Is the APA’s ‘internet gaming disorder’ really a fair label for ordinary gamers?

The American Psychiatric Association recently called for study into a condition they call ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’. My gripe? However much it’s been intellectualised, ‘psychiatry’ is not a science because its diagnoses depend on personal opinion, not on testable (technically, ‘falsifiable’) empirical criteria. Where somebody is obviously in trouble, that’s not a problem. But for normal people who end up labelled ‘faulty’ because their behaviour appears to match whatever society’s latest transient panic happens to be, it is.

Screen shot from Id's classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey...
Trust me, I’m a psychologist…

That’s the issue. There are often genuine reasons to be concerned. But social panics are also triggered by nothing more than reaction to change. And all I can see is that the ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ scale will be turned into yet another intellectualised device for social control by which ‘psychiatrists’ validate their own sense of self-worth at the expense of normal people, this time targeting the behaviour of a generation who spend their time interacting with each other on screen instead of face to face.

Don’t forget, it’s only forty years since the APA tried to classify ‘introversion’ as a disorder.

You can imagine what would have happened if they’d succeeded. Suddenly, introverts – who we know today are a normal part of the human spectrum – would have been told their basic nature was a clinical abnormality. Then they’d be ‘cured’ by relentless assaults on their self-worth and by being forced to spend as much time as possible trying to engage with large groups of people and then told how faulty they were for not coping. After all, it’s ‘normal’ to get energy from socialising in large groups, so just go out and do it, and learn how to make yourself a ‘normal’ person, and it’s your fault if you fail, because it proves you didn’t try hard enough and are personally worthless.

Obviously there are genuine psychiatric illnesses – which are diagnosable and treatable – but I can’t help thinking that others are defined by pop-social criteria, given gloss by the unerring ability humanity has to intellectualise itself into fantasy. This was certainly true in the early-mid twentieth century, when ‘psychology’ emerged from a specific German intellectual sub-culture, as a reaction to the pop-social sexual mores of the day. This emerging pseudo-science, styling itself a true science (but not, because of the failure to meet falsifiability criteria), keyed into a period mind-set that sought to reduce a multi-shaded universe – including the human condition – to arbitrary and polarised categories.

The key false-premise that gave ‘psychology’ its power was the supposition that everybody – with the exception of the ‘psychologist’ – was ‘psychologically defective’. Neurotic. This was never questioned. When fed into period conformity to social imperatives, it meant that ‘psychology’ was less a tool for discoveries about the human condition as a means for bullying normal people who didn’t exactly meet narrow and often artificially (socially transiently) defined behaviours. That spoke more about the nature of period society and the personal insecurities of the ‘psychologists’ than about human reality.1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_med

The concept of ‘psychiatry’ emerged, in part, from the union of this pseudo-scientific illusion with medicine; and I am not sure things have changed today – for instance, one available diagnosis today is “ODD” (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), which is an obvious label with which a ‘psychologist’ can invalidate the last-ditch defence of someone who’s come to them for help and doesn’t submit to their ego and power.

What of the idea that ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ is worth investigating? In a social sense internet gaming is a specialised framework for interaction – a way in which people, often on different sides of the world, associate with each other. The framework is very specific, and mediated by computer.

To me this is a key issue, because I suspect a lot of gamers are also introverts; and the computer enables them to interact with others without losing energy. Gaming also frames a specific sub-culture. Those in it respect the status of achievement within those terms. The computer enables them to interact, and to validate that particular interaction with people they respect. Of course this doesn’t describe the whole life, personalities or social interactions of people who happen to spend time gaming; but validation in various ways is one of the drivers of the human condition; and another is the desire of strangers to validate themselves by taking that away – bullying, which (alas) I think is probably also innate.

That’s why I have alarm bells going when I find the APA trying to call computer gaming a disorder.

Obviously gamers cover a wide spectrum, and no doubt a proportion who focus on it will do it excessively, for various reasons – perhaps including trying to get away from being bullied. But in the main, I suspect life is well in hand and gaming is simply a way of socialising via an abstract medium. The problem I have is that the APA’s question risks all gamers being swept up in a catch-all label of ‘disorder’, just like ‘introverts’ nearly were forty years ago, along with left-handers and anybody else who didn’t conform to ‘psychologically’ normal.

I should add – I don’t game. I would, if I had the time, the co-ordination skills – and an internet service that had a competitive ping-time. I don’t. But in any event, that’s not the issue I’m concerned with today.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


12 thoughts on “Is the APA’s ‘internet gaming disorder’ really a fair label for ordinary gamers?

  1. I’ve met a select few who are psychologists or therapists who demonstrate a genuine desire to assist others with sorting out their troubles by facilitating the person’s own decision making ability in a positive way. A few. On the other hand, I’ve encountered many others (or heard first-hand accounts) who embody the worst that you describe. If someone’s goal is to assist they should never treat you as defective or abnormal. When helping others the stress shouldn’t be on pruning, but on encouraging positive growth. As for American psychiatry…they waste no time trying to mold you via drugs. One visit is more than enough to garner mind-altering medications. Some of these people should be looking at prison sentences. This world needs diversity to solve its problems, not drugged or black-listed people who’ve been pressured to fit a mold. Some of this world’s greatest minds are in hindsight labeled as eccentric. What a loss to us all if they’d conformed.

