Is the WHO eating its own words when it says video games are a safety measure during coronavirus pandemic?

Teen playing video games
Teen playing video game Wikimedia Commons

Video games have always been considered as something that make you anti-social, and reclusive. But now that notion seems to be changing as governments around the world urge people to stay indoors and practise social distancing and quarantine due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

WHO recommends gaming as safety measure

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently recommended playing video games as a safety measure to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In fact, the leading global health authority has reportedly partnered with some of the major video game makers to support online gaming in a bid to encourage people to stay indoors during the Covid-19 lockdown.

WHO had described gaming as a behavioral addiction in 2019

What's interesting though, is that the same WHO had officially declared "gaming addiction" a behavioral disorder in 2019. The WHO had classified video game addiction as an official mental health disorder and added "Gaming Disorder" to its International Classification of Diseases list, which takes effect in January 2022, according to CBS.

Now this move raises questions about the WHO's decision to "recommend" what it had declared a behavioral or mental disorder as a way to combat the social and psychological ramifications arising from physical distancing. But according to the WHO, the diagnosis of gaming disorder is not solely due to excessive gaming, but is more so if the activity interferes with a person's everyday life. It added that it normally takes at least 12 months to properly diagnose or determine if a person has gaming disorder. So, as long as your gaming doesn't affect your daily life activities, you're safe to play.

A safety measure or a profit-making scheme?

The recommendation and the said partnership also come at a time when people are stranded inside the confines of their homes. It is only natural for them to start feeling lonely and depressed and as an escape from the resulting loneliness they end up consuming the internet excessively and playing games. This has given rise to increased internet usage and the gaming industry is literally booming.

In many countries around the world telecom companies have reported that internet traffic has increased more than 70 per cent in the days since the governments announced quarantine measures and lockdowns. In the United States, Verizon reported a 75 per cent surge in gaming activity on its networks during the second week of March, when the 'shelter-at-home' orders began taking effect.

The pandemic has given a major boost to downloads of popular mobile games like Fortnite, PUBG Mobile, and Call of Duty which are being downloaded daily by millions of quarantined people.

WHO's #PlayApartTogether campaign

As for the WHO's partnering with game makers, according to a report by the Insider, about 18 video game companies including Activision Blizzard, which makes games like Call of Duty and Candy Crush, and Riot Games – maker of League of Legends - have teamed up with the WHO to create a campaign called #PlayApartTogether.

As the name suggests, the #PlayApartTogether program abides by the WHO's guidelines for physical distancing rules and aims to bring people together via games in these difficult times.

"It's never been more critical to ensure people stay safely connected to one another. Games are the perfect platform because they connect people through the lens of joy, purpose and meaning. We are proud to participate in such a worthwhile and necessary initiative," Activision Blizzard CEO, Bobby Kotick said in a statement.

Gaming as a means of educating people about COVID-19

As part of the campaign, the gaming companies will reportedly share messages about the Covid-19 virus with gamers and urge them to follow the WHO's safety guidelines. The messages will include suggestions on how to observe physical distancing and cleanliness, which includes washing hands every few hours for at least 20 minutes. The messages will also advise gamers on how to behave with others so as to avoid spreading or catching the virus.

In view of gaming events and contests that have been cancelled or postponed, companies involved in the campaign have promised to create "special events, exclusives, activities, and rewards" online for gamers in the weeks to come.

Suggesting the gaming industry's worldwide reach can help get the message out to millions of people and help prevent the spread of the virus, the WHO's ambassador for Global Strategy, Ray Chambers tweeted: "We're at a crucial moment in defining outcomes of this pandemic. Games industry companies have a global audience – we encourage all to #PlayApartTogether. More physical distancing + other measures will help to flatten the curve + save lives."

WHO's 'backtracking' faces criticism

The new partnership seems to have attracted some criticism online, with one gamer replying to Ray Chamber on Twitter saying: "Oh thats ironic. Last I remembered you guys classified us gamers as addicts, now you praise us because we already know social distancing?"

Some critics also suggest that the WHO is eating it's own words and that "the only winners" of this are gaming companies.

Notable absentees

Surprisingly, the partnership misses out on some major game companies such as Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Ubisoft, and EA who produce AAA titles such as Assassin's Creed: Odyssey and the recent phenomenon called Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Related topics : Coronavirus