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Can Video Games Be Addictive? Fortnite Lawsuit Says Yes

Can Video Games Be Addictive? Fortnite Lawsuit Says yes Couple playing a video game.
By Richard Dahl on November 04, 2019 3:00 PM

We've all heard the confessionals by video game players who sacrificed their jobs, their relationships, or their educations to their gaming obsession. But can video games be truly addictive, like drugs?

People who have joined a class-action lawsuit against a game company in Canada say yes. The defendant company, Epic Games, is the creator of Fortnite, an extremely popular third-person shooter game. A Montreal law firm, Calex Legal, has created a class action on behalf of two parents who claim that the game is as addictive as cocaine and has harmed their two children, ages 10 and 15.

Their complaint argues that Fortnite, when played for a long time, results in players' brains releasing dopamine in the same way drugs do, causing a chemical addiction. The lawsuit further contends that the game's developers hired psychologists to help them make the game as addictive as possible.

Modeling their lawsuit after class-action lawsuits against Big Tobacco in the U.S. and Canada, the law firm is contending that the defendant knew of the dangers and failed to warn players. In this case, the two parents say that had they known of the risks, they never would have allowed their children to even start playing Fortnite.

How the Effects of Video Games and Drugs Are Similar

So, what kind of evidence exists to support their claim?

For starters, the World Health Organization recently classified "gaming disorder" as an actual disease to be listed on its International Classification of Diseases. (The American Psychiatric Association's classification system, the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, says that "internet gaming disorder" needs more research.)

In 2018, researchers at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom conducted a sizable review of the studies that have been done on gaming disorders and found strong consensus that the neurobiological effects of gaming addiction and drug addiction are similar. These included "poorer working memory and decision-making capabilities, decreased visual and auditory functioning, and a deficiency in their neuronal reward system."

On Oct. 22, the New York Times took a deep dive into the subject of video game addiction and found that in the gaming industry it is "an open secret" that the games are designed to be addictive. "With the help of hired scientists, game developers have employed many psychological techniques to make their products as unquittable as possible," Ferris Jabr writes. For instance, according to Jabr, a typical allure to keep players playing is the use of "intermittent reinforcement," where players receive rewards at random intervals.

Drug Analogy Also Has Doubters

Despite these findings, however, there are plenty of people who say there's nothing that makes video game obsessions more intense than other activities. "The same can be said of many activities; people overdo it with sex, food, exercise, work or religion," says Stetson University psychology professor Christopher J. Ferguson, writing in U.S. News and World Report. "(T)he solid, consistent and well-validated research base necessary to label video game addiction a disease or disorder has not materialized."

Addiction or not, parents who believe their children are spending too much time playing video games might consider a few measures to reduce that activity:

  • Encourage them to engage in more physical activity.
  • Talk with children about what they like about gaming. This might help to identify whether they might be using gaming to escape other issues.
  • Limit the hours when they can play the games.
  • When calling them off the game, ask how much time they need to finish the game. Then be firm in holding them to that time.

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