UK Nanny State: Let's Send Gamers to Rehab


Across the pond, a British Member of Parliament wants to send gamers to state-funded rehab. Citing an Indiana University study that claims gaming weakens self-control, Labor MP Keith Vaz proposed that the National Health Service should "provide effective support to those who suffer from internet or gaming addictions."

Vaz is no backbencher. As the chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Vaz has some clout in Parliament. Fortunately, only one other MP, Liberal Democrat Sir Bob Russell, has joined Vaz's motion.

While there has been much debate over what behaviors are "addictive," video games don't qualify. Video game addiction is not part of the Diagnostic and Standard Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the Bible of psychiatry. Back in 2007, the American Medical Association decided that excessive gaming did not constitute a psychiatric addiction and should not be considered in the updated DSM-V, which will be published later this year. This exclusion is very telling since even grief could soon be added to the DSM-V as a form of depression.

Gaming and grief are just the latest behaviors to be stigmatized. Reason contributing editor and psychiatric renegade Thomas Szasz put it best:

Old diseases such as homosexuality and hysteria disappear, while new diseases such as gambling and smoking appear, as if to replace them.

Furthermore, the more recent research attempting to "prove" gaming addiction is wanting. Take that Indiana University study. While its conclusions garnered a lot of attention, it only had 22 test subjects. So it's a real strech to extrapolate those findings to the millions and millions of gamers across the world.

In addition, what truly matters is not the addictive desideratum per se, but the compulsive drive behind it. Jacob Sullum explains:

The proliferation of officially recognized addictions shows that the essence of the problem is not the irresistible power of any particular object of desire. What matters is an individual's relationship with that object, which in turn depends on his personality, values, tastes, preferences, and circumstances. This is one reason why attempts to prevent addiction by banning the things to which people become addicted are fundamentally misguided.

Of course, even for those extreme cases of gaming dependency, it's unclear why the NHS needs to be involved. In 2009, Broadway Lodge became the first rehab clinic in the UK for gamers. That same year, the Lodge served only 400 people of all mental disorders, not just gaming. 

All in all, this medicalization is the softer, gentler side of statism. Since the myth that violent video games cause crime has been debunked, regulators need a new justification for restrictions. Unsurprisingly, Vaz has also had a long history of censorship. Back in 1989, he marched with Islamist fundamentalists in order to ban Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, arguing that "there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech." To support his call for gaming restrictions, he has attempted to link the massively popular Counter-Strike to race shootings in Sweden and compared Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 to the July 7, 2005 bus bombings in London. Just last Christmas, Vaz wanted a debate on restricting violent video games, just in time for holiday shopping. In a line proving that sometimes straw men are all too real, Vaz declared, "This is not about censorship—it is about protecting our children."

Helen Lovejoy would be so proud.

Here's Reason on video games. Greg Beato elaborates on how medicalization can be "darkly comic." And if you're jonesing for more Szasz, be sure to read Sullum's July 2000 interview.