Video game addiction, now a WHO-recognised illness, seeks a treatment

One of the symptoms include a lack of control over the impulse to play video games. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Ms Arcadia Kim devoted her career to video games, until one hit her in the face.

The incident happened several years ago when Ms Kim, a former studio operating chief at Electronic Arts (EA), was trying to peel away her then 10-year-old son from a game of Minecraft. He threw the iPad at her in frustration.

Ms Kim, 48, said the experience inspired her to start a business in 2019 advising parents on forming healthy relationships between their children and their screens.

The work took on greater urgency this year when the World Health Organisation (WHO) began formally recognising video game addiction as an illness for the first time.

Among gamers and parents and even within the medical community, there is disagreement about whether gaming addiction is real.

Either way, the WHO's designation could provide a boon to Ms Kim and other businesses like hers.

Dozens of consultants operate in the United States alone, as well as an assortment of apps, camps, self-help books and treatment centres.

A diagnosis of addiction is based on a series of symptoms, according to the WHO.

These include a lack of control over the impulse to play video games, a tendency to prioritise it at the expense of other interests or obligations, and continued or escalated involvement despite experiencing negative consequences.

Studies offer varying conclusions, in part due to disagreements over how to define addiction, but they typically show the illness in 2 per cent to 3 per cent of people who play games.

A similar condition called gaming disorder is more prevalent in the population than compulsive gambling but less than compulsive shopping, estimated Dr Matthew Stevens of the University of Adelaide in Australia.

Achieving recognition was a years-long process.

A similar condition called gaming disorder is more prevalent in the population than compulsive gambling. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

WHO member states voted in 2018 to add it to the organisation's disease classification list, which helps standardise health reporting and tracking worldwide. The change did not go into effect until last month, a lag designed to give the healthcare industry time to prepare.

Yet, the debate rages on among behavioural scientists. Some therapists argue that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) should follow the WHO and acknowledge gaming addiction.

The effort would require proposals and academic papers. The last time the association classified a new addiction was in 2013, when it added gambling, said Dr Paul Appelbaum, chairman of the APA committee in charge of making such designations.

Changes come slowly and "really need to be backed up by data if they're going to be widely accepted", he said.

A broad recognition of the disorder would have legal ramifications.

"It would make it more difficult for courts to exclude experts who testify on video gaming addiction," said Mr Matt Bergman, an Oregon lawyer who has filed lawsuits against social media companies on behalf of teenagers.

In Ms Kim's line of work, she often deals with people who overindulge in games, but she is reluctant to use the word addiction.

"It has a very specific meaning," said Ms Kim, who advises parents through her consultancy Infinite Screentime.

"Let us not turn it into something it's not."

Before her son hit her in the face with an iPad, Ms Kim spent almost a decade at EA, the publisher of Apex Legends, FIFA and Madden.

She was chief operating officer of the Los Angeles studio, where she helped publish a Lord Of The Rings game, oversaw development of the war games Medal Of Honor Airborne and Command And Conquer 3, and worked on the Sims 2. She is proud of her time there.

But there are aspects of Ms Kim's work that she still contemplates to this day. She compares part of her job to a novelist crafting a suspenseful plot or a television writer creating a cliffhanger for the end of an episode.

The goal was to ensure the games were hard to put down.

"The more I was able to hook people, bring them into the world, bring something people could escape to - the better I was at that, the more successful I was at my job," she said.

EA said it offers various parental control options to facilitate healthy habits for kids and ran an ad campaign in Britain to raise awareness of these tools.

"Game play must be balanced with responsible play, and we take seriously our role in ensuring parents are empowered and aware of all the resources available to help them make the right decisions for their families," Mr Chris Bruzzo, the company's chief experience officer, said in an e-mailed statement.

Developers at EA also spent considerable amounts of time strengthening what is known as the compulsion loop, Ms Kim said. Fine-tuning certain techniques can help draw players back, using such tools as a point system, character upgrades, extra lives and ample surprises.

Many of the principles were laid out in a 2001 essay, Behavioral Game Design, by one of the industry's most renowned researchers, Dr John Hopson, whose credits include Microsoft's Halo 3.

Ms Kim left Los Angeles in 2006 for South Korea and consulted for an EA studio there for two years.

She now lives in Hong Kong. The iPad incident took place on a trip back to LA in 2017. The family was staying with Ms Kim's brother, Mr Bernard Kim, the president of Zynga, itself the creator of many enthralling games such as FarmVille. 

For clients of Infinite Screentime, Ms Kim advises parents to play video games with their children and encourages kids to decide how long a game session should last before it starts and plan for intermissions.

Ms Kim also tells clients about the compulsion loop and how to recognise the hooks.

People dislike being manipulated, she said, and simple awareness of the strategy helps control the impulse to overdo it.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.