If there is a dilemma shared amongst most parents at the moment, it is whether they should let their kids play Fortnite and other "Battle Royale" genre games. Given that these are such a new phenomenon that has grown so fast, there is no direct research, so I thought I would do a literature review to test my suspicion that it is the crack cocaine of video games.
What I found was pretty disturbing. While computer games in moderation (<3 hrs per day, not within 4 hours of bedtime) may, in fact, have a positive effect, play beyond this correlates with behavioural addiction with a prevalence rate of 3%. While this sounds small, not everyone plays video games, so the chances of becoming addicted once you start playing is a lot higher. On the flip side, when it comes to children, most parents can control usage to prevent severe addiction occurring.
However, Fortnite is no ordinary game drawing on similar design features to fixed odds electronic gaming machines (EGMs). Research has found that people fall into problem gambling three times faster with EGMs than they do with any other form of gambling. Put all this together and you have a significant number of children at risk, by playing for significantly less time.
If you wondered if video game addiction is actually a thing, then research shows compelling evidence that it is, particularly for high adrenalin titles like Fortnite. fMRI studies of behavioural addictions such as gambling show almost identical brain activity to those for cocaine addicts. In adults, addiction has been linked to a range of higher-order brain function deficits including impulsivity and poor decision-making. While these have been found to recover in adults, the picture is less clear during adolescence when it is possible that the brain calibrates its set-points for adult life.
The knowledge that I had picked this topic for my thesis seems to have had a stimulating effect on my children. Like all addicts (I may have dabbled), the threat to the supply of their game of choice seems to have sent their mesolimbic pathway into overdrive. I was woken up at 2.30am this morning by giggling children, who had managed to sneak their switches upstairs before they went to bed. Luckily for them, I knew they were not to blame. There were many tears of shame this morning as they confessed to symptoms that would qualify for moderate addiction.
Before this morning I had tried everything known to a man with a background in technology. None of the solutions is remotely effective in monitoring and controlling gameplay because they are either easy to bypass (Windows / Android family link) or work for a few days and then stop completely (Qustodio). Google wifi does provide some control but there are severe floors to the design of the rationing aspects that mean you need to remember to turn it off yourself. And it only works for devices that you set up, the switches are not for use in the house and so they could get access. They say that addiction is a cunning and devious enemy.
As I am yet to submit my thesis, I cannot share the references that back this up yet but after this morning's episode, I felt compelled to warn people that computer games companies have cracked the code to addiction. The strength of the online reaction to Prince Harry saying that Fortnite should be banned should have been a red flag for all of us. Government needs to step in, addictive video games should carry a warning and the games companies should be forced to share their data on usage habits.
There are individual differences in predisposition to behavioural addiction and some children will be able to play it continuously without triggering addiction. Resilience to addiction requires brain areas that do not fully develop until your twenties, so parents need to provide support by setting firm boundaries. My experience has been that it is just not possible to do this and now that we are at the stage where my kids have lost all control, the only sensible course of action is to delete it. But this is a war, not a battle. Fortnite is just the beginning of a new phenomenon and now the games companies have a formula they will make as much money while the sun shines.