Recovering The Narrative: Fortnite, Addiction and the Trouble with Tabloids

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Video Games can be addictive. Like extreme sports, food and drink, binge watching Netflix, using mobile phones, exercising and a plethora of other behaviours with immediate short-term rewards, those with an addictive personality can find themselves spending endless hours absorbed by the activity. This is often detrimental to the health, and social life, of the sufferer.

It’s great, then, that Video Game addiction is now recognised as a mental health condition. This means it joins addiction to social communications (like Facebook) and online gambling as a recognised ailment that people can get treatment and help for.

This also challenges the age-old preconception that addiction is limited to a select number of ‘vices’ – drugs, alcohol, sex – by highlighting the distinction from the product’s usage and the addiction. Not everyone gets addicted if they use drugs, or game, and nothing is inherently addictive (except certain chemicals which literally are).

It seems that British tabloid papers didn’t get this memo, however, following the story of Carl Thompson (not the boxer). Thompson is a 17-year-old from Lancashire, who spoke to tabloid paper The Mirror on how his playing of Fortnite slowly grew into an addiction, which led to him taking drugs and trying to commit suicide. It’s a sad story, which speaks to the issue many gamers face of not knowing when to stop gaming.

Have you heard of this little game called Fortnite?

However tabloid papers’ coverage of story doesn’t just embellish and sensationalise the story, as is their modus operandi, but also perpetuates toxic and outdated ideas of addiction, mental health troubles and video gaming as a cultural force.

The tabloid papers clearly have a relationship issue when it comes to Fortnite, largely driven by the use of sensationalisation to draw readers. In a Sun article published the day after Thompson’s tale, figures are cited regarding the fact that on average £875,000 a day is spent on in-app purchases for the game. No context is given for this sum, suggesting to those not intimately aware of the video game economy that the number is huge, and provoking outrage at this “free-to-play video game that’s a hit with Britain’s young people”. However this figure is nothing like the £2,345,205 spent daily on Candy Crush during its prime – but no mention is made of this, of course.

Whilst the articles talk about how Thompson “started stealing money from his parents so he could buy apps, [sic]” (likely The Daily Mail meant in-app purchases) and interview other people who have played the game (although one of the writers for the article allegedly uses dubious means to procure his ‘sources’), the web pages sing a different song. The articles are interspersed with various adverts and videos for other pieces of the papers’ content – many of which are other pieces of Fortnite content. These can be videos about in-game stunts, guides on how to unlock pieces of content, and videos and images that show famous people glorifying the game. It’s clear that the tabloids don’t seem to have as much distain for the game as the articles suggest – not as long as they get ad revenue from game-related content.

The Sun's article has some strange placement of an "epic" Fortnite video in the middle of the article.

The articles about Thompson’s story clearly draw a hard line on the game – they quote Thompson as saying “Fortnite turned me into a suicidal, thieving, lying drug addict”, and attempt to explain the ‘Skinner Box’ theory in a way that demonises the box. To the tabloids, Fortnite is a racist caricature of an ‘oriental mystic’, swinging an amulet back and forth to hypnotise innocent children and turn them into suicidal and dysfunctional drug addicts, thralls to the system. Yet blaming the object of addiction, instead of the personal and social issues that create the addiction, is a common fallacy that is repeated constantly over history. America made the mistake with their Prohibition, and the insistence that current obesity rates are growing due to how unhealthy fast food is, instead of many reasons including socioeconomic disparity, is still a damaging social narrative.

While the articles demonise the object of Thompson’s addiction, they dance around the issues of mental health and other troubles that might have caused the addiction. It’s no secret that depression in young people is rapidly rising, and research suggests there are links between depression and video game addiction. However not once in the Mirror, Daily Mail or Daily Star articles is there any use of the word ‘depression’. There is documentation of his suicidal moods, his disturbed sleep cycle, and his truanting of school – all signs of clinical depression – but do not at any point mention the proven links between depression and game addiction.

Of course attempting to diagnose Thompson would be conjecture and speculation, and would be bad journalism. But as contextual information the links between mental health and addiction, in particular video game addiction, is relevant enough that not including it in the article is a notable omission.

By ignoring the possibility of depression in people addicted to Fortnite, the tabloids contribute to a narrative of stigmatising depression, and by extension other mental health troubles, by ignoring its existence. This suggests to young people that, instead of understanding their depression and finding ways to get treated, they should ignore it and repress it. As the UK is still criminally underfunding mental health services, and having a mental illness increases the risk of being a victim of crime, awareness of mental illness needs to increase, not be eradicated as the tabloids imply.

Blaming a game is an easy way to detract from a different issue – video games are still a new medium, and not much research has been done on the way players are affected by their time on them, so it is easy to make wild accusations as there isn’t enough evidence to disprove them. The Mirror article about Thompson is followed by an interview with a ten-year-old boy and his mother, who claims he is addicted. It’s undeniable that the child has a troubling relationship with his mother and the game, however the article makes it clear that this is because of the game. Yet reading behind the lines paints another picture – scare mention is made of the fact the boy’s parents are divorced, which is likely a huge deal for the child. For the article not to even suggest at a link between this major life event, and his dependence on this fantasy world, shows an inherent bias against video games.

Before Fortnite, Call of Duty was the game tasked with destroying children's' lives.

Of course publications have an agenda to what they choose to publish and write – all press organisations do, so as to create a brand identity and appeal to their specific audience, and that’s necessary to remain printing – but using sensationalised headlines to appeal to, and scare, an audience of parents that traditionally don’t know much about video games, doesn’t do justice to the medium. It presents games as boogeymen that take your jobs, ruin your families and cause you to end your life. It ignores that there are a multitude of video games charities that do wonderful work for a variety of causes. It ignores the fact that compared to many social media sources, YouTube – a platform that is roughly 15% video games content, and the majority of whose top earners are gamers - is the only one that has a positive effect on mental health, mostly through the communities it builds. It ignores the fact that video games are shown to help with a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety, memory, and PTSD.

To tabloids such as The Mirror, The Sun and The Daily Mail, games aren’t a beloved source of entertainment, enlightenment and diversion for millions of people – they’re just an evil and insidious menace for young people.

Thankfully, many people in the articles’ comments sections are calling out the tabloids for various issues. Some simply pass the blame of addiction from the game to parents or the friends of Thompson. Others are calling out inaccuracies in the article, or sharing their own experiences with Fortnite that had a positive influence on their interactions with people. The fact that there are many sensationalised elements to the story hasn’t sat well with people, either.

Commenters on The Mirror's article have expressed their distaste.

However many people dispute the narrative presented by these tabloids, though, many more people will read the article and be affected and influenced by the alleged events, the overly emotive tone, and the quotes from Thompson. This will perpetuate the inaccurate and hyperbolised image of gaming as an insidious trend, and continue to ignore the plethora of other social and personal issues which are all linked to the story and its events.

Of course there are negatives to video gaming. There are negatives to anything in life, and understanding these drawbacks is an important part of self-reflection and examining how we interact with the world. People can become addicted to video games. Carl Thompson found this out the hard way, and while it seems he’s recovering, many other people have much harder times beating their problems with games.

However the tabloids aren’t illuminating these issues out of care for the medium or its players, or out of a place of compassion and interest in the issues raised, and they're not doing it in a considerate way. They’re doing it to sell papers, which isn’t justifiable in any moral or ethical sense.

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