As the World Health Organization (WHO) decided to officially classify gaming addiction as a disease, the South Korean government has also started the procedure to add it as a disease. The WHO’s decision-making body approved the inclusion of gaming addiction in the new international classification of diseases. The new classification will be reflected in the Korean Standard Classification of Diseases (KCD) of Statistics Korea and take effect on Jan. 1, 2025.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare will set up a consultative body to discuss the classification of gaming addiction as a mental disorder next month at the earliest, according to industry sources on May 26. The consultative body will consist of relevant ministries, such as the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, game industry officials, civic groups, parent groups, health experts and legal experts. Since it is a big controversial issue in society as a whole, the planned body is expected to continuously hold public hearings and debates in the future.
The WHO has defined gaming disorder “as a pattern of gaming behavior characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. For it to actually count as a disorder though, this pattern must dramatically impair personal/occupational life for at least 12 months. However, the WHO also made it clear that gaming addiction should be considered as a disease if the symptoms are severe, though they did not last over 12 months.
How to distinguish gaming addiction from internet addiction and smartphone addiction, which have similar symptoms, is also another important issue. Controversy over fairness is expected to grow as new services which appear with the advance of information technology (IT) cause similar symptoms in a greater or less degree. The WHO’s standards on defining gaming addiction are continuity, frequency and control ability, but they are also applied to internet addiction and smartphone addiction.
If gaming addiction is categorized as a disease, there will be controversy over the coverage of health insurances. As an increasing number of mental patients are committing violent crime, the government has recently strengthened countermeasures and significantly expanded the budgets to treat the mentally ill. Some say that it can create a game tax on video games to treat game addicts, like the tobacco tax.
Meanwhile, the domestic gaming industry claims that the WHO’s latest decision to add gaming addiction to the disease list lacks a scientific basis. The joint committee to oppose the introduction of the gaming disease code strongly criticized the decision, saying, “The WHO made the hasty decision to add the gaming disorder code, though it has not secured enough scientific basis, such as research and data. The disease code designation deprives children’s rights to engage in playing and cultural and recreational activities as decreed in Article 31 of the United Nation’s Convention on Rights of the Child.” The joint committee consists of 85 domestic organizations, including the Korea Game Society.
The gaming industry also expresses opposition to the decision via social media. NCSoft Corp. and Neowiz Corp. updated the post on its official Facebook account, saying, “Games are our friend and a sound recreation culture.” An official from a game developer said, “If gaming addiction is defined as a disease, it should be possible to take sick leave with gaming addiction. It is nonsense that gaming addiction is added in the disease code list.” He said that lack of understanding about video games has led to such a decision.
The joint committee is planning to hold an inauguration ceremony and press conference at the National Assembly building on May 29 to announce future strategies and plans.
In addition, the gaming industry is concerned that the decision will adversely affect game exports. The overseas sales of the domestic gaming industry came to US$4 billion (4.78 trillion won) last year, accounting for 60 percent of the total content exports, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) and the industry insiders. The figure is 100 times higher than movie contents and 10 times higher than music contents. Annual sales of the domestic gaming industry stand at 13 trillion won (US$10.97 billion) and 70 percent of them comes from foreign countries, except for eSports, intellectual property (IP) rights and character business.
The WHO has 194 member countries. If most member states introduce the new classification from Jan. 1, 2022, their governments will regulate games and it will lead to a fall in exports of Korean games. The domestic gaming industry is expected to suffer an economic loss of 5.10 trillion won (US$4.30 billion) to 11.35 trillion won (US$9.58 billion) for three years from 2023 to 2025, according to a report submitted to the KOCCA by the joint academy-industry committee under Seoul National University at the end of last year. The figure is about four times higher than the economic effect from the online game shutdown policy introduced in 2011. The measure blocks children under 16 from accessing online games and console games from midnight to 6 a.m.,
Meanwhile, the domestic public opinion supports the new classification. With the request of CBS, Realmeter conducted a survey among 6,187 adults over the age of 19 on May 10 and 45.1 percent of the respondents supported the decision to categorize and manage gaming addition as a disease like alcoholism and gambling and drug addiction, which was 9 percentage points higher than the opposition.