Two years ago, US developer Epic Games released Fortnite: Battle Royale. The success of the cartoonish shooter has been groundbreaking, with its CEO claiming it has 250m users around the world. More than 40m players applied for its inaugural World Cup, which concluded last weekend, with a total prize pot of $30m: the same amount as the women’s football World Cup and three times that of the cricket World Cup. The winner, a 16-year-old from the US, took home a cool $3m.
Fortnite’s breakthrough success reflects how gaming has transformed from a fringe hobby to a vast and highly profitable industry. While Newzoo estimates annual esports revenue at just over $1bn, Goldman Sachs predicts it will reach nearly $3bn by 2022. That does not come without its downsides. Many parents will have found themselves agreeing with Prince Harry’s claims in April that Fortnite is “addictive”. The problems in the industry go wider than a single game, however. They require nuanced and proportionate responses.
While the academic debate around gaming addiction remains unsettled, parents have long worried about the hours children spend on gaming. The World Cup, with millions of views on YouTube alone, seems to glamorise this behaviour. The 15-year-old runner-up in the doubles match said that he spent up to eight hours a day gaming, at an age when most students are preparing for GCSEs. As in other hyper-competitive fields, only a tiny percentage of players make it to the top. For the rest, hours spent online offer little more than myopia and dry eyes.
Playing games online comes with other risks for younger users. While Fortnite has an age rating of 12, it lacks a system for verifying this. This raises risks of younger children being exposed to strangers through chat and text functions. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has already expressed concerns around the potential exposure to inappropriate content or even grooming online.
The business model of gaming also needs to be examined. Fortnite is free to play, but players can purchase in-game currency to buy accessories like new hats, umbrellas and dance moves for their characters. Games companies, like fashion brands, increasingly advertise these products through YouTube influencers, who “model” products in a show of conspicuous consumption.
Audiences lapped up 50bn hours of YouTube gaming videos in 2018, speaking to the potential influence these accounts hold over viewers.
Steps should be taken to improve the gaming sector for young players. Imposing technical limits on game time would ensure that teenagers focus on scholastic pursuits, and assuage fears over potential addiction. Putting restrictions around repeated purchases would also be valuable. The numerous anecdotes of children spending large amounts of their money — typically their parents’ — on games and apps suggest that impulse control is not enough. New measures for age verification should also be developed. Current technological systems would mean users giving up personal details, creating more problems for privacy.
Many parents will still be reeling from the idea of a Fortnite World Cup. The image of teenagers too young to drive spending hours a day in training for cyber games makes a full ban tempting. Such an approach risks pathologising a leisure activity in the same way as the Chinese government. Gaming may be less edifying than reading the classics or art-house movies. That should not mean taking it away entirely. The dose makes the poison.