If you listen to the media, video game fans are addicts who have no attention span to speak of and are so prone to violence that any of us are capable of shooting up a school at the drop of a hat. Now, on top of that, the World Health Organization has declared that video game addiction is a thing, and it is a public health crisis.
I can practically hear the hand wringing and pearl clutching from here.
Anyone who plays video games regularly has endured being accused of having an addiction. In our dumb, hyperbolic society (where literally also means figuratively) we like to toss around diagnoses like they’re meaningless. “I alphabetized my games today because I have OCD!” “Sometimes I make dumb social faux pas, I have such social anxiety!” When season two of Stranger Things premiered on Netflix, I marathoned the whole thing in one sitting, and no one called me a Netflix addict. That was 13 hours of TV in one day, certainly not the healthiest day I’ve ever had.
Addiction is a serious thing, and while some people absolutely are addicted to video games, they’re pretty rare — so says our good friends at WHO. This is the important part of their declaration:
“People who partake in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behaviour.”
So what does it mean? If you skip work to play Fortnite, lose your job, do coke to stay awake for days to keep playing, and then have your kids taken away, you have an addiction (true story). If you’re playing Fortnite and you can’t be bothered to go to the bathroom and just, you know, go right there, and then punch people in the face when they try to get you away from the game, you probably have an addiction (again, true story).
But those stories — stories of solidly diagnosable video game addiction — are outliers. For most people, video games are a passion that consumes a lot of time, and not at the detriment of our lives.
If it seems like I’m picking on Fortnite, it’s because the media is having a field day with the free-to-play game right now. If you Google “Fortnite Addiction,” you get all kinds of hysteria. The Chicago Tribune ran a story about a concerned father “losing his kids” to Fortnite. He includes damning evidence like not knowing what his kids are talking about anymore, and they get out of bed in the morning all by themselves to play the game. He even throws in a great “fellow kids” reference to Pac-Man fever. The New York Times has a handy guide for parenting a Fortnite addict.
Fortnite is hardly the first game to be accused of ruining people’s lives — MMOs have always been a handy target, including World of Warcraft. Tales of WoW taking over people’s lives and running them into the ground have been around forever (same with EverQuest). Minecraft gets accused of destroying children as well.
Video games are increasingly popular and accessible (especially with the glut of free to play games on mobile devices). In a way, though, they are still very niche in that the people who don’t understand gaming culture really don’t understand gaming culture. It’s easier to blame something for ruining lives and making children violent when they don’t understand it at all.
Most of the people screaming “What about the children!” Tipper Gore-style are forgetting a very simple thing: parenting. As for the rest of us, gaming is an expensive hobby. We require these wacky things called jobs to keep playing. And that’s an important part of the equation — it doesn’t matter if you spend 90 percent of your free time playing games, as long as you’re employed, eating, showering, and not suffering from crippling depression or thinking about hanging yourself with an ethernet cable.
While excessive gaming can be a sign of a problem, it doesn’t mean that gaming itself is addictive and dangerous. Plenty of people gamble or drink alcohol without becoming addicted; the addition of underlying, untreated mental health issues is often what takes a glass of wine at dinner to drinking as a way of (poorly) coping with stressors, which can result in addiction. Not everyone who takes pain medication is addicted to opiates, but there are a lot of people who are.
Bottom line? Yes, video game addiction is real but you’re probably just fine. So try not to get too anxious about it, and don’t leave your buddies in Fortnite hanging.