Why Fortnite has been crowned The King of Dopamine Hits

It’s a cultural phenomenon - and if you have a school-aged child, you’ve probably watched it unfold in miniature before your very eyes. 

Stories of kids wetting themselves deliberately in order to keep playing started appearing shortly after the game debuted in 2017. Media-savvy Prince Harry -  not normally noted as a killjoy - went so far as to proclaim “That game shouldn't be allowed.”

That’s important to keep that in mind in case you’ve ever watched your kid disappear, glassy-eyed and unreachable, into yet another gaming session. 

No, it’s not as if they have some special vulnerability or are totally lacking in willpower. And it’s not a case of “where did I go wrong?” as a parent either.

On the contrary, say experts. What draws our kids into craving more and more and more time on the battlefield royale isn’t you, and it isn’t them. It’s … dopamine - and the game developers who have cleverly exploited the irresistible feedback loop it creates in the brain.

How dopamine works

Here’s how it works. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter your brain releases in response to pleasure. And Fortnite delivers rapid-fire hits of the stuff. 

But here’s the thing about dopamine. It doesn’t simply create feelings of pleasure. It motivates us to seek out more.

The thrill of staying alive in a pressured, kill-or-be-killed scenario - even a completely fictitious digital one - is at the heart of the pleasure Fortnite delivers to players. And the fact that it’s a lightning-fast and infinitely repeatable game only amps up the effect.

But here’s the thing about dopamine. It doesn’t simply create feelings of pleasure. It motivates us to seek out more. And, after a while, your brain needs more and more of the original pleasure-producing stimulus - in this case, gameplay - in order to experience the same pleasure-hit.

There’s another not-so-fun fact about the dopamine reward system. It’s highly sensitive to cues that a reward is coming. If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something good is about to happen - think Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell -  that sets it off.

So when there's a sound or a visual cue for, say, killing an enemy in a game - that cue will intensify the addictive effect. In a nutshell: It's not the reward itself that keeps the dopamine loop going; it's the anticipation of the reward. 

Fortnite in the firing line

These are the biological facts. And they’re exactly the ones that Epic Games, Fortnite’s developer, has exploited perhaps more brilliantly than any of its competitors - leading WIRED magazine to crown Fortnite “The King of Dopamine Hits.” 

They are also what has inspired a class-action Canadian lawsuit charging Epic Games with deliberate intent to create addiction. The legal action was brought by parents whose two sons spent over a thousand dollars on in-app purchases over the course of a year. 

The case has been likened to a 2015 class-action lawsuit that accused tobacco firms of not doing enough to warn consumers of the addictive nature of smoking.

Citing the World Health Organisation (WHO) gaming disorder classification, the legal brief highlights comparisons to both heroin and cocaine addiction. 

"Human psychology and manipulation of the human brain has been the epicenter of Fortnite development process that has been specially designed to be highly addictive," it reads. 

The case has been likened to a 2015 class-action lawsuit that accused tobacco firms of not doing enough to warn consumers of the addictive nature of smoking.

Healthy gaming? 

On the other side of the debate there is interesting evidence that playing video games in healthy doses actually has brain benefits - particularly with respect to mental agility and strategic thinking.  

But what, exactly, constitutes “healthy” gaming? The answer is far from clear, notes Dr. C. Shawn Green, a game developer who also happens to hold a PhD in brain and cognitive studies. 

“What healthy gameplay might look like in practice may differ greatly across individuals, and across the lifespan (e.g., in children versus adults),” he told WIRE. “In other words, there really aren’t any one-size-fits-all guidelines for healthy gameplay that will work for everyone-is-a-different-size human beings.”

(Main image: independent.co.uk)


Family Zone lets you manage Fortnite and other games to ensure a healthy experience for your child - or block them entirely with a single click.

Create a home where digital children thrive, and start your free trial today.




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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, online gaming, Fortnite, healthy gaming

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