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Are all of those Fortnite marathons starting to take a toll on gamers’ health?

Brian Dolmatov, 18, plays Tetris Ultimate on his PS4 at his home in Falmouth. Dolmatov has been playing video games for most of his life but doesn’t feel that he’s addicted to the medium.
Brian Dolmatov, 18, plays Tetris Ultimate on his PS4 at his home in Falmouth. Dolmatov has been playing video games for most of his life but doesn’t feel that he’s addicted to the medium. - Colin Chisholm

It’s fun, flashy, and colourful. It has an appealing look and feel that’s easy to hop into and complex to master.

FALMOUTH, N.S. —

It’s fun, flashy, and colourful. It has an appealing look and feel that’s easy to hop into and complex to master.

Fortnite has quickly risen to become the biggest game in the world, and it has a lot of things going for it.

It’s the ultimate mass-market video game, with a reach unlike anything in gaming or, arguably, entertainment in general.

And it’s everywhere — on consoles, computers and phones.

Fortnite’s incredible popularity has been a tremendous boon for creator and publisher Epic Games.

According to SuperData, the game made more digital revenue than any other free-to-play game last year, raking in $2.4 billion in 2018.

And it’s not hard to see why. Fortnite is fun, engaging and inherently social.

But is all of that fund coming at a cost to players health?

The notion of video game addiction or other negative health effects from the medium, which is ever increasing in popularity, are controversial, often eliciting skepticism and outrage from the medium's biggest fans, and from the multi-billion-dollar industry itself.

Brian Dolmatov, 18, lives in Falmouth with his family. A recent high school graduate, he’s waiting to hear back from potential employers before deciding on his next step.

He’s not personally a big Fortnite fan, but is aware of the phenomenom and its reach. He prefers puzzle games like Tetris and big, open-world single player games like Skyrim.

He’s been playing video games for most of his life, starting around age seven when his mother got him a Nintendo GameCube.

“It’s just a nice way to relax or kill some time before heading out,” Dolmatov said. “It’s just something to do when you can’t do much work.”

Although he still plays regularly, he’s been trying to step away from the medium a bit more, focusing on board games and trading card games instead — the social interactions are more tangible and rewarding.

Dolmatov is a bit of enigma, as he doesn’t really play games on his phone, but mobile gaming is on the rise, especially among people in his age bracket.

In Sept. 2018, the World Health Organization officially labelled ‘gaming disorder’ as a newly classified disease. The decision has been deeply controversial for game developers, academics and players.
In Sept. 2018, the World Health Organization officially labelled ‘gaming disorder’ as a newly classified disease. The decision has been deeply controversial for game developers, academics and players.

Games like Fortnite and Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, both part of the burgeoning Battle Royale genre of shooter, are exploding in popularity.

He said that although many gamers get wrapped up in certain titles, he finds that he’s able to put the controller down and move on to something else whenever he wants.

“When I was younger, I’d probably play games all day, but now I can usually play for four or five hours and then I’m done, depending on the game,” he said.

He is concerned some video games are going too far, trying to entice people, especially at an early age.

Once they’re locked in, it can be hard to get out. And once you’re in, you’re more likely to pay extra for add-ons and customizations.

“Stuff like you can get this later, but it’s a lot faster to pay us now,” he said. “And some young people might not have a developed enough brain or have experience with money to realize that.”

Potential Mental Health Impact

Nick Harris is an associate professor of psychology at Memorial University and a registered clinical psychologist in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In his clinical practice, Harris works primarily with adolescents and their families. The majority of his clients are dealing with issues such as substance abuse, but he’s increasingly dealing with patients who are dealing with excessive video game play.

However, he says there are often root causes to issues that go much deeper than simply an inability to stop playing.

“The research suggests individuals who game excessively or to an extent that it’s problematic are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges,” Harris said.

“It can be tricky trying to determine the direction of that relationship.”

