Two Quebec parents are suing Epic Games, a video game developer known primarily for their game Fortnite, over allegations that Fortnite is "as addictive as cocaine" and that Epic Games is targeting children with its marketing.
Montreal law firm Calex Légal brought the class-action suit against Epic Games to the Montreal Court of Justice on October 3 after being hired by two parents with children aged 10 and 15, respectively, that they claim are addicted to Fortnite. (Calex Légal provided a copy of the lawsuit to Reason.)
Alessandra Esposito Chartrand, the attorney representing the parents, alleges that Epic employed psychologists when developing Fortnite, "[digging] into the brain and…really [making] the effort to make it as addictive as possible." Chartrand, citing psychotherapist Dr. Anita Gadhia-Smith's work that equates dopamine release from electronic usage with cocaine addiction, argues that Epic "knowingly put on the market a very, very addictive game which was also geared toward youth."
The plaintiffs seek restitution for damages to be determined by the tribunal, a fine to be imposed on Epic Games, and the refund of their children's in-game purchases, plus interest, which is around $1000 Canadian (US$750). A spokesperson for Epic Games stated that the company does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Fortnite is a free-to-play battle royal game in which an individual player, or teams of players, compete in a shrinking battle zone until one player, or team, is left standing. In the game, players loot weapons and shield potions from treasure chests, build forts to protect themselves from other players, and engage in battles as they attempt to be the last one standing. A game of Fortnite typically lasts around 20 minutes for the eventual winner but can be as short as a minute for the player who is the first to be defeated.
While Fortnite is free, players can purchase the game's virtual currency, "V-Bucks," with real money to unlock cosmetic items and a "battle pass" that provides players with the opportunity to complete timed challenges that offer in-game rewards.
According to the lawsuit, the 10-year-old (referred to as LN) played approximately 1,800 matches of Fortnite in seven months and spent CA$600 on "V-Bucks," and the 15-year-old (referred to as JZ) played more than 7,000 matches of Fortnite over the course of a year (that's nearly 20 matches per day), and stays up until 3 a.m. on the weekends and 1 a.m. during the week in order to play the game. The suit claims JZ spent between CA$300 and CA$400 on in-game purchases.
The plaintiffs allege that these aspects of the game (the opportunity to spend real-world money and the timed challenges that encourage frequent play) coupled with the game's cartoonish graphics indicate both Epic Games' awareness of Fortnite's addictiveness and the company's targeting of children.
Attempts to regulate micro-transactions have been successful in other countries and are currently being tried in the United States. In May, Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) introduced "The Protecting Children from Abusive Games Act," that would prevent game developers from "monetizing addiction" by making sure kids are "walled off from compulsive micro-transactions."
The plaintiffs also turned to the World Health Organization (WHO) to bolster their addiction case. WHO added "Gaming Disorder" to its International Classification of Diseases in September 2018. WHO states that "For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behavior pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months."
The parents of LN and JZ claim that playing Fortnite causes the brain to release dopamine in a similar fashion as it does when under the influence of cocaine and, as a result, has effectively "[ruined] their [children's] lives."
While it's true that some people use video games as an escape from reality, the notion that gaming is comparable to hard drug use is asinine. The American Psychiatric Association doesn't even recognize gaming disorder as a legitimate disorder.
In fact, video games have been erroneously blamed for everything from school shootings to divorce over the past 20 years, exemplifying how parents and politicians ritualistically pin cultural problems on video games. Claims of gaming addiction have existed for as long as video games have existed, all the way back to the days of kids spending hours hanging out in arcades in the 1980s. Whatever game is the most popular at any given time is accused of getting youngsters hooked.
Unfortunately, game companies are increasingly being blamed—and in this case, sued—for issues that better parenting could probably solve.
As of publication, Epic Games has 30 days from October 3 to respond to the lawsuit.