A leading politician has inadvertently begun a new battle against addictive video games as the new season of online shooter Fortnite again takes over the lives of tens of millions of people.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Matt Hancock – formerly the Digital Minister – said children need to have a balanced lifestyle away from screens.
“Too much screen time could have a damaging impact on our children’s lives,” he said. “Whether its social media or video games, children should enjoy them safely and as part of a lifestyle that includes exercise and socialising in the real world.”
The Daily Mail then reused Hancock’s quotes in a somewhat sensational article headlined ‘Addictive online shooter games such as Fortnite have ‘damaging impact’ on the lives of children, warns Culture Secretary’.
But what is Fortnite, and is it really responsible for children choosing it over exercise or socialising?
Fornite: Battle Royale is the breakaway gaming hit of 2018, with over 40 million users. It can be played on a console like a Playstation or from a phone.
In the game, one hundred real players are dropped into a level and attempt to be the longest to survive.
“It’s basically ‘last man standing’,” Simon Smith (pictured below), who has been in the video game industry for 15 years, explained to BusinessCloud.
Smith has designed and produced games for renowned companies such as Codemasters, Blitz Games and SCEE (Sony PlayStation) on multi-million selling games including Colin McRae Rally 2.0 and the Buzz! franchise.
Smith, who plays Fornite, dismissed its negative press. He believes that the attention it has received makes it ‘this year’s fidget spinner’.
“It was exactly the same story a few years ago with Minecraft. Whether it’s a video game or fidget spinners, we get this story every few months.
“With these types of games, the developers want lots of people playing them, so if you give them away for free you get lots of people playing. That’s why there are loads of kids playing it, and talking about it on the playground.
“[Fortnite] was never aimed at children, the reason that children are playing it is that it’s free to download and it’s got bright cartoon graphics.”
In the same article, Hancock told The Telegraph that he and his department are working alongside game developers to improve children’s experience with games.
But Smith, the 43-year-old chair of Gameopolis, a network for video game developers and publisher, does not believe it is the job of developers to fix this problem.
“It’s down to personal responsibility,” he argues. “You have to limit yourself from playing too much. We don’t put limits on Netflix because people are binge-watching Stranger Things!”
Whilst Smith doesn’t believe that games are inherently bad for children, he does argue that the type of game a child plays can make a difference.
The wildly popular ‘Minecraft’ game, which was also a huge hit with both children and adults, encouraged building and crafting with lego-style bricks.
“A game like Minecraft is more productive than Fortnite. In Fortnite you’re learning how to hide, stalk and kill people. If we want to teach kids to be creative then Minecraft is a better option,” he said.
Whilst the content of computer games is still a hot topic, how much time we spend sat in front of them is an issue for young and old alike.
For the average adult, a weekday includes staring at computer screen from 9-5, glancing at a phone throughout the day and an hour or two of television in the evening.
By these standards the average young gamer gets off lightly.
According to 2017 figures from Statista, 29 per cent of US gamers – where the majority of Fortnite gamers play – are under 18 years old, but only three per cent less are at least 50 years old.
“Everything is about personal discipline, whether we’re talking about playing video games or the sugar tax,” Smith said.
Screen time then is not a uniquely young problem, nor is gaming. The culture secretary’s advice is not wrong – in fact it might apply to everyone.
Taking more time away from screens – be that social media, work, or Fortnite – is an idea we could all take more seriously.