FORTNITE is the biggest game of the moment, counting members of the England football squad and Drake among its millions of fans.
But a darker side emerged over the weekend as it was revealed that a UK-based girl, aged just nine, had been checked into rehab after developing an addiction to the hit game.
For the uninitiated, Fortnite’s most-played mode is the Hunger Games-style “Battle Royale”, where 100 players fight it out until only one person or one team is left standing. These games typically last for 20 minutes.
While it’s possible to play the game alone, most people play in groups with friends and fight alongside – or against – their pals.
The gaming phenomenon, available on PC, Xbox and PlayStation, has clocked up more than 45million downloads, and the hype around Fortnite has grown so big that schools are warning parents to limit access to the game.
And while the action game is aimed at kids aged 12+, there are YouTube videos of children as young as six playing it. But what is it that makes the game so addictive?
The fear of disappointing friends
If you play in a squad with your friends, then teamwork is key to killing off enemies and staying in the game.
There’s no way to pause in the middle of a game, so if you quit early, you’ll be leaving your friends in the lurch.
“If you’ve just started a game it’s tricky for parents to make their children let down their friends,” says Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction at Nottingham Trent University.
Parenting expert Elizabeth O’Shea adds: “There’s a peer pressure element here and that is one of the dangers.
“Children aren’t just playing alone, and they want to be seen as being good community players among their friends.”
When your character is shot at, your real-life survival instinct will kick in and your body will tell you to fight back.
When you play violent video games, your adrenaline spikes, your heartbeat races and stress hormones flood your body: the same response as if you were attacked in real life.
Only it’s your on-screen character who is at risk, rather than you, so the heightened sense of stress is actually fun – and addictive.
The promise of constant rewards
Dr Griffiths says typical video games operate using something called “constant reinforcement”, where a steady trickle of rewards keeps you hooked.
With Fortnite, this includes premium “skins” (appearance upgrades which change how your character looks), points boosts and special weapons – which make you stand out from less accomplished players and reward you for pouring more time and money into the game.
It’s like a hunt
In Battle Royale, you have to make use of Fortnite’s ever-shrinking landscape to hide from other players who are looking to take you out.
Just surviving as the map shrinks is an achievement in itself, and plays into the idea of feeling rewarded.
And because every game is different, each time you play you find new places to explore, which keeps you coming back to the game.
While the popular Battle Royale portion of the game is free, you can also spend money on in-game purchases such as items like clothing, weapons, tools or dance moves to customise your characters.
This is something some parents have expressed concern over due to their kids spending hundreds of pounds – often using their parents’ card details to pay for it.
Thousands of items are available in the in-game store, with some of the most expensive appearance upgrades and outfits costing over £15 each.
To get the best rewards, users are encouraged to sign up for a Battle Pass (costing between £8 and £10), which then allows access to a second tier of elusive and prestigious prizes.
People like to spend money, and when it’s smaller amounts (like the few pounds here and there in most of Fortnite’s microtransactions) buyers can get a quick spending fix without feeling too guilty.
When you’re killed in Fortnite, spending a few pounds on a new outfit or weapon can cheer you up and get you back in the game when you might otherwise have quit.
Fortnite designers have tapped into another basic but powerful draw for children – the use of bright cartoons and vibrant colours.
Studies have found that children have positive reactions to bright colours – so the game’s palette of bright reds – which are associated with anger, aggression and excitement – yellows and blues are well placed to stimulate activity in the minds of young gamers.
The same hit as drugs
Playing video games has a physical effect on the body, causing chemical changes in the brain too.
“Video games such as Fortnite are designed to be addictive – they give children a hit of dopamine – also known as ‘the reward hormone’,” says Elizabeth O’Shea.
Dopamine is the same chemical that floods into the brain when people win at gambling, smoke a cigarette or do a line of cocaine.
It is a major reason why people get hooked on the game as it gives you a ‘hit’ and makes you feel exhilarated. But when you come down from it, users can begin to feel flat or aggressive, making them want to play again.
New research from the University of California has found that children are at greater risk to the effects because their brains are flexible.
Professor Ofir Turel, who led the studies, told The Telegraph: “Say someone sees a video game or mobile phone, a reward system in the brain lights up.
“Some parts of the brain develop until they are 17, others are not fully developed until they’re 25.
“The development of the reward or impulse system is much faster compared to the development of the self-control system.
“It means that if you take someone who is 13 years old, they will have a mature reward system but their self-control system is not as well developed. So they are much more predisposed for impulsive and risky behaviours.”
Like the crazes of YoYos, Tamagotchis and Pokemon Cards, Fortnite has become the latest hot social topic that kids feel like they need to be a part of to fit in.
When most of the kids in the playground are talking about their exploits on Fortnite, it’s only natural that other children will feel pressured to be involved.
And since every game is unique, kids are more likely to have personal stories they can share about their latest session – making the game even more appealing.
Elizabeth O’Shea says playing Fortnite can change a child’s personality if they are allowed to play for unlimited amounts of time.
“They can cause withdrawal symptoms in the same way that drugs would,” she says. “This can lead to anger, irritation, and make them more likely to be incredibly rude and make a large fuss if they are told to turn it off.
“The best thing to do in this case is to teach your child self-control, and the best way to do this is to set boundaries, for example by saying they can only play for a set amount of time each day.”
The case of the nine-year-old in rehab is so shocking – but it is an extreme situation.
As Professor Griffiths says, most children will be able to play Fortnite without it impacting on their school work, social life or physical activity, and it is a “tiny percentage” who will develop problems.
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What can you do if your child has become dependent on Fortnite?
Parenting expert Roma Norriss, of handinhandparenting.org has experienced her clients discussing problems with Fortnite with her, and gives these tips for managing your children’s usage and anger if they are told to stop.
- Give them a hug: Don’t let them play the game until you’ve checked in with them, asking them how they are, or have given them a hug.
- Set limits: It’s down to you to set reasonable limits for your child’s gaming.
- Be firm: If you see your child exhibiting difficult or withdrawn behaviour due to spending too much time on technology or games, it is important to tell them that it is time to stop.
- Listen: If your child has an angry outburst in response, such as ranting or crying, warmly stick to the limits you’ve imposed and listen to all the feelings that come up, even if you don’t agree with them.
In fact, on the flip side there are positives to games such as Fortnite if they are played in moderation.
“Children who play it are communicating with their friends in order to do the challenges, and far from it being an isolating game it can be very sociable,” says Professor Griffiths.
“The games are also short-lasting, you can fit three games in an hour and there’s no evidence to suggest that playing a video game every night for an hour or two will have negative effects on a child.
“It’s only when it’s taken too far that it becomes a problem.”