Ratings boards mostly just evaluate Fortnite’s depictions of violence.
For kids, Fortniteis still the game of the moment. Not that this comes as any surprise, since it has everything going for it. It’s free it’s immediate, tension-filled, complex, rewarding, and every season adds events and new features to explore. It’s a good game!
And like every game kids love, many parents are terrified by it. A visit to the UK parenting forum Mumsnet immediately surfaces threads such as, “Does Fortniteturn your kid into an arsehole too?” and “F*#@ing Fortnite… ruining our lives”. They describe their kids “turning into monsters” while playing, and achieving lower grades. As a parent to one tween and an early teen, I can’t help but understand their concerns. I’m not quite so angry or fearful, but I’ve found Fortnitehas introduced new tension into my household, and it’s made me realise that my attitude to my kids playing games like it is a lot less laissez-faire than I ever thought it would be.
It’s useful, however, to remember that today’s games are very different to the ones we probably grew up with. They’re no longer tied to the living room TV or office computer, which naturally limited the time we could spend playing. Fortnitecan be played anywhere there’s an internet connection, and it’s also endless, designed to hold its players in indefinite reward loops, and does everything it can to sell Battle Passes, costumes, and whatever else. And, being multiplayer, it potentially exposes kids to the worst of online behaviour.
I wonder what all this is doing to kids. The truth, however, is that psychologists don’t really know. “I have not seen any research looking at the effects of playing those kinds of games,” says research psychologist Dr Rachel Kowert, who is research director of Take This, a charity that promotes mental health for gamers and the industry. She’s come across research around the design of loot boxes, which has generally found that they have the same psychological effects as gambling. “And there’s research about instant gratification, and games really play on, ‘Oh, you could have that if you just buy this one thing’. But I haven’t seen any research on whether it has some kind of psychological effect on players themselves.”
After all, loot boxes are only one reflection of the power modern games have over your kids’ time and attention. For Kourosh Dini, a psychiatrist and author of Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents, games are among many other digital services that hammer notifications to their users. Fortnite’s notifications for invites and friend requests are also reminders that their friends are playing without them, keeping the game close, even when it’s not running. It’s this aspect of Fortnite which has provided many flashpoints in my household.
“There are so many things that are asking for our attention, and that goes with a cost structure where the first bit is free and if you want something better you’ve got to pay for it,” says Dini. “Between attention and our sense of agency, we have to monitor our ability to choose things without pressure.”
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But there’s little research into all this, because a great deal of studies around games are focused on the effects of videogame violence, which has been the banner ‘Problem With Videogames’ for time immemorial.
“GAMES HAVE BEEN IDENTIFIED AS PROVIDING EMOTIONAL SELF-MEDICATION”
“There’s tonnes of work on videogames and violence, and there’s a non-existent link,” says Kowert. That’s good news. But because belief persists that there is a link, more money is available to put into projects that study links between games and violence, even if most of them aim to debunk them. “Maybe if we can get some funding for something besides violence, we might find other real problems with games! But violence is where the money is because it’s where the fear-mongering is.”
But parent forums aren’t making up the woes they describe, and there are problems around games, even if they’re unstudied. As a psychiatrist, Dini sees kids brought in by parents and he can tell they’re playing too much.
“They’re not connecting with others, they’re not going out, not interacting at dinnertime. Maybe they’re having a hard time at school and their grades are dropping because they’re not doing the work. And then there’s a secondary problem, when a parent takes the game away from them and they’re met with screams.”
But the problem isn’t, Dini believes, games themselves, but with other issues in their lives. “Every single time I’ve interviewed a kid, a teenager, or even someone in their 20s, who is stuck playing games and can’t seem to find a way to sustain themselves and lead a meaningful and fulfilling life, the trouble almost every single time is something besides games.”
“It’s not games that are the problem,” agrees Kowert. “Games have been identified as providing emotional self-medication. They’re a vehicle that different underlying problems are being funnelled through.”
She says that only 0.2% of individuals use games in a way that’s ‘maladaptive’ (though it’s worth noting that studies of various vintages claim a range of numbers, with one suggesting 8% of gamers exhibit “pathological patterns of play”). And the focus on negative aspects of games means their positive aspects are under-considered, such as their social nature. “I really love Fortnite, and I cannot imagine my ability to multitask the way these children do when they play Fortnite,” Kowert continues.
Games are more complex and rewarding than ever, a power that comes with consequences. That means that while there’s lots for parents to worry about, a better way is to help encourage a balanced attitude to games. ■