The Daily Mirror has been receiving significant criticism from members of the gaming community this week, following a recent front page headline relating to Fortnite.
The headline, which reads “Fortnite made me a suicidal drug addict” is just the latest example in a trend of tabloids attempting to tie a scare-mongering headline to whatever is most popular with children at any given moment.
A breakdown of the article is available on Eurogamer, and it’s every bit as cynical as the headline would suggest. It directly links a boy’s addiction to Fortnite to drug use, theft and even suicide. It includes scandalous details of how the boy was driven to stealing from his parents to pay for Fortnite microtransactions, as well as developing an amphetamine habit to play the game through the night.
The criticisms rightly point out that the article is not only a cynical call-out of the most popular game on the planet, but also that it grossly oversimplifies the causes of suicide by refusing to discuss any underlying mental health concerns. The article also includes a specific description of the suicide attempt, a potential violation of the IPSO code of practice, which discourages journalists from describing suicide methods, as it can prompt vulnerable people to imitate them.
The controversy continued when stories about the journalist behind the piece, Matthew Barbour, hit Twitter. Chris Bratt, host of Youtube series People Make Games shared a story on Twitter of how Barbour had previously offered a £100 fee for anybody willing to share a negative experience with Niantic’s Pokémon Go, raising questions around whether the family in the Fortnite piece had also been paid.
While these criticisms are certainly valid and important to bring up, something that seems a little missing from the uproar is the question of what articles like this mean for the community’s approach to gaming addiction.
Video games have been a target of sensationalized media headlines ever since video games became a thing. Fortnite in particular is vulnerable to these kinds of stories. Given its enormous success and popularity among children, the game is ripe for scaremongering articles to terrify parents. As such, the urge to roll our eyes and shrug off stories of gaming addiction as another cynical tabloid attack is tempting - but this response does a disservice to the realities of gaming addiction.
One of the most frustrating things about The Mirror’s piece is that it fundamentally undermines the cause it’s supposedly trying to champion. It’s much harder to have a serious conversation about the realities of gaming addiction in a climate of hysterical press coverage.
What needs to be made clear is that for many, video game addiction is a serious mental health condition, one that has been listed as a disorder by the World Health Organisation. A defensive attitude to the idea will not change this reality. Deputy editor of Eurogamer Wesley Yin-Poole has shared his own story of his addiction to World of Warcraft.
We cannot as a community allow headlines such as these to distract us from asking ourselves some uncomfortable questions about how we design, promote and engage with video games. While the circumstances around addiction are as complicated as those around suicide, it seems reckless to entirely remove the element video games play from the equation.
With the issue of loot boxes and microtransactions currently dominating the community, now is perhaps the most important time to have this conversation. While the link between gambling and loot boxes is not entirely clear cut, they have nonetheless been deemed as gambling in certain instances.
Although publishers such as EA are backing off from the practice in the face of consumer backlash, loot boxes are still incredibly lucrative. Microtransactions too, despite the negative press, are still being installed in major video game titles.
The issue of addiction further complicates how we approach matters such as loot boxes and microtransactions. What responsibility, if any, does the industry have to protect vulnerable people from financial harm through the games they produce?
The question isn’t an easy one to answer, but if we allow sensationalist tabloid headlines to keep us from having the conversation in the first place, then we do both the industry and those suffering from addiction a severe disservice.