*Pop*. That’s the sound of a can of worms springing open, the contents of which are now swarming across my face as I grapple with this story. A Montreal law firm has requested authorisation to launch a class-action lawsuit against Fortnite for being too addictive. They’re doing this on behalf of the parents of two children, aged ten and fifteen. Core to Calex Legal’s suit is the way Epic hired psychologists during Fortnite’s development.
They “really dug into the human brain and they really made the effort to make it as addictive as possible”, according to attorney Alessandra Esposito Chartrand. The legal notice compares the effects of Fortnite to cocaine, because they both cause the human brain to release dopamine. This strikes me as daft, because so does salad. Even in the face of that overblown comparison, though, I’d argue the case isn’t completely without merit.
As reported by CBC, Chartrand says the claim has “basically the same legal basis” as a 2015 Quebec Superior Court ruling, that determined tobacco companies hadn’t warned their customers about the health risks of smoking. The supposed problem isn’t that Fortnite is addictive, it’s that Epic neglected their responsibility to inform people of that.
The claim points to research behind videogame addiction, and notably the World Health Organisation’s recent decision to classify ‘gaming disorder’ as a disease. Interestingly, the UK Parliment’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has previously used the WHO’s classification against Epic, similarly arguing that the company fails to warn customers of their product’s potentially addictive qualities.
Facilitating law suits against game companies was far from the purpose of the classification, but it’s not a use I find intrinsically objectionable. There is a lack of robust research into this, but it seems reasonable to believe that videogames can elicit genuinely unhealthy, compulsive behaviour to a greater degree than books, TV or films. However, this affects far fewer people than nicotine addiction, in a much less straightforward way. Dopamine does not have a simple relationship with addiction.
It’s important to note that the WHO’s criteria describes a severe impact to “family life, social life, personal life, education or work” that takes place for longer than twelve months. Given the turbulent nature of adolescence, it’s not clear what should count as severe – or how much responsibility can be assigned to the potentially addictive qualities of a particular videogame.
That said, adolescents are also more vulnerable to psychological manipulation. There’s a sense in which almost every single thing a human does counts as manipulation (I’m attempting it right now), but there’s also a point where deploying expert psychologists to extract more money out of young people becomes worthy of regulation. Regardless of the outcome of this particular case, it does raise several interesting questions. At what point do the potentially addictive qualities of a game (be they lootboxes or other carefully engineered feedback loops) become significant and identifiable enough that companies should be legally obligated to warn their customers, and how could they most helpfully go about this?
The answers lie beyond the scope of this post.