Recently, the World Health Organization declared that obsessive gamers suffer from an addiction called “video game disorder.” Some psychologists fired back, arguing this diagnosis ignores more serious mental health problems. San Francisco teenager Jiahao Chen wanted to know: are his friends just having fun playing Fortnite, or can zealous gaming really be an addiction?
Up until a few months ago, I loved video games. But I didn’t just love gaming; I was obsessed. I remember racing home everyday after school to play League of Legends. I gamed for hours and hours everyday, up until at least midnight.
In League of Legends, I had a mission. It was up to me to help my virtual team destroy the towers guarding the enemy’s base. My purpose everyday was to climb the rank ladder.
But every morning, I had to go down a few levels, back to the real world.
I was so focused on showing off my skills to my team in League of Legends that I barely spent any time doing homework. I was so tired after gaming all night, every night, I’d fall asleep during class. My grades dropped lower and lower, until I got a C in algebra.
Gaming, Hobbies, And Self-Destruction
Thomas Plante, A psychology professor at Santa Clara University, says very few people game to the point of mental and physical self-destruction like I did. But he says an inability to stop compulsive behavior that causes self-harm can be signs of a disorder or a dysfunction.
“For some people, a certain number of people, they can’t stop engaging in the behavior even when it’s destructive,” Plante says.
Psychologists are divided over whether “gaming disorder” is a real diagnosis. “Certainly anything that is obsessive that interferes with social, occupational, or school functioning . . . most of us mental health professionals would consider a disorder,” Plante says.
Roughly two thirds of American households play video games, and that makes it tricky for parents, teenagers, and psychologists to draw the line between an addiction and a hobby. “These things are all designed to be addictive,” Plante explains. “Companies make money to not only sell their product but keep people engaged in the product.”
My Obsessive Gamer Friends
Six months ago, I forced myself to quit gaming. I started sleeping at night rather than during class. Like magic, my grades went back up again. I rarely play video games anymore. I tried playing League of Legends a few weeks go, and I hated every second of it.
But my friends are still obsessive gamers. They’re like the extreme version of me back in the day. Sometimes, It’s hard for us to get in touch and talk to each other because my friends are daydreaming about Fortnite. A few weeks ago, I went over my friend Alfredo Peraza’s house. He’s playing Fortnite again with his friend Christian.
“I started playing video games when I was about seven years old, on a game boy, which was a gift from my grandma,” he says.” It’s what I spent most of my childhood playing on.”
Even now, while I’m trying to talk to him for this story, Alfredo keeps gaming.
“I consider myself partially addicted, because I could stop playing if I wanted to. I just play a lot right now,” he tells me. “If I wasn’t playing video games, I’d outside, or just be sleeping, doing nothing.”
But he wouldn’t need to sit around doing nothing, he could hang out with me. Lately, he won’t pick up the phone when I call him, when I text him he doesn’t reply. I think that’s because he’s playing video games. But even though I feel distant from him, he says games help him make friends online.
“I like Fortnite because it’s trending, and you have to use teamwork to win. I think it helps build relationships with people, because you can interact with them and have them work together to reach a goal,” he says.
Questioning All This Screen Panic
I’m a junior in high school, not a psychologist. I don’t know if my friends are addicted to video games. Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University, says blaming video games is often just a way to avoid talking about deeper issues.
“It’s funny, we really, really enjoy consuming media at the same time, really, really enjoy blaming media for all the problems we have,” Ferguson says.
Ferguson adds that the small percentage of gamers who overdo screen time often show signs of other mental health problems, like depression or anxiety.
“It’s not so much games that do this to people. We really need to focus more on the issue that these individuals have these underlying mental health conditions, not so much the idea that games are causing these problems,” Ferguson says.
Competing With Fortnite
Even if my friends really are just having fun playing Fortnite, I still wish they were easier to reach. Ferguson doesn’t have a solution for me, but he has some advice.
“Open up a conversation about that,” Ferguson says. “Just say, ‘Hey, we used to do a lot of other things. I kind of miss that’.”
But I’m not sure if I’m ready to talk to my friends about their gaming habits. It’s difficult to reach them, because they’re always playing video games.