Is video-game addiction a psychological disorder?

[22 June 2007]

By Mike Antonucci and Troy Wolverton

San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Some doctors believe video-game addiction has become enough of a risk to children and adults to classify it as a mental disorder.

Despite an admitted lack of proven research, the American Medical Association may vote next week on recommending that game addiction be classified as an official diagnostic condition by the American Psychiatric Association. Advocates of the move argue that video games can be every bit as addictive as nicotine and alcohol, with similar destructive effects on work and personal lives.

“This is as tough as any of them,” said Dr. Thomas Allen, a Maryland psychiatrist who helped put game addiction on the AMA’s agenda.

Major game publishers contacted Thursday by the San Jose Mercury News did not respond to requests for comment. But the president of the industry’s trade group, Michael Gallagher of the Entertainment Software Association, issued a statement criticizing the AMA for “making premature conclusions without the benefit of complete and thorough data.”

Even among the AMA members considering the proposal, there is skepticism.

“This needs to have a little more study to know for sure,” said Dr. H. Peter Ekern, a family practitioner in Mexico, Mo., who sits on the committee that will evaluate the addiction recommendation.

And most gamers are certain to be even more dubious of the proposal. Fremont, Calif., resident Joe McCloud, 33, likes to say jokingly that he’s “addicted” to games. He used to play about 30 hours a week and has taken time off of work to play new games. But he says he doesn’t let gaming interfere with his life.

“I don’t think video games themselves are addictive,” he said. Games are “only addictive if the person (has) an addictive personality to begin with,” said McCloud.

Even if the AMA approves the recommendation, it will take years before the psychiatric association finishes the additional investigation that’s required to make game addiction a formal mental disorder.

But despite the preliminary nature of the vote, the issue is adding new fuel to the constantly burning debates about video-game violence, potential government regulation and the power of electronic entertainment. Much of the proposal focuses on games’ impact on children and the need to provide guidance and assistance to parents, pediatricians and teachers.

The AMA committee is expected to review the proposal Sunday and make its recommendation by Monday to the group’s policy-making House of Delegates, which is meeting in Chicago.

Liz Kaneof, a retired dermatologist who chairs the committee, said a full vote is likely Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning.

A report with the proposal concluded “there is currently insufficient research to definitively conclude that video game overuse is an addiction.” But Dr. Martin Wasserman, executive director of the Maryland State Medical Society, argued that the question is not whether the disorder exists, but how many people are affected by it. The Maryland society is the group that proposed that the AMA examine the issue.

“The gaming industry will tell you it’s just entertainment,” Wasserman said. “It might start off as entertainment, but if it’s overused, like anything else, it’s an addiction.”

Dr. James H. Scully, Jr., medical director of the American Psychiatric Association, said the soonest that video-game addiction could be listed as a formal condition was with the publication of the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2012. The organization steadily receives numerous requests to consider new conditions, with recent examples including shopping addiction and parental alienation syndrome.

The video-game industry, regularly under attack for marketing violent titles to children, has long been plagued by stories of players who ignore school, work and personal health during marathons of game activity. The Maryland group took up the issue after Allen, its former president, treated a patient showing symptoms of game addiction.

Allen believes the addiction threat is so severe that publishers should put a warning label on games, advising parents of their addictive potential.

“There should be some kind of statement that they’re not harmless,” he said. “I think that’s a reasonable position to take, and the video game industry should support that.”

Allen said his patient wasn’t working or going to school, was spending money on games excessively and was awake at all hours while playing games, said Allen.

“Video games had taken up his life essentially,” said Allen.

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