Over the past year, countless children and adults have tuned into the game Fortnite, a free-to-play battle royale game that allows players to compete with others around the world. The game is fun and features some cartoonish violence, which has led many to worry about whether such games are problematic.
Inevitable anecdotes have popped up of some children behaving badly in relation to the game such as the British girl who is said to have wet herself rather than stop playing. Do these anecdotes hint towards a coming epidemic of violent or addicted children? Simply put: no.
Society has an unfortunate habit of going a bit bonkers whenever new technology comes out that children consume in droves. Remember Pokemon Go from two years ago and all the dangers it heralded? Nothing notable came of it in the end.
Regarding violent content, the evidence is now pretty clear. Research does not show that violent games predict later youth violence. Long-term outcome studies increasingly show that playing “violent” games is not a risk factor for antisocial youth.
As society has consumed more violent video games, youth violence rates have plummeted, not increased, and the release of popular violent games is associated with immediate reductions in crime. We’ve known since a 2002 US Secret Service report that mass shooters consume less not more violent media. And the countries that consume the most video games are among the most peaceful on the planet.
All the data point in the same direction: the action in Fortnite is nothing to worry about. The American Psychological Association asked policy makers and journalists to stop linking video games to societal violence, given the lack of evidence to support such claims. It’s time to listen.
And while video games can probably be overdone by a small percentage of players, it is only in the sense that people can overdo a wide variety of behaviours - work, exercise, eating, sex ... there are even research studies on dance addiction.
Little evidence has emerged that video games are any more addictive than these other behaviours. Nor has evidence emerged of any epidemic of video game addiction. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry estimated the prevalence at 1 per cent or less of gamers and even most of these cases were mild, virtually indistinguishable from healthy players.
Unfortunately there’s plenty of bad information that frightens people about addiction. For instance, the claim that playing video games releases dopamine in the pleasure centres of the brain, just like cocaine does. Technically, that’s true. So does, say, stroking a cat. But we don’t talk about cat addiction.
A perfectly normal process has been made to sound alarming. Video games release dopamine only at similar levels as other normal fun behaviours such as eating or having sex, about 100-200 per cent over baseline levels. By contrast, cocaine raises dopamine levels by 350 per cent and methamphetamine a whopping 1200 per cent.
The World Health Organisation has moved to make “gaming disorder” an official diagnosis but this decision has proven unpopular with many scholars in the field. A number of scholars wrote to the WHO out of concern the diagnosis might do more harm than good. The American Psychological Association released a policy statement critiquing the WHO’s decision, given there is a poor research base for this diagnosis.
Fortnite is no more a problem for youth than the Beatles were in 1964. There is a clear history of moral panics regarding new technology dating across the 20th century and before. Few people today think comic books cause homosexuality or that Ozzy Osbourne caused suicide. It is time we learn from history and stop indulging these moral panics that only distract us from real problems in society.
Chris Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in the United States. He is co-author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong.