Fortnite Addiction: How Technology is Designed to Keep People Engaged

3 minute read

In their Bloomberg piece “Fortnite Addiction Is Forcing Kids Into Video-Game Rehab,” Jef Feeley and Christopher Palmeri discuss how parents have trouble regulating their children’s’ videogame use. Some parents even had to resort sending their kids to rehab. But, Fortnite was also cited as the cause for breakups. This means that videogame addiction isn’t just a problem children face. In fact, gaming disorder is recognized by the World Health Organization. However, this may lead some to believe that it is the responsibility of the parents and players to regulate their gameplay and avoid addiction at their own. This type of thinking completely ignores the reality of the situation: game studios, along with other technology companies, design their products to trigger dopamine receptors in the brain. This makes their products feel rewarding, and drives user engagement. Consider the feeling when logging into Facebook and seeing new notifications, or when glancing at your phone and seeing you have new messages. Chemically, the same thing is happening in your brain as if you had just eliminated someone in Fortnite or you ate that second cookie.

This is not to say that people are not responsible for their actions that lead to videogame addictions. However, companies need to be held responsible for the content they create. Taking Fortnite as an example, the game is colorful and cartoonish, filled with characters that can be customized (with purchases) and, with enough playing time, can unlock special dance moves and new items. Players have weekly and daily challenges they can complete to level up. Practically every component of the game is made to be enticing. Since Fortnite is a free-to-play game, it is in the Epic Game’s (the studio behind Fortnite) best interest to maximize playing time. The more someone plays the game, the more likely they are to complete challenges and unlock rewards, which triggers dopamine receptors. Once this occurs enough, players will associate the game with the pleasant rewarding feelings. This engagement can then lead to players purchasing items or a Battle Pass (allows players to unlock even more items, dance moves, and characters). The aspect of purchasing these items is another dopamine trigger for a few reasons. First, these are normally items that are rare and can only be obtained by purchasing. Second, players show-off their items to other players during the game. This has a great social effect in the game. Players will show off their new items to friends and other players in the game. Imagine playing Fortnite and eliminating a player with a default character. Now, imagine playing Fortnite again and this time, eliminating a player with the rare edition Santa character that could only be purchased during Christmas Day last year. That elimination feels more rewarding that the first.

Certainly, Fortnite is an entertaining game to play. Not everyone who plays the game develops an addiction. Still, there is a non-trivial amount of people who do develop addiction symptoms due to the nature of the game’s addiction qualities. Fortnite is designed to be an enjoyable game, and part of that effect is the colorful landscape and riveting character designs. Simply put, the game would be less popular if it was only in black and white with each character looking the same. The smooth animations and cool sound effects drive engagement. Thus, Fortnite is responsible for creating an addictive game, because it was designed for that specific purpose. In an ideal world, Epic Games would either add limits to the game or reduce the addictive elements. Unfortunately, doing so would likely reduce the game’s in-store purchases and its popularity. That also would not fix the problem at hand. As mentioned, this is a popular practice among game studios and other technologies. Facebook’s notifications are red not just to draw people’s attention but also to trigger the excitement of a new update. Many technological interfaces are designed specifically to draw people in and keep them engaged. As a society, we need to confront this problem before it worsens.