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Gaming Disorder: what it means

Fans and motors whir and lights blink on as a subtle beep confirms the machine’s coming to life. A game is booted up and worlds and universes of infinite possibility open upon a screen, a window into the digital realm. Perhaps a story of a legendary warrior imbued with mystical powers or a fast-paced multiplayer shooter with friends and strangers set in the battlefields of the World Wars.

These experiences harken back to familiar times when Pac-Man and Galaga ruled arcades. Whether people are screaming at a significant other in Mario Party, moving their body to Just Dance, or testing their skills against another player in Street Fighter, gaming plays a serious role in many people’s lives.

Zach Sexton, a graduate student at Ball State University began playing video games when he was young and his first experience with gaming led him to become a lifelong gamer.

“My first memory of playing video games was playing Sonic the Hedgehog with my dad on Christmas,” Sexton said, as he reflected on that cherished experience and he explained that his parents grew up as gamers. “He got a Sega Genesis and decided that a good way to bond as father and son was to play games.”

Chase Neukam, the president of the Cardinal E-Sports Club at BSU, also became a gamer because of his family.

“As a kid I stayed with my grandma and she had a Nintendo 64 and I don’t remember my first game, but I remember playing Mario Kart and Donkey Kong 64,” Neukam said. “It honestly changed my life.”

“I originally got into gaming because of stories,” Neukam said. “Zelda: Ocarina of Time was the first game I ever one-hundred-percented because I loved it so much.”

Chris Robinson, the media director for the Cardinal E-Sports Club, grew up gaming as well.

“I would say my first game was either Pokemon Red or Blue on the GameBoy Advanced and if I wasn’t playing that it was something on the PlayStation 2,” Robinson said. “I think I was in third grade at the time.”

Gaming as a disorder

However, how much time spent living and dying through these experiences is too much? The debate around gaming’s health benefits and adverse effects is again taking center stage with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent proposal to add “Gaming Disorder” to its list of diseases.

For the disorder to be diagnosed, WHO says behavior must be severe enough to affect personal, social, educational, occupational or other important aspects of daily life and be evident in the last 12 months.

The American Psychological Association (APA) currently has no formal definition for Internet Gaming Disorder, but one survey recently conducted on young adults (18-24) in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Germany found more than 86 percent recently played online games.

Another survey of all adults found more than 65 percent recently played online games.

The participants were asked about problems related to internet gaming based on the proposed symptoms such as withdrawal when gaming is taken away, giving up other activities and the inability to reduce playing. A full diagnoses of the disorder would require five or more symptoms listed by the APA.

Overall, the APA estimates that between .3 and one percent of the general population has a gaming disorder. The APA recommended researchers study Internet Gaming Disorder more.

George Gaither, an associate professor of psychology at Ball State and a licensed psychologist, says that it’s difficult to determine how significant a problem gaming disorder is in terms of the general population.

“If someone is a gamer, where is the line we draw to define whether someone has an addiction or disorder?” Gaither said. “We have to determine if there is significant impairment of life and function.”

Gaming to extreme limits has dire effects. In 2010, for example, a three-month-old child in South Korea starved to death because her parents were busy raising a virtual daughter in a role-playing game.

Gaither explained that these types of cases were few and far between and most gamers don’t have a disorder despite what they or others may think.

“A person with a disorder may have problems because they’re being told they have one, for example this can cause depression because someone believes they have a problem, but don’t,” he said.

“Right now there’s no clear research to determine a biological difference in people with a disorder or those just playing,” Gaither said. “Some play games to fulfill a need, like a basketball player who loved the sport, but can’t play anymore. So, they play games to do so.”

Gaming as therapy

People are connected to friends and the gaming community by meeting in small groups to play Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. at a friend’s apartment or using microphone headsets to strategize over Fortnite.

The experiences and bonds forged between players provide them an escape from reality and, in some cases, can influence a person’s educational and career choices.

“During high school, I kinda had some rough times,” Neukam said. “For a while I was homeless and stayed with a friend, my mom had cancer, my parents got divorced and I had two part-time jobs. I was just trying to help my family keep above sea level and go to college.”

After his days of working and going to school, Neukam would return to video games and escape the stresses of life. However temporary, it was therapy to combat these hardships.

“Gaming, literally, shaped part of my life,” he said.

The Switch, Nintendo’s most recent console, breaks away from the mental health stigmas of video games. The console’s ability to be played at home and away allows for more social interactions between players and shorter play sessions.

The Switch, Nintendo’s most recent console, breaks away from the mental health stigmas of video games. The console’s ability to be played at home and away allows for more social interactions between players and shorter play sessions.

Neukam also said that gaming helped connect him with friends and they would play Call of Duty Zombies and Halo. Soon after, he discovered the esports community through a club in high school where they would play Black Ops.

Soon after his introduction to the esports community, Neukam began playing Smite, a multiplayer battle arena game where players take control of various gods and goddesses from several pantheons including Greek, Egyptian and Celtic. He went to a tournament for the game and met game developers and other players.