“Individuals who are already depressed may be more likely to begin to play video games excessively,” he said. “It can contribute to low mood or periods of depression.”

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Harris said it’s not as simple as ‘all video games are inherently addictive,’ in fact, for the vast majority of video game players, they’re able to enjoy the medium without becoming dependent of it.

“For the vast majority of individuals who play video games, it doesn’t become problematic or negatively affect their ability to function in everyday life,” he said.

“For that minority, it can really impact their life.”

Nick Harris, assistant professor of psychology at Memorial University and a registered clinical psychologist in Newfoundland and Labrador, said he’s seeing an increasing number of clients with problematic gaming behaviour, or video game addiction.
Nick Harris, assistant professor of psychology at Memorial University and a registered clinical psychologist in Newfoundland and Labrador, said he’s seeing an increasing number of clients with problematic gaming behaviour, or video game addiction.

Harris said a lack of sleep, diminishing social life, sliding academic performance, and low physical activity can also occur as a result of excessive video game use.

The World Health Organization’s decision to classify Gaming Disorder as an official disease in 2018 was met with a large amount of criticism from the industry and players alike.

“What’s important to point out here is that there are individuals who are able to play a lot of video games for a long period of time and continue to live normal lives,” he said.

“A lot of the blowback came from individuals who identify as gamers and didn’t necessarily show the same issues that someone who has problematic gaming tendencies.

“The research out there very much so supports the WHO’s decision to do this,” he said.

The WHO acknowledges that more research needs to be done, but also concluded that a large research base is already in place to justify the classification.

“The key for defining something as a disorder or an addiction is that it has to cause a certain amount of distress to the individual and induce a certain level of impairment,” he said.

“We’re certainly seeing both of those when seeing individuals who are engaging in excessive amounts of playing video games.”

When going through treatment with his clients, Harris tries to address what needs the video game is providing for that individual and attempting to find less harmful alternatives.

“It’s really important not to fault the (patient), the gaming industry is very profitable and has a lot of very intelligent people working for them creating games that are very entertaining,” he said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re creating this problem, but the hallmark of a good video game design is one that people want to stop playing.”

Game developer wants more research done

Deirdre Ayre is the head of Canadian operations at Other Ocean Group, an independent video game developer that operates out of Charlottetown, St. John’s and Emeryville, California.

Some of the games they’ve worked on include Rick and Morty Virtual Rick-Ality for PlayStation 4 and the Minecraft port for the New 3DS handheld.

Ayre said more research needs to be done before pointing the finger at the video game industry.

“The reality is that there are a lot of different studies on this,” Ayre said.

“We rely quite a bit on organizations like Entertainment Software Association of Canada and their sister group in the US for information that they gather from a wide range of sources.”

The Entertainment Software Association is a trade association, which represents the video game industry.

“We take these things quite seriously and we engage with researchers and do our homework,” she said.

“We would take any study seriously, seeing what it has to say and compare it to other studies, but the video game industry has been noted as having a long-standing record on self-regulation and education.”

Ayre said the industry has also been actively involved in encouraging healthy behaviours when it comes to screen-time, including providing tools for parental controls on gaming devices.

“A lot of these studies are fairly new, and as an industry, I believe we’ve been doing the community-minded ethical work that we should be,” she said.

“We’re protecting our customers.”

Although many of the studies and research revolve around young children and gaming, Ayre points out that the average age of gamers in Canada is 39-years-old.

“There’s a perception that everything is geared towards children, and that’s only a small portion of our business,” she said.

“We have a wide target audience.”

She said that her company doesn’t use techniques or practises to ‘addict’ players, adding that they’ll often design shorter games, as players tastes change.

“My children are young adults now, but I had access to every platform and game,” she said. “But it’s about moderation. We want our kids to read, go outside and play video games and all these things.

“Sure, some people are going to spend a lot of time doing this stuff, but I think most parents are in tune with their children.”

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