Four days before the World Health Organization recognized gaming disorder as a modern disease, China opened the doors to a new gaming addiction clinic in Beijing. But rather than celebrating China’s forward-thinking, some Chinese netizens are concerned about their country’s past in treating modern addiction.

Ten years ago, a famed Chinese doctor was caught forcefully electroshocking more than 3,000 kids in the name of treatment for internet addicts. Reactions online to official recognition of gaming addiction voiced concerns about a return of China's notorious electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

“So ‘shock therapy’ for treating mental illnesses like internet addiction is finally recognized?” one Weibo user asked in a People’s Daily post about the WHO recognizing gaming addiction.

In the latest update to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD), the WHO identifies gaming disorder as “characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behavior” that results in “significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”

While netizens might be quick to link efforts to treat this newly-recognized disorder to past controversy, the new clinic at one of Beijing’s biggest psychiatric hospitals appears to offer something quite different from shock therapy.

The clinic’s head doctor said they would try to help patients replace their addiction with other hobbies. The clinic has many different toys and facilities, he said, including a karaoke machine. Rather than sequestering patients, family members are allowed to stay at the clinic as well.

The new clinic has a karaoke booth (left) and allows families to stay with patients (right) during a rehab program that lasts four to six months. (Picture: The Beijing News)

China has a complicated history when it comes to treating gaming or internet addiction. Doctors in the country were treating people with game addictions long before the WHO had even introduced the issue to its agenda. Yet one doctor in particular has tainted the industry in the eyes of many.

Yang Yongxin, a recipient of a top government grant, was lauded as an exemplary psychiatrist. In 2009, though, it was discovered that Yang was treating internet addiction using shock therapy on children without using any anesthesia or muscle relaxants.

The treatment reportedly involved sending a current of more than 10 milliamperes through his patients’ fingertips and temples. Yang was also said to have prescribed patients with psychotropic drugs during the four-month treatment program.

This revelation sent shockwaves through China, with the country’s Ministry of Health eventually banning the use of shock therapy on internet addicts. While some of Yang’s patients voiced support for his unique treatment, many others said the pain was unbearable and inhumane.

Yang initially said his treatment used currents between 1 and 5 milliamperes, but Chinese media reported he actually used more than 10 milliamperes. (Picture: People’s Daily)

Even though Yang’s methods might not be making a comeback, the new Beijing clinic and the WHO classification probably aren’t going to change Chinese society.

When asked about the impact of the new WHO classification, University of Hong Kong professor Cecilia Cheng said it will mostly raise public awareness around excessive gaming without causing a big impact on the gaming industry or eSports.

Cheng led a research project that determined one in 10 primary school students in Hong Kong is either already addicted to video games or at risk of becoming an addict. They spent more than eight hours per week playing video games on average.

Tackling this issue, though, requires getting to the root of addictive behavior lest people replace one addiction with another. It’s not just about gaming.

“Personally I don’t think this act [by the WHO] is a measure to combat the timely problem of gaming addiction because gaming addiction is only one type of behavioral addiction (other examples are pathological gambling or shopping)," she wrote in an email.