Does My Kid Have Gaming Disorder?

The short answer: 99 times out of 100, probably not.

Today the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed to recognize "Gaming Disorder"as a mental illness. That rushing sound you hear is that of a million parents charging to turn off their kids Fortnite games, not to be mistaken with the "CA-CHING" sound of hundreds of mental health professionals seeing a goldmine of concerned parents ripe for the picking.

Don't worry, your kids are probably alright. In fact they are much better off in the long run with video games as a part of their life, but I'll get into that later.

As a LAN owner I've worked with hundreds of gamers with deep interest in video games and have seen every type of gamer kid - happy, emotionally unstable, awkward, aspiring pro, introvert, extrovert. If there were a PhD for understanding gamers I would qualify for an honorary degree.

Before I begin we should take a look at the actual WHO wording that came out today and understand that the standards for being diagnosed with gaming disorder are actually quite high. Here is the text straight from the WHO website:

What is gaming disorder?
Gaming disorder is defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.
For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.

So there are five parts to break out here, each one of increasing severity. Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional, and my thoughts below are based purely on my own experiences both as a LAN Owner and as someone who - in my younger days - worked through some very difficult life problems by gaming 14 hours a day. I'm much too busy these days with my career at a fortune 500 company and side gig operating a LAN Center and esports team to spend too much time gaming, but I have walked the path of someone who would have - in the past - qualified for a borderline gaming disorder diagnosis. Anyhow let's break down the WHO statement into its five parts:

  1. Impaired control over gaming - Pretty much every kid qualifies for this. Time management and control are skills that are still developing at a young age. Don't panic.
  2. Increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interest and daily activities - What the WHO is basically describing is a hobby. Some kids like football, some like skateboarding, some like video games. So again I don't think we really have much to worry about here, especially in the age of hugely popular streamers like Ninja and TimTheTatMan. This is actually a viable career route and a huge booming industry - for your kids to take a larger-than-normal interest could be a great thing for their futures. More on that later.
  3. Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences - It most commonly will manifest itself in poor grades or attendance at school due to late night gaming, and this is a hugely common and often correctable behavior. Your kid is trying to learn limits and self control, and these are skills that will benefit them greatly in life when properly learned.You should be actively involved in helping your kids form better time management and prioritizing skills. Remind them that some things must come first, with ample time for their hobby given after their priorities are met. But your kid does not have a mental illness. Nope. Moving on.
  4. The behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning - It is at this level that you should be concerned. The gamer has withdrawn significantly from the real world in order to cope with some problem, and is spending an increasing amount of time in the video game world. These can often be socially-oriented games with like-minded individuals all around the globe. At this level we are likely talking about a teenager or older individual. If you can find ways for the person to get short bursts of time away from the game but occupied in some other task, something that involves their minds being involved thoroughly and taken out of the gaming world, this will help in small ways to bring their thoughts back to their problems. It has to be sufficiently challenging and rewarding to pique their interest and keep their minds occupied. Try to schedule it with them in advance - in game schedules can be demanding in some games! Here is a short list of problems that could be popping up in their own lives that they are trying to cope with:
    1. Dealing with a major loss
    2. Depression or Anxiety
    3. Problems with a teacher or parent
    4. Problems with a sibling or relative
    5. Relationship problems
    6. Personal problems
    7. Other
  5. Evident for at least 12 months - If we're at this point and you've tried the means above with little success then I would have to agree with the WHO assessment that professional help should be sought. My own rut lasted around 6-8 months so I wouldn't say all hope is lost at 12 months, but you should definitely be seeking some outside help at this point. Abstinence as promoted by groups like gamblers anonymous and alcoholics anonymous may be the best route forward.

Now that we've gone through that scary analysis, I wanted to take a moment to step back and highlight the good that can come from gaming. It may take a rare individual to reach stage 5 as outlined above, and for many gaming can be a fun, challenging, social event. Here in 2019 there are three truths that I think every parent needs to know about gaming. These have evolved in my roughly four years of managing the LAN, following the growth in gaming, and getting to know a lot of gamers.

  1. There are careers to be made here. I could point you towards the hundreds of players, streamers, content creators, and organizations making a very good living off their talents and personalities. This is a booming industry and if your kid has an interest, a passion, and most importantly a true enjoyment, they can go a long ways. Skill and personality are also intangibles that can be improved upon but any natural gifts in these departments can provide a huge boost. The irony here is that many of the most successful gamers out there today would almost certainly have come close to the diagnosis as outlined above as having gaming disorder.
  2. Gaming benefits can last a lifetime. In the same way that somebody who works out for years to maintain their health will feel the benefits for a lifetime, the skills gained through gaming - from communication to teamwork to organization and community building - will carry a gamer their entire life.
  3. Gamers are fine. There is nothing wrong with having video games as a hobby, or as the WHO puts it "gaming taking interest over other interests and daily activities". It's a perfectly normal, natural, and more recently profitable interest. As a parent you should support it as you would any deep interest.
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