Fortnite probably isn't turning our brains to mush, but let's not lose sight of the wider picture about video game effects

This is an abbreviated version of an article that appeared on the Telegraph online on 3 May 2018. The original full version can be found here: "Is Fortnite mania damaging our health? Science says no".

In September last year, I got the chance to go to EGX, the largest video game expo of its kind in the UK. Nestled in one corner of the NEC, I found a livestream of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG. At face value, PUBG is a hellish nightmare – a ‘battle royale’ game, it starts with you being parachuted down onto a remote island with 99 other players, with nothing but your wits in tow. It sounds viscerally violent – a situation no one would ever want to find themselves in, let alone play out for fun. But watching the team play live was a totally different experience. Everyone there, player and onlooker alike, was having a wonderful time in a shared joyful experience.

The game in this genre that seems to have captured the imagination of the nation at the moment is Fortnite. More cartoonish in style than PUBG, Fortnite doesn’t seem to be as initially terrifying, but nevertheless its popularity with kids is starting to get a lot of people worried. Inevitably, the usual scare stories about it being ‘addictive’ fly around - yesterday the Culture Secretary proclaimed that it, and other ‘highly addictive’ video games, risk ‘damaging’ children. But what does the actual science have to say about it?

As is often the case when a new form of technology, or a particularly popular new game comes out, there is a risk that moral panics trump robust science. A number of scientists are worried that this is the case when it comes to discussions around the concept of gaming addiction. While the WHO is on track to include ‘gaming disorder’ in its next version of the International Classification of Diseases this year, a number of researchers have argued that this is too premature, and that there isn’t enough robust evidence to consider it as a clinical disorder. For instance, research led by Netta Weinstein at Cardiff University in 2017 showed that for players who initially met a diagnostic threshold of gaming disorder, none of them showed problematic symptoms after six months. Other researchers, myself included, have argued that gaming disorder might in fact be masking other, more established mental health issues, and that gaming is better thought of as a coping strategy rather than a symptom itself. We need to be careful that we don’t conflate excessive play with harmful play, as the two are not the same.

When it comes to Fortnite, there is no scientific evidence anywhere to suggest that this particular game is uniquely addictive, and it is likely that people who are playing it now will probably not be playing it in six or twelve months’ time. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be having a sensible discussion about how these sorts of games are marketed and monetised though. Increasingly, we’re seeing a move towards games being made ‘free to play’ (Fortnite is no exception), but with the option to buy an endless supply of in-game currency, equipment or so-called loot boxes. This is a potentially precarious path to go down, as it is easy to develop in-game mechanisms that exploit known reward-based weaknesses in human psychology in order to keep people playing. This is starting to have clear legal consequences; in the past couple of weeks, Belgium’s Gaming Commission concluded that loot boxes in three major games were in violation of the country’s gambling legislation.

So when it comes to games like Fortnite, we need to get the conversation right. Just because it is the latest craze to capture kids’ imaginations doesn’t mean that it’s turning their brains to mush.  There needs to be a wider discussion about the moral responsibility that video games developers have towards their player base - a discussion that needs to be couched within robust, well-conducted scientific evidence. As it stands, the best studies out there show that for the vast majority of the population, playing video games is nothing to worry about. So let’s not derail the important discussions we need to have about games with needless cycles of moral outrage.