One morning before school in my third-grade year, I fired up my usual basement game of Pitfall! on the Atari 2600 and proceeded to rock the shit out of it. I grabbed gold bars and diamond rings like a thirsty tomb raider. I swung on vines like I was born upside down in the jungle. I leapt over alligator heads like some tiny digital American Ninja Warrior, EVEN ON THE BOARD where three of those damn things are lined up and it’s impossible to traverse them unless you land on the precise three pixels. I was crushing it but doing so in the thick of our pre-elementary departure routine, which is a real bad time to be setting video game PRs. Eventually Mom wandered in wondering why I wasn’t brushing my cereal-covered teeth. “But MOM,” I whined with well-practiced third-grade guilt, “I’m going to beat 20 minutes!”
(The clock in Pitfall! on the Atari 2600 ran for 20 minutes, see, and extinguishing it equated to beating the game but meant we’d leave about 10 minutes late.)
And my sweet mother, a patient sort who prized education above all else, did something I’ll never forget: She swung her purse down, dropped her keys on the table, and said, “You’re going to beat TWENTY MINUTES?” and sat there and watched while I did it. I walked into third grade carrying a late pass like a gun on my hip, like, “Sorry your moms are all lame, jerks.”
Did I have a gaming disorder in the 1980s? Maybe! Did my mom have a gaming disorder in the 1980s? Oh, almost certainly, given the ferocity with which she’d go on to rock Tetris on the NES. But at the time, video games were a nascent pastime, time-sucking but reasonably innocent. They certainly weren’t a mental health condition, which they are now, as the World Health Organization has classified “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition in its 11th and most recent International Classification of Diseases. It’s basically like a gambling disorder, but with Fortnite. “I’m not creating a precedent,” said Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, a member of WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which proposed the designation to the decision-makers at the World Health Assembly. He says he’s just following “the trends, the developments.”
We would not dream of making fun of this electronic diagnosis. Well, we would, but we’d do it on an electronic medium, and then tweet it all over that electronic medium, and try to get people to respond while staring at devices on that SELFSAME ELECTRO-MEDIUM, and we’d do so with 400 apps designed to track the granular metrics of those responses, so we’re not sure what we’re making fun of, frankly. Instead, let’s use the actual science — and Dr. Poznyak’s guidelines — to determine if you have Gaming Disorder.
Guideline: “The gaming behavior takes precedence over other activities to the extent that other activities are taken to the periphery.”
Do You Have This?: Well, it’s hard to tell, because this is the ENTIRE POINT of video games, as well as all other recreational activities in the history of time. (Also if parents do this with travel baseball or ballet camp, it’s called “encouraging kids to reach their goals.”) People would not play video games if they enjoyed the activities they were usually doing; I can say with confidence that if my son’s full-time job involved drawing airplanes and waging Nerf-gun wars in the cul-de-sac, he probably wouldn’t build so many Minecraft cruise ships. Fortnite is chaotic, but it has no Twitter, which makes Fortnite currently a better place to live.
Guideline: “Impaired control of these behaviors. Even when negative consequences occur, this behavior continues or escalates.”
Do You Have This?: Here’s how you can tell, using a pleasingly vintage video game: Fire up “Tetris.” Nothing fancy, just the old one, with the blippy Russian music. Play for like 10 or 15 minutes. And then start to gauge your feelings about getting the wrong pieces. If you’re thinking, “Gee, it seems like it’s been a while since I’ve gotten a two-by-two square” but you can proceed anyway, you’re fine. If you find yourself shrieking something like, “GODDAMN IT, DO YOU EVER PLAN ON GIVING ME A FOUR-LONG PIECE TODAY, WHAT THE HELL, COMRADES?” then you should probably take a break. (Mom only did this twice before we cut back on her screen time.)
Guideline: “Significant distress and impairment in personal, family, social, education or occupational functioning.”
Do You Have This: Let’s see (opens paper), this morning we’re debating whether the Bible says it’s appropriate to separate poor children from their families on a website designed to encourage instinctual rageaholic responses and it’s 105 degrees outside and Antarctica is melting and Phil Mickelson is basically my 6-year-old playing Putt-Putt and the Cubs paid like $84 million for a pitcher who’s spent much of 2018 on the DL and “Star Wars” movies aren’t very good anymore and also I have recently paid $6 to drink coffee. Frankly it’s a wonder any of us are functioning at all. At least some of us figured out Tetris.