Experts take on gaming addiction

|     Lim Jeong-yeo     |

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) – In early January, news spilled that Korean game company Nexon was going up for sale, with China’s Tencent speculated as a potential buyer.

Industry-wide discussion ensued, with critics lambasting the lack of governmental support for such a promising market to the extent that even the biggest game company was setting to withdraw from management.

Nexon is the biggest Korean game company. Its founder and largest shareholder, Nexon parent company NXC CEO Kim Jung-ju, was cited to be “tired of regulatory clampdowns” and wanted to pursue a different line of business, according to reports.

Notorious legal restraints here shut off players from games from midnight to 6am, and limit in-game spending to 500,000 won (USD440) a month for adults and 70,000 won a month for minors.

While NXC rebutted the notion that the decision to sell the business had anything to do with regulations, others in the games industry took it as an opportunity to complain of the status quo where they are socially or ethically condemned for a business that is otherwise thriving and contributing to economy.

The industry brings in yearly revenue of over five trillion won in a rough combination of just the top three best performing Korean game companies’ output last year: Nexon, Netmarble and NCSoft.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs estimates that the size of the global esports industry will jump from USD869 million in 2018 to USD2.96 billion in 2022, renewing 30 to 40 per cent growth each year.

But still, gaming addiction is real, said Director for the Department of Mental Health Services at the National Centre for Mental Health in Korea Joe Keun-ho.

Having treated patients who exhibit symptoms of addiction to gaming, Joe is a sure proponent of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, which posits excessive gaming as a mental health disorder.

The updated ICD-11 was introduced in June last year.

It is scheduled to be presented to WHO member states at the annual World Health Assembly in May for adoption in January 2022.

At this advanced stage, it’s rare for a WHO revision to be denied by member countries.

“Acknowledging dysfunctional people exist is the first step. Then the psychology experts can join heads to draw consensus on how best to treat this group of people,” Joe said.

Joe emphasised that gaming itself is not the issue.

There are people who are more vulnerable to the happiness induced by dopamine secretion. Only a small portion of people who play games become excessively addicted to gaming.

As a person who likes to play games himself, Joe said game companies should not think of ICD-11 as the end of the business.

Rather, adoption of the classification will help create a healthier environment for people to enjoy gaming.

An online appeal posted to Korea’s biggest internet search portal, Naver, reads, “My daughter is a game addict. She is 40 years old. We don’t know what she plays, but she is squandering her three million won monthly income on games and we believe she has debt, too. We helped her out once, but now she is touching family money.”

With ICD-11, more accurate use of therapeutic drugs can be researched and prescribed to people afflicted with gaming disorder.

Lee Hae-kook, a professor from the Catholic University of Korea College of Medicine who participated in the WHO’s task force as a representative from South Korea, believes only one per cent of people who play games fall victim to gaming disorder.

“However, every addiction has the stigma of the patient being (too) ‘weak’ to control his or her own behavioural pattern,” Lee said, “Which delays public recognition of addiction as a medical condition.”

“Also, just as the case is for tobacco and alcohol, ‘addiction’ occurs when people seek pleasure. The pleasure industry, of course, has companies that produce these contents,” Lee said. “Inevitably there is always conflicts of interest and controversy.”

Experts, on the other hand, advise focussing on the benefits that can come from gaming and campaigns against stereotyping the whole industry based on the minority.

Seoul National University’s Institute for Cognitive Science, for one, researches the positive influences of gaming on cognitive development, including strategic thinking and space perception.

The institute advises adolescents to play role-playing games that require collaboration with others.

For adults, first-person shooting games are recommended to relieve stress. And for older people whose cerebral blood flow is weaker, augmented reality games can help them move around and exercise.

The US’ Food and Drug Administration is approving games that can be used to treat autism and dementia.

The SNUICS envisions a future where “game therapist” would become a viable vocation.