The World Health Organisation have classified "gaming disorder" as a mental health problem. In the first of his new, weekly column, NME veteran and unashamed gamer Mark Beaumont wonders if he might be a victim – and what prescription drugs it might get him
Hello, my name is Mark and I’m… I’m… I’m a gamer. It’s been 15 minutes since my last save. I’ve been mainlining survival horror, sandbox RPGs and A-grade GTA for most of my adult life and I just can’t bring myself to… sorry, is that a beta demo of the new Tomb Raider? Just five minutes, please, I need it…
Yes, after years of being told that pounding feverishly away on my Dualshock has been helping me hone my cognitive reflexes and problem-solving skills, the World Health Organisation are now claiming that gaming is a disease. “Gaming disorder”, affecting an estimated 0.5 percent of the US population, was listed in the 11th edition of the WHO’s International Classification Of Diseases this week, probably alongside other new entries such as the new strain of airborne mega-gonorrhoea that’s threatening to escape containment in the Love Island villa, and the suddenly resurgent epidemic of Tinnitus Florencewelchius, victims of which are plagued by the constant, painful sound of cats fighting.
Now, classifying gaming as a mental health illness that may well justify regular days off work and medicinal marijuana is kind of playing into our hands, but it does make the casual gamer such as myself – y’know, squeezing in maybe 20 or 30 hours a week unless you really need to wash – wonder if you’ve got a problem. Should I be spending every Wednesday night in a circle of thumb-twitching addicts going cold turkey after a 68-hour Zelda jag? According to Dr. Vladimir Poznyak of the WHO there are three clear signs of gaming disorder. One: spending time gaming over other activities, “to the extent that other activities are taken to the periphery”. Excuse me for an hour while I slay Black Dragon Kalameet again, and I’ll address this one. Right, that’s done, now where was I? Oh, never mind.
“One of my more painful break-ups could be blamed on that notorious home-wrecker Fallout 3, undoubtedly the third wheel in that relationship.”
The other two signs amount to much the same thing – that a gamer continues playing “despite negative consequences” and that compulsive gaming leads to “significant strain on personal, family, social, educational, or occupational functioning, affecting relationships and health”. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick and tick. Health-wise, I’m far more likely to do a speed-run through Anor Londo before breakfast than round Plumstead Common. Relationship-wise, one of my more painful break-ups could be blamed, at least in part, on that notorious home-wrecker Fallout 3, undoubtedly the third wheel in that relationship. Work-wise, this novel is doing a dreadful job of writing itself while I’m busy doing important papyrus-deciphering business in Assassin’s Creed Origins.
It’s increasingly easy for modern games to get inside your head. Just a few gens ago solo campaigns would generally last between 10 and 20 hours, long enough to get a solid fortnight of adrenalin bursts out of but short enough that you don’t start calling close family members Snake. We got hooked on the buzz of fighting mahoosive monsters between lengthy bouts of snail-pace self-improvement, a bit like getting a doctorate at the University Of Cloverfield. Then they started giving us Grand Theft Autos set in intricately-designed working cities and 200-hour long sandbox RPG games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3 where there’s always another endlessly repeating fetch quest, another innocuous stat to pump and a shit-kicking new axe you can’t use until you’ve farmed another 15,000 mutant badgers for 2.5XP apiece.
“Suddenly we were spending months doing hard, monotonous graft in hyper-real, deeply immersive landscapes – kind of like doing a proper job in the real world but with some kind of dependable transport.”
Suddenly we were spending months doing hard, monotonous graft in hyper-real, deeply immersive landscapes – kind of like doing a proper job in the real world but with some kind of dependable transport. Inevitably, the edges start to blur. Deep into a game I’ve found myself wandering the real world, drawn to anything blue because it should mean I can interact with it, or wondering if a particular cathedral is climbable. But I’ve never lost my engrained grasp of real-world boundaries, possibilities and consequences. Even after my most intense GTA sessions I’ve never thought I could go out and steal a car, rob a bookies or kill a sex worker. Because killing a sex worker in the real world is a far more involved process than just running up to them, pressing the trigger button a couple of times, having their cash instantly transferred into your bank account and sauntering off hoping no passing policemen happen to have seen it. There’ll be bodies to hide, witnesses to eliminate, CCTV cameras to avoid, DNA evidence to mop up, taunting letters to send to chief detectives… What I’m trying to say is don’t kill sex workers, OK?
“I’m not addicted. I’m not haunted in my sleep by the phantom voices of Japanese 12-year-olds calling me a dick for being crap at Call Of Duty.”
But do my brief moments of disconnect between game and reality mean I have a gaming disorder? When I finish the main storyline of a GTA I leave it behind, I don’t spend the next six years living in the bloody thing perfecting my BMX wheelies with groups of like-minded virtual stunt cyclists. I’m not haunted in my sleep by the phantom voices of Japanese 12-year-olds calling me a dick for being crap at Call Of Duty. Sure I’ve reduced all human contact for the past fortnight to brief snatches between the boss fights of my 30 or so hours in Dark Souls Remastered – for work – but I can handle it, man. That said, I’m seriously considering going cold turkey, to prove to myself that I can. Four months should do it. Right up until Red Dead Redemption 2.