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Digital Heroin : When playing becomes dangerous

The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5), the primary manual used for mental health diagnosis in the U.S., listed Gaming Disorder as a “condition warranting more clinical research and experience before it might be considered in the main book as a formal disorder.” It was already concerning and that was when it was published 5 years ago. In June 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared Gaming Disorder a diagnosable mental health condition, deciding to include the disorder in the ICD-11 (a system of medical coding created by the WHO for the purpose of documentation of diagnoses, diseases, signs and symptoms and social circumstances). This means that health insurance companies could be responsible for covering treatment and that there will be advances in research and treatment modalities to meet demand.

Though about 160 million Americans play video games, only a small percentage actually meet the criteria for the disorder. People with Gaming Disorder exhibit a clearly defined behavioral pattern outlined by three key features. First, their gaming takes precedence over other, once meaningful, activities. Second, the person will continue to play the game despite negative consequences. Third, this behavior must persist for 12 or more months in order for a diagnosis to be made. Gaming Disorder is outlined by the same features found in both substance and process addictions. Substance addictions occur from use of drugs or alcohol while process addictions occur with behavior. Gambling addiction is a good example of a process addiction that looks similar to Gaming Disorder. Any behavior can become problematic and addicting if it is negatively impacting one’s life.

Modern video games have been referred to as “digital heroin” because of their addictive nature, some of which is intentional by the creators. Overwatch, Team Fortress 2, and Counter Strike are just a few of the many popular games that designed to keep users playing – all 3 of which are described as “a series of multiplayer first person shooter video games.” Fortnite, released in 2017, is a very popular online video game that Wikipedia refers to as a cultural phenomenon. It earns hundreds of millions per month and has accumulated over 125 million players since its inception. This game has caused some issue among parents and educators. A quick google search of “Fortnite addiction” spits out results such as “Fortnite is as addictive as heroin according to health experts” and “Parenting the Fortnite addict.”

The physical effects of excessive gaming include poor hygiene, sleep deprivation which can lead to hormonal imbalances, and “video gamer’s thumb” an injury caused by repetitive use that results in tendonitis and swelling. Additionally, many excessive users gain weight due to a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits.

So what can you do if you or someone you love sounds like they may have an issue with excessive gaming?

Treatment is similar to that for other addictions. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, 12-step programs and in some cases medication are used to treat addiction to gaming. In the same way that the person addicted to food must continue to eat to survive, a person addicted to gaming may be able to explore controlled use as devices used to game (like computers and phones) are often used for many other purposes and cannot be eliminated altogether.

If you are experiencing negative side effects from your use of games or know a loved one may need help, reach out to Sam Nabil Counseling and Naya Clinics. We have therapists specifically trained in addiction counseling that are here to help you through this and other types of addictions. To schedule a session with a licensed professional, click here.


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