As a child, I loved to play video games. This was back when the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, an eight-bit home computer and one of the first models of its kind to take off in the UK, first became popular. I would have to wait about 15 minutes for a game to load and then spend hours glued to the screen. My objective was to complete all the levels of my favourite game – Skool Daze – in a single sitting.
My mother, troubled by my sedentary lifestyle, would frequently intervene, forcing me to play outside on my bike, with the admonishment to "get some fresh air and exercise". On one occasion, bored and banished from the house, I decided to push my cycling skills to their outer limits. I constructed a ramp, built up speed and broke my arm. After that incident left me considerably less active, my gaming hours increased dramatically.
In moderation, at least, video games are far safer than cycling. Now it also turns out that video gameplay can be far more lucrative too. Last week, a 16-year-old gamer from Pennsylvania called Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf – the nickname means "to slay" – won the solo competition at the inaugural Fortnite World Cup, becoming an instant millionaire by scooping the top prize of $3 million, the largest ever payout for an individual in an e-sport tournament. By comparison, this year's Tour de France winner, Egan Bernal, collected a little over $550,000 for cycling the brutal 3,480-kilometre course and will now share his prize money among Team Ineos's 29 co-competitors.
Such a massive prize for gaming will only serve to make it even more popular. There is a well-established principle in behavioural psychology called "vicarious reinforcement". The basic argument is that seeing someone else rewarded for a particular behaviour increases the likelihood that we will emulate it.
I also imagine that such a large pot of prize money might create a sub-group of parents who begin grooming their children for the gaming arena from a very young age. Like the parents who push their children to enter beauty pageants, this could blur the lines between childhood aspirations and parental desires for financial gain.
But a sharp increase and focus on gaming over outdoor pursuits should give us cause for concern. The World Health Organisation officially recognised excessive gaming as a disorder last year, including it, for the first time, in its International Classification of Diseases. Gaming disorder is described as playing to an excessive, out-of-control level, where pursuing this habit begins to take precedence over family and work-related obligations, with negative consequences. Employees become less productive, A-grade students start to fail at school, previously devoted parents become neglectful towards their children and the once- athletic start to become inactive.
Of course, not everyone who plays digital games develops a disorder – just as not everyone who plays the slots ends up a gambler. However, if the number of gamers in society is going up, then it follows we are likely to see more people presenting with related disorders.
The inclusion of any new disorder in WHO's disease classification is significant. A new addition is based on extensive international research and the meticulous clinical observation of patients with the condition under scrutiny. The directory is also the WHO's way of urging member states to focus on particular problems in society. The inclusion of a new disorder means that it should figure in public health strategies and the monitoring of national health trends.
The Fortnite World Cup and other similar large-scale gaming events will have an impact on such trends. By financially incentivising gameplay and celebrating winners, these events provide a further push and rationale for engaging in excessive gaming. Not all gamers will develop problem behaviours but some undoubtedly will and those numbers are likely to rise as the number of gamers goes up. Epic Games, creator of Fortnite, already boasts 250 million players. Last year another digital gaming event, the League of Legends world championship final, reportedly attracted a larger viewing audience than the NFL Super Bowl.
It also raises the question of whether e-sport can be counted as actual sport. Gaming activity to excess is directly linked to psychological disorders; that's before you factor in its contribution to physical inactivity and obesity. Yet the use of terms like "world cup" and "championship" create the impression of a sporting event. Holding the Fortnite World Cup in a well-known sporting venue – the Arthur Ashe tennis stadium in New York – encourages those associations. However, gaming is not a sport and, apart from dexterity, it generally lacks the need for physical strength, balance or agility.
For all the potential physical dangers of sporting activities such as cycling, football or cricket, the upsides are immense. Real sport typically offers physical exercise, face-to-face social interaction and, in many cases, an authentic sense of belonging and team spirit. Gaming and sport are not mutually exclusive; you can do both. The problem with a gaming obsession, however, is that it leaves little time for anything else. No doubt gaming is here to stay but let us not mistake it for a real sport – and let's not reward or celebrate gamers above and beyond our real sporting stars.
Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University