If you’ve spent any amount of time around children from the ages of 8-18 in the last year, you’ve probably heard about Fortnite. Since its release in July 2017, the live, multiplayer video game has taken the world by storm, boasting over 125 million players worldwide.
“How much Fortnite is too much?” seems to have been on every parent’s mind over the last few months.
“He would play all day if he was allowed,” says Williamsburg, Va., resident Kathy Barksdale of her 16-year-old son.
The phenomenon of obsessive video-game playing might feel new to some, but many have worried about the role that video games play in children’s lives and development for decades. Video games have been blamed for the rise of childhood obesity and even for mass shootings.
Gaming is Now Labeled a Disorder
In January 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) decided to classify gaming disorder as a genuine mental health condition. According to WHO, people with the disorder have trouble controlling the amount of time they spend playing video games and prioritize gaming over other activities, even if it has negative consequences.
The classification immediately sparked controversy, with critics in the gaming world saying it unfairly targeted an already frequently derided community of people who regularly play video games, causing those players to question the validity of their hobby and whether or not it’s healthy.
Supporters of the designation say it isn’t intended to cause players to wonder if they have a disorder, but to be able to provide help to those who need it. With the WHO legitimizing gaming disorder as a mental health condition, those diagnosed with it can be provided resources from professionals.
“It creates the opportunity for more specialized services,” Dr. Richard Graham, an expert in technology addiction at a London hospital, told BBC News earlier this year. “It puts it on the map as something to take seriously.”
But while Graham says he welcomes the WHO’s decision to recognize gaming disorder as a condition, he cautions parents not to mistake enthusiastic gaming for a disorder.
After all, not all parents are optimistic about the role that video games play in their children’s lives.
“I am concerned about my son’s gaming habits,” says Monica Barker of Winston-Salem, N.C. Barker’s 7-year-old son loves to play Minecraft, one of the most popular video games of all time.
His temper is shown through frustration when he does not do well. I firmly believe that his increased video game usage has played a role in his lack of self-control.”
Video game developers play into addictive gaming habits, says Baxter Bristow, who was a quality assurance tester for Fortnite before the game was released to the public.
“The style of game popularized with Fortnite is instant gratification and constant stimulation embodied,” Baxter says. “Games take a few minutes, so you can get a lot of stimulation in a short period, which keeps you playing.”
Not Just a Hobby Anymore
Still, video games have become big business, and playing games for many has gone beyond a hobby in the past few years. “Esports” competitions feature some of the world’s best players competing for millions of dollars in prize money, and streaming sites like Twitch have popularized watching gamers play video games to the tune of millions of dollars in ad and subscription revenue.
Even colleges are embracing the esports trend. Virginia Beach-based ECPI University is one of the first colleges in America to establish a collegiate esports team as well as a state-of-the-art esports arena where the team’s players gather both to practice and compete. Members of the varsity team even earned scholarships when they made the team after tryouts this past July.
Michael Glover, ECPI’s esports head coach, says the many hours his players spend gaming aren’t obsessive or unhealthy — it’s practicing, just like any sports player would do.
“Members of our esports teams are required to practice these games for several hours a week, and many choose to practice in their free time as well,” Glover says. “They’re competing at a high level. We would never say that a college football or basketball player had a ‘disorder’ if they practiced their sport for hours every day and put other things in their lives on the back burner in order to get better. We would celebrate that dedication.”
But are gamers or their parents supporting the newest sport by buying, playing and watching others play video games? Or are they enabling a potential mental health condition and addiction?
“I’m not too concerned,” Barksdale says. “I may be concerned with some content, but I don’t feel they’re all bad. Video games can teach problem solving skills, and if they’re playing with friends, it’s a social activity for kids who may not normally be as social with others.”
Don’t Worry Too Much
After the controversy over gaming disorder’s designation, the WHO sought to clarify their position by stating that gaming disorder only affected a small proportion of people who engage in gaming activities. However, the WHO says those who partake in gaming “should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behavior.”
Like so many other things in life, it seems that moderation is key for both parents and kids.
“Currently my son is grounded so he’s not playing anything right now,” Barker says. “After his grounding, he will be returning to a rewards system to earn game time. I hope this will set us both back to playing a couple hours a week.”