Fortnite, Smart Phones in Schools and Gaming Addiction – the once in a decade perfect storm for a media panic.


There has been no lack of fuss recently about two things: the inclusion of ‘gaming disorder’ (IGD) in the DSM-5 and the media-frenzy around whether or not the game Fortnite is enslaving kids to hours of toxic experiences – through some sort of magical-compulsion.

There have been calls for ‘gaming addiction’ since the late 1990s. The loudest voices emerged from clinical psychology. To put this in context, those calling for it, have achieved only a secondary win. The primary goal has been to get a much broader “Internet disorder” classified. You can imagine the revenue that this would bring the field – if now you could seek treatment (for a fee) for being addicted to the Internet. The DSM-5 has caused more confusion than clarity regarding the disorder, reflected by researchers in the field contesting a supposedly reached consensus for IGD diagnosis. In addition, the DSM-5 remains vague regarding whether or not games need to be engaged in online, stating that IGD typically involves specific Internet games, but can also include offline games, adding to the lack of clarity. Much of this confusion surrounds the primary goal – Internet Addition – and an inability to be specific about what exactly happens on the Internet that creates ‘addiction’. If we take the ‘screen time’ measure — more than 2 hours a day online might well mean addiction – so just about every office worker would be eligible for a prize.

Attempts this week to draw a line between IGD and Fornite have been numerous. I won’t waste your time showing you the primitive (and doctored) ‘news’ that Channel Nine and the Seven Network we’re trying to pass off as fact. Suffice to say, Twitter was awash with academics and experts in media, psychology and gaming posting “WTF” in response to much of it. At one point, one of the ‘experts’ on TV resorted to claiming ‘seniority’ over EVERYONE that railed against the claims being made – choosing to place correctness on status rather than evidence. And that is the problem, there is far too much ‘status’ and money surrounding IGD, that we are seeing highly selective and often exaggerated claims – a return to moral panics about kids and games we haven’t seen in over a decade.

While IGD is not in the DSM-5, it is worth pointing out that there is no evidence to suggest that playing Fornite will make kids addicted in the way injecting chemicals into your arm might.  In fact, the DSM-5 sets out that IGD is (like many habitual behaviours) a condition that emerges from and with numerous other conditions – it becomes part of the cocktail of psychological issues and variable reactions some people have.

Nope, Fortnite is not going to addict anyone, despite the ‘experts’ who jumped onto the moral panic bandwagon, the added sound effects and editing of ‘clips’ shown to the TV masses waiting for bogans to argue on My House Rules – and obviously, people are now paid to give their opinion on the matter – which they quickly try to attach to ‘problems with smartphones is schools’ and ‘screentime’ as though no one is going to pick them up on it.

What makes Fortnite a massive hit? Well, it’s not that it has magical addicting pixels. It’s not that it’s played online with others as some sort of innovation.

If she’s now into Fornite – and the parent previously loved Minecraft, or their teacher made a big deal about how ‘cool’ Minecraft is for learning … then you’ve kind of missed the important point – this has never been about content. Minecraft gave her a way to experience and re-tell personal, often very vivid stories. This is exactly what Fornite does – but Fortnite has used the ‘building’ joy with the shooting other people joy – and kids who play Minecraft see a clear line between it and Fortnite – it’s a remediation of several designs which are in children’s media culture.

In addition, Fornite is a clever design. The entire industry is saying that while elements of the design are derivative – its weapons and gadgets invite experimentation and specialisation  — hardly a stone’s throw away from Minecraft. But we’re not about to see teachers play Fornite – because teachers avoided games with ‘content’ until they found a game which was so un-challenging socially — they declared it ‘the best’ and ‘new’ – and suddenly all the cool-teachers are into it — almost exclusively.

Lastly, Fornite is easy to play for beginners. I’m not saying you’ll win easily, but unlike many MOBAs, players don’t need to grind for days to get sufficient stuff to be competitive. The culture of Fornite is super-easy to engage with. For kids using Insta and other networks to share, create and find memes – Fornite has fast become the cultural icon for this generation – a post-COD, post-Lol=L, post DOTA2, post-Minecraft audience. Kids in into Minecraft are GOING TO GROW UP AND GET INTO MOBAs, just as sure as they’ll enter puberty. Sure it’s a cartoon chop-job of PubG – but PubG missed the landing point in comparison to Fornite’s multi-platform success.

Adding all this up, Fornite is not more addictive or dangerous – it’s just the latest leap in kid-game-culture. It’s allowed a return to media panics about ‘content’ and Internet trolls (as though they don’t exist in other online spaces their parents use). TV and newsprint love this stuff – it sells advertising and is an IV line into parental fears.

Fornite is the game we needed, a post-Minecraft entry point for FPS and casual games which allows for a massive kid to kid social connections at school as well as online at home. Every game giving kids the opportunity to tell and re-tell cultural-stories creating a new level of agency in their close-social-groups and re-writing the narrative of social-gaming. Of course some folk are not going to like this, Fornite has been a huge shock to the system.

It just so happens that the DSM-5, banning smart phones and Fornite media and moral panics happened in a short space of time – creating confusion – and for some – an opportunity that everyone’s lost their minds about it.

Personally, I love Fornite. I don’t play it much or well, but it has reduced the squeaker population in Overwatch, and for that, I am truly grateful.