Last year at about this time, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed a draft of the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Since then the draft has been finalized and several revisions have been made, but ICD-11 still contains the outline to what gaming disorder looks like. In WHO’s ICD-11 for Mortality and Morbidity Statistics under 6C51, Gaming Disorder and QE22, Hazardous gaming, the WHO outlined the symptoms and hazards of an additive gaming lifestyle. To say the least, gamers and the gaming industry are not happy about this addition to ICD-11. If you look closely at the definition of Gambling Disorder (6C50) and Gaming Disorder (6C51) they mirror each other almost identically. Gambling Disorder or Pathological Gambling first showed up in the ICD in 2015. So what took so long for Gaming Disorder to be added to the ICD if it is at its core, it is Gambling Disorder? Do we have the rampant loot box craze to blame or was it just a matter of time before it was added?
It might be an unpopular opinion among gamers, but addictive gaming is a disorder. WHO outlines Gaming Disorder as a significant impairment that has control over a person’s life with an increased priority over playing video games even if it negatively affects them. As a gamer myself, I did not want to accept the WHO classification, but I know from what I’ve seen from fellow gamers over the past 20 years, gaming can ruin a person’s life. I’ve seen first-hand the damage gaming can do if a person does not get help or realize they have a problem. I will bore you with a quick story to put Gaming Disorder in context. Feel free to skip down to “Loot Boxes” section if you have no interest in seeing how gaming can damage a person’s life.
When I was 19 years old I joined the military and met a guy I called my friend at the time. When I first met him, he was a very religious person that went to church every Sunday and always did the right thing. I remember reading a fantasy book by Robert Jordan and my friend refused to read it because the idea of magic was the “Devil’s work.” I respected his strong beliefs and ignored the fact that we disagreed on our favorite reading materials. As a person, he was kind, loved his wife with all his heart, and was a good friend to me. What stood out to me the most about him was he talked about his wife and children all the time. He felt so blessed he had a beautiful wife and two beautiful daughters. I respected him for being a strong family man and a faithful husband.
When we left basic training and our follow-on technical school, we parted ways and did not see each other for over three years. I met back up with him when I was stationed in the United Kingdom. He invited my family over for dinner to meet his family; that is when I realized he had a problem. We arrived at his house and as I walked in, I first noticed the carpet that had human hair all over it. As I panned to the living room, I saw my friend lying on his stomach in the corner playing Diablo. There was no desk or chair, just a man and his computer on the floor littered with things I don’t want to remember. In a matter of minutes, he was screaming at his wife and kids all the while not taking his eyes off the screen or even acknowledging he had company. His eyes stayed glued to the computer screen as he laid on his stomach surrounded by crumbs, human hair, a family of centipedes, and moldy dishes. The whole night he never took his eyes off the computer as he talked to me only about his games. In only three years, a righteous God loving family man laid in filth ignoring the world around him for a pixel piñata game. He was addicted to video games exactly the way WHO outlined 6C51 in the ICD-11. This was all before downloadable content, loot boxes, and cash shops. I’m afraid to think how his life turned out, because after that night I never wanted to see him again. As much as we want to deny it, gaming can be just as addictive as drugs, alcohol, and gambling. With the addition of loot boxes in video games, the lines have been blurred between gaming hobby and gambling addiction.
There is no doubt about it, loot boxes are very closely related to gambling. Belgium even went as far as stating, video game loot boxes are in violation of their gambling legislation. Even though loot boxes are similar to pulling the arm of a slot machine in a casino, most gaming companies still condone this unethical practice of making money. Yes, it is unethical to hide behind a hobby that caters to people of all ages. The counter-argument about poor parenting or the game label’s ERSB rating being at fault is just an excuse to blame the responsibility of addiction on the user only. As old people that used to dance for fun would say, “it takes two to tango.”
Take a free-to-play game like Hearthstone for example; you do not need to buy any packs of cards to play the game, but if you want to be competitive in the game, you should invest in a few card packs. Of course, you can invest your time in the game and earn card packs as you go, but there will be a point where either your life has to take priority of the game to be seriously competitive. Loot boxes that give random rewards keeps a person spending money over and over in hopes they will receive the three cherries in a slot machine, win. Having randomized loot boxes is no different than a casino feeding a person free drinks in hopes they will get drunk enough on the thrill to wager their life. Everything you receive for free comes at a cost in the end. Nobody makes a person sit in a casino spending their life savings and nobody makes a person buy loot boxes or card packs, but if you want to stay in the game and feed your ego, you better open your wallet and invest more of your life to winning. Both gambling and games with loot boxes, booster packs, or cash shops are meant to feed the mouths of the employees while praying on the weaknesses of players.
In 1998, a Nintendo 64 game cartridge costed around $70. Today, most games cost $60. So why are games cheaper now than they were 20 years ago? If you simply look at inflation and the cost of labor, games should cost approximately $110 now. Fortunately for gamers, the technology makes it easier to make new games and there is more supply than demand. Unfortunately for the employees, this can mean unstable employment, long hours (crunching), and multiple projects to focus on. For the companies they had to get creative in making a steady stream of revenue to ensure they kept great employees and the lights on in between long development cycles. There are better, more ethical ways of keeping the lights on then praying on a person’s weaknesses. No matter what business plan a gaming company uses to keep a steady stream of money coming in, not everyone is going to be pleased with it. Over the past few decades of online gaming companies have tried to use a monthly subscription, quarterly DLC’s, loot boxes, cash shops, and all of the above at the same time. Someone somewhere hates at least one of those business plans, but out of all of them which one poses the most threat to addiction? My friend in 1998 didn’t need any of those plans to ignore his wife, hygiene, and his beloved God he spoke so highly of three years earlier. He was content in praying to RNGus day in and day out while he ignores life around him. His weakness was escaping reality to slay the devil in a virtual world.
There is no simple answer to making games less addictive while being able to be a lucrative business. A business can’t control the addictive nature of the people that play their games. Sometimes, people play games to get away from real life just to relax after a hard day. While other people play games to escape their life all together. Just like a drug addict, the drug dealer is not going to stop dealing as long as the person is still alive and willing to buy the drugs. It is up to the gamers to take responsibility and seek help when they need it. Blaming a business or arguing WHO was wrong to include Gaming Disorder in ICD-11, will not help a person off the floor and back into life. As defined by WHO, gaming is a disorder if gaming has become the focus of your life and has negatively affected your life. An addict is unable to stop from buying the next best game or a bundle of loot boxes, when they should be paying rent or feeding their kids. It is time to stop blaming WHO for trying to help people understand there might be a problem for some people. It is time to stop blaming companies for trying to get money to feed themselves. If a company is doing something unethical, say something with your wallet. It has worked in the past just ask Electronic Arts. Generally, just be there for your fellow gamers when they need you.