Esports Education 2020: what is “gaming disorder” and why should students care?


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Consider this a cautionary tale.

Benjamin Shing Pan Wong studied at the University of British Columbia in the 1990s. While there, he spent his spare time the way many students do. After classes, he would sit down at his computer and immerse himself in World of Warcraft.

As Charlie Smith reports in the Georgia Straight, however, Wong took his devotion to the game to his extremes. He let it consume much of his time between his second and third years at UBC.

“I do recall tallying up the hours,” Wong told the Straight. “It was just under 3,000 hours I had gamed in that period of time.”

WoW, Smith reports, enabled Wong to escape thinking about his personal life, relationships, schooling, and future.

“I was getting stuck in my life,” Wong recalled. “It was a way to cope to begin with—and then it became something else.”

“He eventually realized that he couldn’t afford to devote so much energy and time to this activity for so little return,” Smith writes.

Benjamin Shing Pan Wong

Gaming disorder

Wong is now a registered clinical counsellor. In his practice, Mindful Digitality, he specializes in treating clients with “gaming disorder”.

In case you’re wonder exactly what gaming disorder is, here’s how the World Health Organization defines it:

Gaming disorder is defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.

World Health Organization

“The gamer needs to gain some sense of awareness of what their choice of behaviours is doing to them—both the positives and the negatives,” Wong told the Georgia Straight. “A lot of times, it’s justification for their own self-efficacy.”

Wong’s clients have ranged from 13 to 42 years old, and are mostly male. He also often works with adult family members of game-obsessed young people to help them get off what Smith’s article describes as an “electronic treadmill”.

“I intervene by offering the adults the necessary psycho-education to understand how they can become more of a resource as opposed to a liability for the situation,” Wong said.

A physical toll

Excessive gaming can exact a physical toll as well as a mental one.

In June, eCentralSports reported on the retirement of League of Legends superstar Jian “Uzi” Zihao. “Uzi’s body was starting to give out,” Mike Usinger wrote. “The gamer revealed that he was suffering from obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and hand and arm injuries caused by repetitive strain.”

At the time of his retirement, Zihao was just 23 years old.

In his article, Usinger cited a study a study by Dustin Moore, a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire. Moore collected data on 1,000 male students at the school between the ages of 18 and 24. His research found that gaming interfered with exercise and healthy eating. Those surveyed devoted a minimum of five hours per week to gaming. During this time they consumed more saturated fat and sodium, and fewer fruits and vegetables, than those who didn’t play.

Moore presented his findings to the American Society for Nutrition. In a press release, he said: “The video game industry is continuing to grow at a fast pace and more people are playing than ever. If the findings of our study are indicative of general population, increases in video game usage could translate to increases in overweight/obesity and chronic disease in the general population, which is already a big issue.”

Get moving

The ideal antidote to a lack of exercise is, well, exercise. If the overall general health benefits of regular physical activity aren’t enough to convince you to get moving your body, maybe this will: it can make you a better gamer.

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In an eCentralSports article in July of this year, Mark Judge pointed out that regular exercise improves gameplay in two major ways. It improves physical and mental endurance through increased energy levels, and it also boosts overall cognitive function.

Judge wrote:

Every time you move, whether it be running track or moving the mouse, you’re relying on tiny cell organelles called mitochondria to supply the energy necessary for movement. Mitochondria are the power-houses of the cell; they convert chemical energy from the food you eat into energy that can be used. Regular exercise increases mitochondrial density, making your body better able to produce energy. Oh yeah, your brain too.

And guess what? With more energy comes better physical and mental endurance, both of which are crucial to succeeding during long stints of gaming time. When you can keep moving freely and keep your concentration for longer than the players you’re up against, you gain a vital competitive edge.

Resistance training and aerobic exercise have both been proven to improve cognitive function, compared to those who don’t exercise regularly. Working memory, reaction time, and other markers of general cognitive performance are all improved by physical activity.

Mark Judge, “ESports and exercise: a perfect pairing for the serious gamer?”

Is gaming disorder real?

Physical exercise and a healthy diet are crucial. This is a long-established and indisputable fact.

The mental-health impact of gaming, however, remains a hot-button issue.

In 2017, for example, a group of scholars published a paper , which they also sent as a letter to the World Health Organization. The authors contend that it is “far from clear” that problematic gaming behaviours “can or should be attributed to a new disorder”.

Our main concerns are the low quality of the research base, the fact that the current operationalization leans too heavily on substance use and gambling criteria, and the lack of consensus on symptomatology and assessment of problematic gaming. The act of formalizing this disorder, even as a proposal, has negative medical, scientific, public-health, societal, and human rights fallout that should be considered. Of particular concern are moral panics around the harm of video gaming. They might result in premature application of diagnosis in the medical community and the treatment of abundant false-positive cases, especially for children and adolescents. 

Aarseth, Espen, et al. “Scholars’ open debate paper on the World Health Organization ICD-11 Gaming Disorder proposal” Journal of Behavioral Addictions, vol. 6, no. 3, 2017, pp. 267–270

Furthermore, the authors contend that pathologizing gaming will cause significant stigma to the millions of people who play video games as a part of a normal, healthy life.

Go outside

Whether you consider gaming disorder to be a real problem or not, you have to face reality at some point. The truth is that balance is the key to living a rich, rewarding life. You can’t work all the time. You can’t study all the time. Moreover, you can’t play World of Warcraft 14 hours a day and expect it to have no effect on your health.

Sometimes you just need to get up and step away from the screen. Go outside. Notice the way the sun feels on your face. Appreciate the way the leaves on the trees move in the breeze. Think about the last really great novel you read. (Maybe it was Ready Player One.)

And then call your mom. She misses you.

Your guild will still be there when you get back.

I have done a lot of different things over the course of my life and professional career. I have interviewed Oscar and Grammy winners and written cover stories for glossy newsstand magazines. I have played guitar in a rock band on national TV and run an independent music label for which I wrote all of the PR and marketing materials. In my spare time, I sweated out a novel about a world where raccoons are kings and dragons are real.

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