One of the major hobbies of South Korean teenagers is gaming. Twenty-five of the players that made it to the quarterfinals of this year’s League of Legends (LoL) World Championships are from South Korea. Gaming has long been considered a possible occupation and electronic sports attract almost as much attention as regular sports. To some Korean adolescents, becoming a professional gamer is a dream come true. However, the recent classification of gaming as a disease gives a nod towards parents who may worry about the welfare of their children. The line between casual gaming and gaming addiction has become even blurrier. Whether this change is for the better, only more research can tell.
At the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Health Assembly on May 25, gaming addiction was officially recognized as a modern disease. Moreover, in the draft version of its latest International Classification of Diseases (ICD), WHO voted to include gaming disorder as an official condition. The WHO’s ICD, currently in its 11th edition, serves as the international consensus for diagnosing and treating health conditions. According to the new definition presented by the WHO, gaming becomes a disorder when it “Takes precedence over other daily activities,” and starts to impair a person’s relationships and responsibilities for at least a year.
There is, however, ongoing scientific debate on the issue and there has been recent research that casts a lot of doubt on this classification. A recent study by Oxford’s Internet Institute, highlights how many of the game industry’s most devout players may also be driven by some unmet psychological needs. This is to say that the reason behind the behavior that disrupts the daily life of a gamer may not be fully attributed to gaming but other mental health issues that are already present. This raises the question whether an excessive or addictive relationship with gaming actually causes psychological problems, or whether people with existing psychological problems are simply more likely to have an unhealthy relationship with gaming.
For or Against?
The WHO’s decision was certainly met with divided reception. There are some people who claim that this change was way overdue in this generation as people are so much more easily exposed to technology than in the past. Mental health experts that are supportive of the classification also believe that this will allow people to be able to get insurance to cover their therapies now that it is a legitimate diagnosis. It is without doubt that the biggest advantage of this inclusion would be that the medical and mental health professionals would now be able to follow official, worldwide guidelines to treat a patient who is struggling with game addiction.
There is, however, much backlash coming from a large number of representatives in the gaming industry. Representatives of different countries have asked the WHO to reconsider the inclusion of gaming disorders in the ICD-11 in a joint statement saying, “Gaming Disorder is not based on sufficiently robust evidence to justify its inclusion in one of the WHO’s most important norm-setting tools.”
Although there are acceptable reasons why someone would think that an excessive amount of time spent gaming could be harmful, there does not seem to be substantial evidence present in current research. There is debate going around that this may have been a hasty decision that will cast gaming in a negative light and, frankly, do a lot of damage to the gaming industry and culture.
How is South Korea Involved?
Video games are practically the national pastime, played by a majority of adults and adolescents. This is most likely the reason why rising concerns over the effects of games on mental health have always been met with skepticism by the gaming industry in South Korea. The question still remains whether the South Korean government will add “Gaming disorder” to its own d i a g n o s t i c “ K o re a n S t a n d a rd Classification of Diseases.” This classification would signify a huge change in culture, not to mention the fact that economic consequences are most likely to follow these changes.
In fact, research suggests that the South Korean economy would take a substantial hit as a result of the formalization of gaming disorder into the ICD-11. According to an academic report released by Professor Lee Deok-joo at Seoul National University (SNU), the WHO’s new classification could possibly cost the South Korean economy 9.45 billion United States Dollars (USD). In addition, it is only natural that gaming exports from the country would suffer as well. Just in 2017, South Korea exported six billion USD in games — more than 10 times what the country’s K-pop music industry brought in.
There have also been concerns about the loopholes created by classifying gaming as a disease. People have been questioning whether gaming disorder would then count as a valid reason to take a sick leave from work or school. Technically, the WHO’s classification would make gaming disorder a plausible reason to get out of work and because of this, there are well-founded worries about how easy it will become to abuse this decision.
The ICD is not a law, nor does it have the force of a law. But it is greatly influential in how professionals and policymakers study and propose treatment or intervention in public health matters. It is without doubt that the classification of gaming as a disorder does create a social stigma around gaming in general. Overall, it does seem like a rash decision to set something into stone, especially if there is clearly not enough research done around the topic. The classification itself may be reversible in the future but the consequences that come out of officially claiming something as a mental disease are permanent. The South Korean government should truly consider the impact of including gaming disorder in its own diagnostic.