    1. Precisely. There are, I think, a few good psychs out there. However, my experience of ‘psychiatry’ began with a family doctor when I was a kid – anything he couldn’t diagnose became ‘psychological defects’ on the part of the patient. Since then I’ve been exposed to it via corporate ‘psychometry’, which is an intellectually empty field; and I sometimes think that ‘psychology’ as a study attracts people who validate themselves by bullying – and the principles of ‘psychology’, as a discipline, absolutely lend themselves to it. The particular concern I have is when normal human spectrum conduct gets caught up in the net.

      1. I’m with ya. In a room alone with a person in need a psychiatrist possesses considerable power. Anything short of the most ethical behavior is inexcusable.

  2. I’m sure I once read somewhere that the practice of psychiatry was ‘invented’ in Renaissence times. The thinking then was that humans were the perfect expressions of nature, which was obviously a flawed belief, so psychiatry was developed as a way of explaining those humans who didn’t fit the pattern of perfection.

    I also studied psychology at college. Until then I didn’t know gambling machines were designed to take advantage of addictive Pavlovian responses: irregular rewards (payouts) keep the player playing more effectively than regular rewards.

    1. I didn’t know about the gambling machines, but it doesn’t surprise me. Supermarkets are certainly laid out on well-established human psychological principles to capture the shoppers’ dollar.

  3. I gotta wonder how much such diseases are driven by the pharmaceutical companies. I mean, if you’re “abnormal” then there’s got to be some expensive drug that “cures” it right? Some drug that costs $500 per month and makes you so woozy you’re useless for anything and unable to work? Seems like that’s what’s happening with with depression. People are seriously over-diagnosed and over-medicated IMHO. They waste hard-earned money on something they don’t really need. All most folks need is a positive environment around up-beat people and a tough physical task like biking or rowing or any of a thousand other activities that unite body and mind.

    Another “pop-disease’ is ADHD. When I was growing up no such thing existed. I think I developed it periodically and would act out, this is, until Mom took into a room with an instrument of pain. And what do you know? A miracle happened! Incredibly, I was cured of ADHD. My butt was mighty sore, but it healed well enough. In San Francisco, I noticed school kids being led by their teachers. The White kids wandered off, talked too loud, acted out. The Asian kids were quiet, obedient, focused. Racial differences? I doubt it. When Asian kids snacked, they got grapes or dried fruit. Healthy things. White kids got whole bags of Super Mega-Suger Kabooms. Their kids got fat and hyper. And their parents wonder why the kids acted up. Yes, they reason, we haven’t done a thing wrong, let’s go see the psychiatrist!

    1. I think there’s a tendency of late to turn to pharmaceuticals to ‘fix’ various ‘pop’ behavioural problems, without wondering whether those problems are an artefact of social trend or not. Kids playing up? Hey, let’s give them ritalin instead of finding out why – still less anybody putting the effort into proper parenting. Sigh.

      I think an awful lot of why that’s happened has been driven by the pharmaceutical companies – both in terms of mainstreaming the acceptability of their medications, and also in how the drugs themselves are actually tested and presented. I recently read that recent studies question the effectiveness of anti-depressants, for instance – throwing doubt on the methodology of the tests. Part of the problem is that a lot of the tests are sponsored by the companies themselves and thus directed to purpose as a device for maximising profit. It’s only after a successor drug has been discovered (and similarly framed as ‘all benefit, no problem’) that the older drug is properly tested and found to be wanting. Another instance of the intersection between the intellectual framework that found full form with the industrial revolution, and the practical needs of human reality. Sigh…

      1. I seriously doubt the efficacy of anti-depressants. Most of the reason for it is, the people who are diagnosed with depression aren’t actually “clinically depressed.” Getting “the blues” is a normal part of the human experience. We all get that way from time to time, but it isn’t “depression.” Being dissatisfied with your job isn’t “depression” either, it’s a common experience. Giving such people anti-depressants isn’t going to work because that’s like giving someone foot fungus medication for a headache! The only real cure is for the individual to get out and do something. Go on a hike, take that class you were always thinking about, take a trip to Belize.

        I think the biggest problem we’re looking at is all the bloody advertisers. I’ve spent time in third-world countries where there’s no TV, no cell phones, no working toilets. Guess what, those people weren’t depressed! But in the Western world adverts are constantly telling us we need big screen TVs to be happy. We need the right cable provider to be happy. The right car will make everything better. A lot of folks are deluged with all this bullshit and become overwhelmed. Next thing you know, they’re told their clinically depressed. The thing folks ought to do is find the things they really like. For me, it’s a mint mocha. It’s a small thing, no big deal. You can get it anywhere. It doesn’t matter that it’s no rare or expensive, it just makes me happy. I think if people could ignore the adverts a find the simple things they love, there would be much less depression in the Western world.

        1. Broadly true in New Zealand too. Yes, there are people who genuinely need help. But society today also conditions others to be the ‘worried well’ – and even diagnoses same – for no real reason other than corporate profit. What worries me is that this also applies more broadly, including to ‘happiness’ which, as you say, isn’t defined by owning the latest gimmick product that breaks 28 seconds after it’s been taken home (Frank Zappa basically predicted all this in “Joe’s Garage”, but only satirically – which is a worry…) My other worry, extending this more broadly again, is that the framework of if-then analysis relative to many matters that should be abstract has been shifted. The fact that you and I have similar observations suggests this is a world issue. Er – yah. A moment to laugh…and then get very scared… 🙂

          1. Yeah, apparently this afflicts the entire Western world. We live in the best conditions in the world, yet still we figure out a way to be unhappy. We’re spoiled. That’s the long and short of it. I think we have to laugh at this strange paradigm. Otherwise we’d be paralyzed with fear.

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