Mary, a single mom in her 40s who lives in a small town in Newcastle, in the north of England, spends most of her day on YouTube. She watches endless videos from creators called Ali-A, TmarTn2 and Vikkstar. In a notebook, she jots down phrases like “Solo squad,” “Mats” and “Shield Pop,” complete with explainers, so it’s “like a dictionary, or I’m learning a new language.”
Mary, of course, is trying to learn how to play Fortnite.
The game, in which players are put on an island and have to fight for survival — not just by fighting, but also completing missions and building communities — has become a global phenomenon, amassing millions of players across the world. But Mary isn’t learning about the game because she wants to play it. Rather, she’s trying to reach her son, 15-year-old Jonathan, who she feels might be getting addicted to it.
“I’ve never played any computer games so I don’t have the first clue about how this all works,” Mary tells me over the phone. “I didn’t even know what the game was called — I had to ask my brother, whose kids also play the game. I expected it to be like any other game, one where you can buy a CD, put it in the computer, play it, complete it and then be done. But this game isn’t like that at all. It goes on forever, and as you add more levels and more things to it, the more people play it. No wonder people are getting addicted.”
Mary doesn’t say that lightly. She says Jonathan spends almost all his free time playing Fortnite. During school days, “he’s on the computer as soon as he gets home at four, and he’ll keep playing until one or two in the morning. He’s exhausted when he wakes up, but even then, he’s looking at game-related things on his phone.” She adds that he’s gotten multiple warnings from his school about missing assignments, falling asleep in class and a general lack of focus. He’s not the only one either. “All his friends play the game as much as he does. I know for a fact that their parents have the same worries as I do.”
Since Fortnite launched last year, there have been countless articles about its addictive nature, with parents like Mary concerned about the effect long hours of gaming — along with the lack of sleep and nutrition that comes with it — will have on the health of their children. In fact, some teenagers are getting so enthralled by the game that they refuse to take piss breaks, instead opting to urinate into bottles and plastic bags.
All of this, of course, has re-sparked the debate about gaming addiction, which, in January, the World Health Organization classified as “persistent or recurrent gaming behavior so severe that it takes ‘precedence over other life interests.’” It also labeled it as a disorder for the first time and said it had the potential of becoming a major public health issue.
Obviously, gamers see it differently. “My concern with this kind of bad reporting is it diverts attention away from the issues that actually matter when it comes to kids playing video games online,” says Eurogamer deputy editor Wesley Yin Poole. “My daughter is too young to play video games, but I do worry she’ll encounter toxicity, sexism and death threats when she’s old enough to floss in Fortnite. And aren’t loot boxes teaching our children how to gamble?”
Other gamers I talk to point me to a 2017 paper published by Cardiff University, which argued that “addiction” wasn’t the right term — not because people don’t spend countless hours playing games, but because it wasn’t even close in severity to other forms of drug addiction. In fact, researchers suggested that “gaming addiction” as we understand it was more akin to binge-watching Netflix. Because of how broad the term is, the researchers behind the paper told Business Insider, “We didn’t see a large number of people with clinical problems,” and that of the 2,316 gamers who made up their test sample, less than half a percent of respondents showed clinical signs that they’d exhibit biological withdrawal symptoms from not being able to play games.
Not surprisingly then, this complicates the idea of “treatment.” For example, even though Britain’s National Health Service recognizes gaming addiction as a subset of internet addiction, it doesn’t provide much in the way of resources for people who might be affected or vulnerable. Those services are, at least in the U.K., provided by private clinics like Tiora and Gladstones or the private Nightingale hospital, each of which offer custom therapy programs, but at a hefty price. “I can’t afford any of those options,” says Mary. “They aren’t near where we are, so travelling is expensive, and then paying for the treatment would be impossible.”
On top of that, she adds, Jonathan doesn’t recognize his long hours of gaming as a problem. “For him, it’s productive time. He tells me often that professional gamers can make thousands from competitions. Like being a rockstar or a football player, how can you tell someone they should be studying for exams so they can go to university, when they see these professionals on YouTube living the dream just by playing games?”
And so, Mary has turned to the internet for help — particularly Facebook groups for parents going through the same thing. While she didn’t say exactly what groups she belongs to — for privacy’s sake; on that count, Mary and Jonathan are also pseudonyms — she said they’re similar to groups like Parents of Gamers Support Group and Parents of Fortnite Addicts. Some conversations on these forums recall stories akin to Mary’s, with parents worried about their kids sacrificing their school work, college applications and jobs because of gaming. Others talk about how their kids’ gaming obsessions have divided their families, caused arguments and even resulted in violence.
One oft-discussed film on the forums is Web Junkie, which follows a group of Chinese teenagers who are sent to a bootcamp in Beijing in order to treat their so-called “internet addictions.” The film has received some criticism for its depictions of mental strain and verbal abuse, but for some members of the group, the camps are “exactly the kind of thing Western countries need to do — enough with the soft approach!”
For Mary, however, the groups have mainly helped her realize how common her situation is. “A lot of the time you’re talking to parents across the world,” she says. “They have different ways of parenting, different attitudes to games. The one thing that’s common is always about communication. Usually the kids who end up addicted to games already have bad relationships with their families, or they don’t see their families often.”
That’s one of the reasons why Mary spends her evenings learning about Fortnite and the other games that Jonathan enjoys playing. “One bit of advice I got from another single mum in a similar position was to take the game seriously. When you just tell them the game is a waste of time or that it’s pointless, they aren’t going to respond to you, let alone agree. So it’s important to understand how the game works — even play the game — if I want to tell Jonathan how playing too much of it can be harmful.”
As far as Mary knows, Jonathan is unaware of her YouTube study sessions, but she hopes that she’ll soon have enough knowledge to start playing with him. I ask her how she’s going to tell Jonathan about her newfound knowledge of the game, or how she plans to explain why she watched hours of YouTube videos and gaming livestreams. “I might not tell him directly,” she laughs. “I might just see if I can beat him at the game,” she laughs. “Maybe that’d make him think about whether he wants to do something else.”
Hussein Kesvani is MEL’s U.K./Europe editor. He last wrote about how race-horse owners are giving their horses dumb names just so they’ll trend on Twitter.