Jeff Derevensky sees first-hand how kids get addicted to video games like Fortnite.
He is head of McGill University’s International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviours. The psychologist treated many young people whose lives have been turned upside-down by their dependence on video games.
“They do it excessively and they can have physical problems, like they don’t have enough sleep because they’re playing all night long,” Derevensky said.
He understands why a Montreal law firm sought permission in Quebec Superior Court last week to begin a class-action suit against Epic Games, the makers of the ultra-popular video-game Fortnite, alleging the company has made the game as addictive as possible. The suit compares kids’ obsessed with Fortnite to people addicted to heroin and cocaine.
The lawsuit began with two Montreal kids. Since it was announced, about 300 people have contacted Calex Légal asking to join the suit. The potential lawsuit has made headlines around the world, from USA Today to Fox News to most major video-game news sites.
Fortnite is played by more than 200 million users globally, nearly six times the population of Canada, and it generated revenues of $2.4 billion last year, according to gaming analytics firm SuperData. It’s free to play, but it makes money by charging for virtual items in its in-game store.
Derevensky said in an interview this week that addiction to video games is a huge problem for young people everywhere, including Montreal, and that it’s only getting worse. Kids are now playing the games on their phones as opposed to having to play at home on game consoles, and it’s nearly impossible for parents to curtail the activity.
Derevensky said there just aren’t enough therapists with the expertise to deal with this new disorder.
He cited an Ontario study from 2016 that concluded that 13 per cent of 123,000 students surveyed had experienced some symptoms of a video-gaming problem. He also noted that more than 90 per cent of adolescents play online games and that figure surges to 97 per cent for male adolescents.
We’ve had kids who’re not doing well academically because they’re gaming.”
“I had a mom call me and say, ‘My son won’t come up for dinner. If I don’t bring dinner down to the basement because he’s gaming, he won’t eat at all’,” Derevensky said. “We’ve had college dropouts as a result. We’ve had kids who’re not doing well academically because they’re gaming. We have parents who have no idea how to limit the amount of time children will spend gaming.”
Jean-Philippe Caron, the lawyer from Calex Légal who is handling the case, said many people who contacted the firm have been given a diagnosis of addiction to video games and are in therapy for it.
The class action was filed Oct. 3 on behalf of two plaintiffs, neither of whom has been identified. One is 10 and the other is 15. The first one started playing Fortnite when he was nine and the second started when he was 13. Both are “highly addicted” to Fortnite.
“We see, based on our research, that’s there’s a huge problem,” Caron said. “But we didn’t realize just how serious this was until the past few days (when the firm began receiving messages from people wanting to join the lawsuit).”
Nick Chester, senior PR and communications manager at Epic Games, said in an email to the Gazette that the company does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Part of the case is based on Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act, which is designed to force companies to warn consumers about the potential risks of products.
Mandy Moreno, a guidance counsellor at Westmount High School, said dependence on video games is an issue for some students at the school, part of a wider problem with kids overusing cellphones. This year, the school brought in a zero-tolerance policy, with students now barred from even having a phone on them when they’re in class.
“It’s a device problem in general,” Moreno said. “We’re trying to help our students. We’re asking someone to exert adult-level control, but they can’t … they cannot stop themselves. They say, ‘I have to go on this game.’ … We try to encourage (them to reduce) the video-gaming so it doesn’t lower their marks.”
It’s our responsibility as parents and as a society to help children navigate through these issues.”
But at least one Montreal parent says it’s not up to the courts or the schools to deal with video games. That’s the parents’ job, said Emmanuelle Chassé, mother of two boys — Tristan, 14, and William, 12 — who are big fans of Fortnite.
“I don’t believe that the video-game company is responsible,” Chassé said. “It’s our responsibility as parents and as a society to help children navigate through these issues. Our society is filled with addictive substances, and we live in an age where everything is so easily accessible.”
Derevensky is not so sure.
“That’s the argument the gaming industry uses,” he countered. “(They say) ‘we’re not forcing anyone to go on our gaming site. If you as a mother or father think your child is playing too much, it’s your responsibility.’ And I do think parents have a very important role to play and if this mom is putting the onus on herself, I think that’s great.”
Like most parents who have access to the game, Chassé said Fortnite has caused numerous arguments in the household and led to her 12-year-old son, William, to miss family activities. But she has also seen positive effects. William, normally more of an introvert, started interacting with more children, locally and internationally, and is using his game talents to become a leader and give positive feedback to fellow players.
“He’s a team player and has really come a long way, and I do feel that the ‘virtual’ aspect is what allowed him to develop these skills,” Chassé said.
René Bruemmer of the Montreal Gazette contributed to this report.