Lots of kids play a lot of Fortnite, but it's not a sign of the apocalpyse. Credit: YouTube

Earlier this week, Red Bull launched Rise Till Dawn—an all-night Fortnite tournament in July starring local streaming sensation Tyler “Ninja” Blevins on the 99th floor of the Willis Tower. It’s no surprise that the event sold out in a few short minutes, Fortnite is arguably the breakout entertainment hit of 2018—played by 40 million people—and Ninja is the game’s biggest star.

Still, the timing of the announcement of the dusk-’til-dawn tournament—one that resembles a compulsive gaming binge—was notable.

On Monday, the World Health Organization announced that it had officially recognized “gaming disorder” as a condition in its International Classification of Diseases. To be diagnosed with the disorder, you have to do more than just play the games a lot: you have to play compulsively despite suffering negative consequences for more than a year.

In other words, you can be addicted to video games. The disorder reportedly affects between 1 and 3 percent of gamers.

WHO’s inclusion of gaming disorder in the ICD earned significant coverage from many major news outlets. The Associated Press’s story about it, for example, was the lead story on the Sun-Times’s website at one point, with a headline that read “Avid Gamer or Video Game Addict?”

Much of the coverage of “gaming disorder” treated video games once again as a cultural punching bag. Politicians, parents’ groups, and the media have long blamed them for all sorts of societal problems—addiction, violence, bullying, the list goes on.

Last month, I wrote about Chicago’s decades-long ban on pinball that started way back in the 1930s. The ban stemmed from a fear that pinball was somehow a gateway drug to a life of crime. After arcade games displaced pinball in the hearts and minds of America’s youths later in the ’80s, city officials passed a zoning ordinance to marginalize them. Chicago required arcades to be located within a five-acre shopping center or only taverns with a special-use permit. That restrictive ordinance—meant to curb juvenile delinquency—was only eased in 2015, by which time it was considered “antiquated.”

The blood-spurting Chicago-made fighting game Mortal Kombat prompted a lot of hand-wringing in the early 90s—leading to Senate hearings on video game violence in 1993. Since then, whenever mass shootings or other horrendous acts of violence are committed by young men, some public figures and media members call out whatever violent video games are popular at the time—from Grand Theft Auto to Call of Duty.

Two years ago, Pokémon Go caused a panic. Nonplayers worried when they watched hordes of strangers walking awkwardly down sidewalks or in parks with their faces buried in their cell phones to catch cybermonsters. They shared stories  about Pokémon Go being used to lure players into armed robberies and distracted players crashing their cars and falling off cliffs and dying.

Even though violence has been decreasing over the last two decades of the age of the video game, (and—no—we’re not all dead from Pokemon Go accidents) the concerns continue. A column published in the Observer on Monday, headlined “WHO’s Ruling on Video Game Addicts Could Help Prevent Mass Shootings,” repeats the argument that video games begat violence—despite the fact there is little evidence to back that up.

And since Fortnite is the current king of digital playgrounds, accounts of the WHO report were accompanied with anecdotal evidence about how the game is uniquely corrupting and ensnaring the youth. One of the horror stories repeated is about a nine-year-old girl who’s in rehab after becoming so hooked on the video game she wet herself to avoid moving—and hit her father when he tried to stop her playing.

Pinball was once banned because of it supposedly corrupted the youth.
Pinball was once banned because of it supposedly corrupted the youth.

That’s not to discount the evidence that video game addiction is a genuine condition or that games can be hard to stop playing once you get in the zone. Hell, I personally had a hard time putting down Fortnite the other night.

As noted by Natasha Dow Schüll, in the book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, in recent years there’s been a merging of the slot machine industry with video games. Many of them are purposely designed to be like Skinner boxes—a constant stream of tiny reinforcements that can keep players glued to screens for hours. And that’s worrisome.

But that’s also true of Facebook, Instagram, and many of the countless apps on our constantly beeping and booping phones and other Internet-connected devices. The average American checks his or her phone every 12 minutes. Market research shows average users touches their cell phone 2,617 times a day. In a 2014 survey, 46 percent of users said their smartphone is something they “couldn’t live without.” Plus the average American still spends 5.5 hours a day watching television.

Kids and their technology that parents don’t quite understand are easy targets, but that doesn’t mean we should single them out as a bogeyman.
The truth is—whether it’s shooting a virtual soldier or swiping right for a date—we’re all hunched over screens way too often these days.