Is the video game Fortnite as addictive as parents fear?

Though we talk lightly about “binge-watching” TV shows and finding books “unputdownable”, we are quick to pathologise video gaming.

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Having played video games for almost 40 years, I have lived through my share of moral panics. I was there when Pac-Man was blamed for creating a lost generation of maze-hunting, power pill-chomping addicts. I remember the fears over a condition known as the “Tetris effect”, in which obsessive fans would apparently see shapes falling everywhere they went. The Tamagotchi phenomenon of the mid-1990s had parents worrying their kids would walk into busy roads because they were too busy caring for their virtual pets.

Fortnite: Battle Royale is the current focus of parental hysteria. As I write this, my two sons – aged ten and 12 – are on the game downstairs and loudly shouting “you are the worst Fortnite player ever” at each other. If I didn’t limit their screen time, they’d probably play until they passed out.

Released last September as a spin-off from the original version of the game, Fortnite: Battle Royale is an online shooter, where 100 players are parachuted on to an island dotted with towns, industrial estates and forests. They must hunt for weapons and health items before fighting until only one person remains. As the combat rages, a circular storm closes in around the landscape, so that the playable area gets smaller and smaller, pushing the survivors together.

Even in modern video game terms, the success of Fortnite: Battle Royale has been explosive. There are now more than 125 million players across PCs, consoles and mobile phones, and the creator, North Carolina-based developer Epic Games, is earning $200m a month from in-game purchases. This beats other major online games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty.

My radical idea about Fortnite is that instead of fearing it, people should just try it. It won’t cost you anything: one of the reasons it has become so successful so quickly is that it’s free to play, broadening its user base (as we saw with free phone games such as Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans) and bringing in children and older people who don’t identify as gamers.

Fortnite combines three fundamental video game components – exploring, shooting and building – into a fresh and compelling 99 vs 1 format. In Fortnite, your chances of winning are tiny, so you set your own success parameters – it might be to construct a cool fort, to survive into the top ten, or to take out a certain number of competitors.

Most likely, though, it’ll be to keep earning experience points, which let you unlock new costumes and “emotes” – the dance sequences that your avatar can perform during a match, and which Premiership footballers such as Dele Alli have started using as goal celebrations. This has helped make the game so popular among school-age kids: unlocking the most hard-to-come-by outfits and dances bestows kudos in the same way as buying the latest Air Jordan trainers. Cleverly, Epic Games charges for the right to unlock all the best clothes and dances, thereby monetising the age-old quest for social status, while ensuring the game itself is a level playing field. I like the fact my sons are spending their pocket money on pink teddy bear outfits rather than virtual guns, and I love that they are performing these dance moves themselves with friends. It reminds me of when I used to break-dance on the front lawn with my neighbour.

Another reason Fortnite has done so well is that many of the YouTubers are playing it. Every day, the game’s superstar, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, streams to more than eight million online followers. Fortnite is as much a hit TV show as it is a hit game. Playing it will give you an insight into many elements of contemporary digital culture, from social media memes to why people watch videos of other people playing games. It will also give you an insight into the psychology of the average 14-year-old in the digital age. Is Fortnite addictive? That’s a tough one. Everyone from the Daily Mail to Good Morning Britain and Woman’s Hour has been trotting out concerned parents and self-identifying experts who use the phrase “video game addiction” as though it’s a universally recognised condition.

But it isn’t. There is much disagreement over the use of the word “addiction” in relation to activities such as gaming that aren’t physiologically addictive, unlike drugs and alcohol. How do you separate long-lasting problematic addiction from what could just be enthusiasm and compulsion? This year two major bodies, the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association, will officially classify gaming disorder as a mental health condition, but the decision has drawn consternation from some members of the medical community. They are concerned that creating a new class of disorder will draw attention away from underlying causes such as depression and anxiety and will drain resources from NHS addiction clinics as worried parents seek treatment for kids who’ve played a bit too much Fortnite for a few weeks.

Though we talk lightly about “binge-watching” TV shows and finding books “unputdownable”, we are quick to pathologise video gaming. I’ve no doubt that for a small fraction of children, Fortnite is proving a problem; but with time and parental care, most manage their relationship with the game, or just get bored of it.

In 1999, Sony released an online role-playing game called EverQuest – it was so compulsive that it garnered the nickname “EverCrack”. Some parents called for it to be banned. Have you heard of EverQuest? Do you know anyone playing it? Two years ago, Pokémon Go was ubiquitous, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a kid who still cares.

I like playing Fortnite with my sons. It’s fun, it gives us something to talk about and through playing I know how to control it. With video games, as with everything else, knowledge is always better than panic. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone