Lighting The Fuse
Earlier this month, the gaming world was shocked to learn thata new draft of the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases manual was in the works, which includes a proposed definition for the ominously dubbed ‘gaming disorder’. In an almost knee jerk reaction, a coalition of organizations linked to the video game industry came out in mass to decry the proposed diagnosis via a joint statement reading as follows:
‘Video games across all kinds of genres, devices and platforms are enjoyed safely and sensibly by more than 2 billion people worldwide, with the educational, therapeutic, and recreational value of games being well-founded and widely recognized. We are therefore concerned to see ‘gaming disorder’ still contained in the latest version of the WHO’s ICD-11 despite significant opposition from the medical and scientific community. The evidence for its inclusion remains highly contested and inconclusive.
‘We hope that the WHO will reconsider the mounting evidence put before them before proposing inclusion of ‘gaming disorder’ in the final version of ICD-11 to be endorsed next year. We understand that our industry and supporters around the world will continue raising their voices in opposition to this move and urge the WHO to avoid taking steps that would have unjustified implications for national health systems across the world.’
History Repeats Itself
Video games have a history of being targeted as a scapegoat for the woes of children, harking back to the heady days of the late 1990s when, in the wake of the gloomy aftermath of the Columbine high school shooting, the distraught parents of victims attempted to implicate games as a cause for such unadulterated violence, specifically shooter Doom.
These types of accusations are not new and can be traced back as far as the early 1980s when then U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop linked inter-family strife to an emerging video game industry. What followed was effectively a two-decade long smear campaign championed by the less salubrious press outlets (read tabloids) that fizzled out as scientific studies were unable to prove an unquestionable link between violence and video games, even though questions remain.
Fortnite, You Say?
Today, we live in a world beset by the ever growing influence of the battle royale game on everyone’s lips; Fortnite. The meteoric rise of Epic Games’ flagship title has caused shock waves through communities of parents taken aback by the ubiquity of the game in households across the world, notably among younger audiences. Among the purported 125 million players are an overwhelming majority of minors. Understandably, parents are concerned for the welfare of their children. ‘Gaming disorder’ would prove a convenient target for pointed fingers, however cynical and lazy this may be. And this, ladies and gentleman, is the Fortnite effect and it represents the first step down a slippery slope.
Picture this. A school age child rushes home from school every afternoon, has a cursory look at his assigned homework, and loads up Fortnite. What ensues is a three to four hour session of eagerly chasing the coveted Victory Royale. Every evening plays out in very much the same fashion, a seemingly choreographed routine. Weekends turn from previously relished football games, endless afternoon’s of formative outdoor adventures, and family visits, to nothing but Fortnite, and more Fortnite. Grades plummet, interactions with friends screech to a halt, and parents start to worry.
In steps a trained psychiatrists, who takes stock of the evidence at hand and issues a ‘gaming disorder’ diagnosis. The individual gets help and goes on to readjust their life to find a healthier balance.
Few would agree this example is devoid of concern. The terms addiction, even obsession come to mind, and most would deplore the inherent health consequences, both mental and physical, of leading similar lifestyles.
The Risk Assessment
If ‘gaming disorder’ weathers next year’s WHO vote over the revisions to the ICD and is enshrined in the document, the risk is that medicine is used to sow the seeds of moral trepidation, sending portions of society who aren’t acquainted with the nuances of gaming’s complex sphere into fits of panic. Panic can lead to misdiagnosis (every kid ostensibly has ADHD these days) in a scramble to assign a reason for changing mores and cultural shifts. Panic can quickly snowball and before we know it, gaming could soon be an innocent pariah, with all the commercial and cultural repercussions this entails. There’s also the matter of whether ‘gaming disorder’ is in fact a real ailment, with many unconvinced by the evidence currently available.
Taking our albeit almost satirical example, the child in question would be labelled with a rather hasty ‘gaming disorder’ diagnosis, when the problem may originate from less pathological quarters. Questionable parenting may play a part, as would unseen, and far more nefarious ills like bullying, or simply a difficult passage through the choppy waters of puberty.
The Miracle Solution Fallacy
Any new medium invariably suffers from the scrutiny of the ignorant and the ill informed. “Ignorant” not meaning those afflicted with ineluctable imbecility, but simply a lack of knowledge, a wholly justifiable and imperative desire to protect children and a hint of generational bias. Comic books were shunned when they rose to dominance in the 1950s and video games are very much going through similar teething problems.
On a superficial level, the so-called Fortnite effect is none other than the latest incarnation in a long list of black sheep. Dig a little deeper and it becomes a justification for ‘gaming disorder’ to gain traction. From there, we quickly delve into murky territory. Where do we drawn the line between healthy enjoyment of a popular pastime and a legitimate medical condition? If history has taught us anything, the line tends to shift in favor of the latter.
Addiction to video games is real, but we must not allow fear of Fortnite as a cultural phenomenon to become the basis for diagnosing a whole generation of gamers with ‘gaming disorder’ as a kind of miracle solution. The Fortnite effect could easily be used to paint all of gaming with the same brush. To do so would be ill-advised, both for the industry and the front line services tasked with helping those afflicted by a genuine ‘gaming disorder’.