The video-game industry is on the defensive after the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently voted to officially classify video game addiction as a very real psychological disorder.

Representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have affirmed the inclusion of ‘gaming disorder’ in the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) manual, which defined the disorder as “a pattern of gaming behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming”.

That pattern of behaviour must have driven sufferers to prioritise gaming over other interests and daily activities, and patients must have continued or escalated their gaming behaviour “despite the occurrence of negative consequences”.

The disorder “affects only a small proportion of people” who play video games, the WHO said, but people “should be alert” to how much time they and others spend gaming and be aware of changes in physical or psychological health.

When pastime becomes addiction

It’s a wakeup call for an industry that has long emphasised claims that video games foster dexterity, problem-solving, social engagement, and other skills that make people better workers.

Australians spent $4.1b on games and gaming hardware last year and some 67 per cent of Australians play video games, according to the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association’s (IGEA’s) 2018 Digital Australia Report.

Across the 1,234 surveyed households, men averaged 98 minutes of daily play while females spent 77 minutes per day, on average; casual gamers tended to spend 10 minutes, twice per day.

More than three-quarters of respondents said they had set down rules about how long their children can play video games, what kinds of games they play and when.

With 77 per cent of gamers being 18 years or older, however, those rules may quickly fall by the wayside.

Adults and independent teenagers often have no such checks and balances – and that sets them up for obsessive and potentially dangerous, addictive behaviour that may manifest as playing for hours every day.

Psychologists have long been seeing the fallout of too much video gaming – one analysis drew numerous behavioural parallels to drug addiction – and some teenagers are being forced into rehab to break their gaming habits.

Video game sensation Fortnite, known for its addictive qualities, was also blamed in more than 200 divorces last year alone.

There have even been cases of addicted gamers dying from exhaustion and other causes after marathon gaming sessions in Taiwan, South Korea, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Taking the game too far

Recognition of the risk of video game addiction is a reminder of the importance of balancing the narrative around games even as schools get serious about esports, competitions offer significant cash prizes, the government invests to attract women gamers and increasing social diversity makes games even more of a social microcosm.

Industry revenues grew 18 per cent to be worth $US43.4 billion ($A63.1b) in the US last year alone – so industry bodies are, unsurprisingly, unhappy about the medicalisation of video-game addiction.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) – whose membership includes local video-game associations in Europe and six countries, including IGEA in Australia and New Zealand – pushed the WHO to “rethink” a classification that, it said in a statement, is “not based on sufficiently robust evidence to justify inclusion in one of the WHO’s most important norm-setting tools”.

“The WHO is an esteemed organisation and its guidance neds to be based on regular, inclusive, and transparent reviews backed by independent experts,” the ESA argued.

The addictiveness of gaming is hardly news – slot machines, sports betting and other casino games have been in the crosshairs for many years – and video games have increasingly been under scrutiny for what some say is an intentional effort to make their games more addictive.

An analysis last year singled out online games which, University of Adelaide researchers concluded, are a form of “psychological ‘entrapment’” that “enable endless spending behaviours and employ systems that disguise or withhold the long-term cost of these microtransactions.”

In 2015, an American woman set the Guinness World Record for endurance video gaming, playing Just Dance 2015 for nearly six days straight.

When gaming meets science

Formalisation of the diagnosis has been controversial in gaming circles, and WebMD notes that the American Psychiatry Association’s comparable manual, the DSM-5, was published in 2013 and has not formally recognised addiction to any games other than gambling.

Addiction counsellors, however, are well aware of the consequences of excessive gaming – which has been placed on the spectrum of impulse control disorders, linked with depression, and identified as a trigger for cyclical degradation of friendships, sleep patterns, mood stability, and depression.

Previous studies have even suggested that video game addiction was a consequence of underlying issues including anxiety, neuroticism, aggressive behaviour, gender differences, relationship problems, and even authoritarian parenting styles.

Confounding the discussion are findings such as a recent Oxford Internet Institute study, which in February refuted the long-debated link between violent video games and aggression in adolescents.