But the younger you can start this, the better because it's something that's not going away. It's a $30 billion a year industry."
  • Be your own best role model. "Being able to turn it off and walk away from it and just being done with it. And not being (like), 'OK, well, I just have to finish this level,' or whatever it might be. The other major thing is the type of game. If you're with a child and you're home and the child is under a certain age — let's say 14 or 15 — they probably shouldn't be playing a whole lot of really violent video games."
It can be hard to tear our kids away from their video games. Some adults have the same problem. The World Health Organization plans to include gaming addiction as a new category of mental disorder. Calgary Psychologist Brent MacDonald joined Doug Dirks. 7:44

With files from The Homestretch