“It was a life changing experience,” Neukam said. “Right then I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Because of his passion for gaming, Neukam also started the Cardinal E-Sports Club as a way for competitive players to meet others to play with.

Currently the club has around 80 members in their Discord chat.

“I like them because it’s nice to escape into an imaginary world,” Robinson said. “Video games have more sense of adventure when you don’t have much to do.”

Robinson enjoyed gaming as well as reading books when he was younger, and still does. But he would also play alongside his friends either cooperatively or competitively and over time his enjoyment of competition lead him to join the Cardinal E-Sports Club.

“I would say now I’m a lot more into competitive gaming,” Robinson said before he listed off popular multiplayer shooters such as Overwatch and Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds that he plays often with friends and strangers.

“It’s probably longer than I should be playing, but I’d say I spend two or three hours on weekdays and all day on the weekends.”

Sexton found his way into a larger community of gamers when he was in 6th grade and joined the gaming club.

“We played games on the XBox 360, like Guitar Hero and other social types of games,” he said. “I met some good friends and I’m still in touch with them.”

Sexton steered his academic career in a direction in line with his interest in gaming and the community.

Currently, he is a graduate student focusing on video game/computer game player studies and in his undergraduate he was a computer science major and took all the courses centered around gaming he could.

“It’s more a chunk of my life,” Sexton said. “Decisions I’ve made academically all lead back to gaming.”

“I had a back injury in high school and I couldn’t play sports,” Sexton said. “But I played games and mostly focused on competitive games like Halo. I’d say I played from 4 p.m. to midnight after school.”

Gaming as addiction?

If someone has a gaming disorder can be difficult to determine based solely on time played. For example, Twitch streamers and YouTubers are paid to play video games for their channels and this requires them to put out content on a near constant basis for their audiences.

Renee Human, an assistant professor of journalism graphics, has 15 years of experience with gaming research.  She calls gaming disorder less of an addiction and more of a compulsion.

“Addiction is something behavioral and medical,” Human said. “So far there’s been nothing medically provable. So, addiction requires a medical component like if someone quits playing and has withdrawals.”

“If someone is a gamer, where is the line we draw to define whether someone has an addiction or disorder?” Gaither said. “We have to determine if there is significant impairment of life and function.”

Human says that gaming also has positive impacts on people despite previous claims to the contrary.

“Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s there were a lot of claims that video games cause violence,” Human said. “It was largely politicized and ultimately the research found nothing.”

“More recent research actually found that laproscopic surgeons who play for three hours make fewer mistakes and finish surgeries sooner,” Human said.

Human says that the recent propositions from the WHO and APA are the result of similar ideals about gaming as those held in the previous decades.

“The WHO doesn’t have a lot of power itself, but the debate is more political and could relate to who gets funded,” Human said. “There’s also technological determinism, the idea that technology drives us and causes bad things to happen,” she explained.

“Every generation is scared about the next one making changes,” Human said. “In my generation, we were all zombies in front of the tube, but the current one is about digital connections.”

Because of the old arcade hangouts, the attitude of forming communities and fandoms around games translates into the digital realm as gamers have formed esports clubs, play in competitive and cooperative multiplayer games and having large scale events like Games Con and Comic Con.

“More people are playing physically together at meet-ups, Game Jams and there’s even a board gaming resurgence,” Human said. “There’s not the stigma there used to be about being a gamer, it’s like ‘Hey, I’m a nerd and so are you. There’s a lot of us.’”

However, Sexton, Neukam and Robinson acknowledge that gaming can become a disorder or addiction.

“I think gaming can be an addiction for some,” Sexton said. “I think it’s a form of modern media consumption.” Sexton explained this was based on his experience and research into player studies.

“I looked into League of Legends and found a Reddit thread called ‘New Year’s Resolution’ and every other response was ‘to quit,’” he said. “I also played Star Wars: Galaxies and when it was shut down in 2011, it showed that I spent around four months of my life in game time.”

“I feel like you can get addicted to anything,” Neukam said. “If you can’t function, like eat, go to work and take care of yourself, then you have a problem.”

“I could see the possibility of there being a disorder,” Robinson said. “Especially if your life isn’t as great as it is online and games can be used to escape that and problems can arise from it.”

While they do agree there can be a disorder associated with gaming, they also believe there is a necessity for more research on the subject and there are solutions to treat it.

“There’s not enough study to show whether someone is addicted,” Sexton said. “But as for stopping it, don’t try to quit cold turkey because it causes a bigger chance of relapse. Instead start limiting your play time and know what your boundaries are.”

“Mobile gaming can help treat the disorder or addiction as a way to ween yourself off of playing a particular title,” Neukam said. “The downside is people might use it as a crutch and others can be misdiagnosed.”

“I will say you’ve got to look at gamers and make sure they’re not getting sucked in,” Robinson said. “Instead focus on mental and physical health and make sure you’re not playing too much video games.”

For more information from the WHO and APA’s definitions visit these websites here and here.

Sources: World Health Organization, The Guardian, Psychology Today

Photo Illustrations and Graphics by Terence K. Lightning Jr.

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