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Gaming addiction: what we can learn from smoking cessation programmes

Between 0.3 and 1% of the UK’s 32.4m gamers are living with a gaming addiction. At last, their condition is officially recognised. This week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) added “gaming disorder” to the 11th version of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

People suffering from gaming disorder are likely to prioritise game play over every other part of their life. Some self-confessed games addicts have admitted playing up to 16 hours a day.

As with other addictions, people with gaming disorder allow their habit to take precedence over their other interests. These factors influenced the WHO to take action against an emerging and worrying global trend.

In the same way that tobacco companies made cigarettes more addictive by tweaking the ingredients, games developers have added features to their games to keep players addicted. Strategies have included using behavioural science to entice users to play for longer periods of time and to play more often. In fact, the data that developers collect from users allows them to enhance the features of the game that users enjoy the most.

Developers have also started incorporating social elements into game play. Some encourage users to form teams with others. As a result it becomes increasingly difficult to leave a game. Doing so may impact the other members of the team.

In-game purchases make games even more appealing by offering users the opportunity to enhance their own experience. They are able to personalise characters and access different gaming worlds, giving them a sense of ownership of the game.

For most gamers, the strategies created by developers make the games more fun to play, but for others these strategies can have severe health consequences. It was recently reported that a nine-year-old girl had to be admitted to rehab for an addiction to Fortnite, a multiplayer online shooter game.

Lots of parallels. NeydtStock/

Treat it like tobacco

Having identified that gaming disorders are a real health problem, governments must look to the success of other public health campaigns, such as smoking cessation programmes, to resolve this issue.

In the UK, huge success was achieved in reducing smoking rates by taking a multi-pronged approach. This included targeting cigarette manufacturers by banning tobacco advertising, changing product packaging and increasing tobacco taxes. A similar approach may be needed with games developers.

Strategies may include incorporating enforced breaks in play if a user is engaged for a prolonged length of time, limiting advertising to certain age groups, running awareness campaigns about the signs of gaming disorders and adding prompts within games that give advice on where users can get support for problems.

Of course, overcoming gaming disorders is also a parental and user responsibility. Parents should consider where their children are playing computer games and remove computers from bedrooms if needed. Parents also need to be conscious about their own use of technology and act as a positive role model for their children.

It is hoped that by classifying gaming disorder in the ICD-11 it will encourage gamers who feel that they are developing a problem to seek help. The advice from the WHO is to be conscious about the amount of time spent on gaming activities, particularly if this interferes with day-to-day activities.

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