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Time spent playing in virtual worlds carries risks, particularly for people who spend excessive time playing.

According to the World Health Organization, video games can be as addictive as cocaine or gambling. In its latest revision to a disease classification manual, the U.N. health agency said compulsively playing video games now qualifies as a mental health condition.

The statement confirmed the fears of some parents, but led critics to warn it may stigmatize too many young video players.

“After consulting with experts across the world, and reviewing evidence in an exhaustive manner, we decided that this condition should be added,” said Shekhar Saxena, director of WHO’s department of mental health and substance abuse.

Online and offline “gaming disorder” finds itself grouped with “disorders due to substance use or addictive behaviors” in the ICD’s 11th edition, the first major revision in nearly three decades.

Key symptoms include “impaired control” — notably the inability to stop playing — and focusing on the game to the exclusion of everything else.

“The person does so much gaming that other interests and activities are ignored, including sleeping and eating,” adds Saxena in an AFP report.

In extreme cases, gamers unable to pry themselves away from a screen drop out of school, lose jobs, and become cut off from family and non-gaming friends. The overwhelming majority of video game adepts are young, with many in their teens.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, who has been researching the concept of video gaming disorder for 30 years, said the new classification would help legitimize the problem and strengthen treatment strategies.

“Video gaming is like a non-financial kind of gambling from a psychological point of view,” said Griffiths, a distinguished professor of behavioral addiction at Nottingham Trent University. “Gamblers use money as a way of keeping score whereas gamers use points.”

The inclusion of gaming disorder in the revised catalog unsurprisingly drew flak from some parties.

“The WHO process lacks transparency, is deeply flawed, and lacks scientific support,” Michael Gallagher, president and CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, said in a statement in March.

The new ICD also includes for the first time a chapter on traditional medicines, used by millions of people around the world.

The ICD-11 database can be consulted here.

Photo credit: The Associated Press

Lamar Green

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