Recognising video game addiction as a disease could cost South Korea – where such games are hugely popular – up to 11 trillion won (US$9.45 billion) in lost revenue, according to a new academic inquiry.
The survey, led by professor of industrial engineering at Seoul National University Lee Deok-joo, follows the World Health Organisation’s decision to include gaming disorder in its International Classifications of Diseases list last June.
The report found that South Korea’s economy would take the huge financial hit over a period of three years if the disorder was officially recognised, with gaming exports set to record a further 1.1 trillion won loss by the third year.
In light of such fears, the country’s culture ministry sent a letter to the WHO on Monday opposing the codification of gaming addiction as a disease and citing other factors that might influence such behaviour, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The WHO defines gaming disorder as “a pattern of gaming behaviour … characterised 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.”
But the ministry, together with Korea Creative Content Agency, pointed to a five-year study by Konkuk University in Seoul that found part of the reason young people engage in compulsive gaming activities was down to factors such as stress at school, social support from teachers and peers and parental behaviour, as well as the games themselves.
From a clinical perspective, the letter asserted that gaming did not directly cause changes in the brain, and pre-existing conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder could result in compulsive gaming.
Seo Hyun-il, from the Korea Association of Game Industry, said his organisation was “greatly concerned” over the WHO’s move.
“It’s like branding games as an evil thing. This will spread among the public a negative perception about video games,” he said.
“If games are considered to be like drugs, who would let their children get jobs at games businesses or become professional players? The future damage [this would cause] to the games industry and games culture is simply incalculable.”
The value of South Korea’s video games industry is expected to hit 13.7 trillion won this year, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency, up from 10.9 trillion won in 2016 when it accounted for 5.7 per cent of global sales, making it the world’s fifth largest market after the United States, China, Japan and Britain.
Home-grown mobile giant Samsung, as well as successful domestic video games developers and publishers such as NCSoft and Nexon, have helped drive the industry forward. The government has also pumped billions of dollars into building information and communications infrastructure in recent decades.
Some 67 per cent of the country’s 50 million-strong population play video games either regularly or casually, according to Korea Creative Content Agency, but South Korean psychiatrist Choi Yong-Sung said only a small minority will develop a problem habit.
However, he cautioned that gaming “may bring about organic changes to the brain” and said the global trend was towards seeing gaming addiction as a disease.
There have been reports of horrific child neglect in South Korea seemingly caused by gaming addiction. In 2010, a South Korean couple pleaded guilty to negligent homicide after allowing their three-month-old daughter to starve to death while they raised a virtual child in an online game.
Four years later, a 22-year-old father was arrested in the southeastern city of Daegu on suspicion of allowing his two-year-old son to starve to death while he spent days playing online games at internet cafes. The toddler’s badly decomposed body was discovered stuffed into a bin bag.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.