Online games, and especially multi-player, role-playing games, are the most likely to lead to addiction. Picture: Altus Air Force Base

Marchelle Abrahams unpacks what it is about online games that are turning our children into zombies.

Less than a year after its release, popular online game Fortnite is taking over the globe. With over 40 million players from the around the world connected to it, it was only a matter of time till your child discovered it.

There seems to be a darker side to this seemingly innocuous game. Even with an age restriction of 12 years, horror stories of distressed parents are doing the rounds.

The Daily Mail reported that the British parents of a 9-year-old girl were forced to call in a gaming addiction expert after she became so immersed in the online world she would wet herself rather than take a toilet break.

And their fears are not unfounded.

Gaming addiction, including video and online gaming, was listed as a mental health condition for the first time by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its 11th International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in January 2018.

READ: How 10-year-old was left deformed by gaming addiction

But what is it about this particular game, and others like it, that are turning our children into zombies?

Tristan Harris, ex Design Ethicist at Google, thinks he might have the answer. He says our brains are vulnerable to hacking - and companies know this.

“Just as the magician relies on limitations in your short term memory or visual acuity to accomplish sleight of hand, online software engineers leverage the limits of your mind to make their product addictive,” says the design thinker and entrepreneur.

“From the sonorous ping of mobile phones to Facebook's highly nuanced algorithm, product makers understand that frequent reward is what keeps you coming back.”

Fortnite is a co-op sandbox survival game developed by Epic Games and People Can Fly. Picture:

And frequent rewards form the building blocks of games like Fortnite.

The WHO defines gaming disorder as: “A pattern of gaming behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”

Certainly, parents shouldn't allow things to go this far? Age restrictions on games are there for a reason.

Durban-based counselling psychologist Rakhi Beekrum says parents need to lay down the law from the get-go when it comes to video games in general.

“Part of responsible parenting is monitoring what your children are doing online, on social media and what games are being played,” she says.

Tristan Harris says our brains are vulnerable to hacking - and companies know this. Picture: PxHere

She also notes that parents need to research video games before allowing their children to play, regardless of the age restriction.

While there are no official stats available on gaming disorder in South Africa, research by PwC shows a marked increase in video game sales between 2011 and 2016, which Hein Hofmeyr, a clinical psychologist at Akeso Clinic Nelspruit, says is indicative of the burgeoning preoccupation with online games.

“Online games, and especially multi-player, role-playing games, are the most likely to lead to addiction,” he noted.

He describes how “people often enter a hypnotic state when playing video games, during which the subconscious mind learns that the playing of the game is an escape from the real world and a ‘safe space’”.

Hofmeyr suggests that game producers use certain risk factors, like low self esteem and poor interpersonal skills, to their advantage to make the games more addictive and increase sales. “They tap into the serotonin and dopamine levels of the brain to produce feelings of euphoria."

Beekrum is of the belief that parents should be setting firm boundaries in place before losing control. “Set a time-limit for games during weekends and holidays. You need to make the rules clear, enforce these rules and explain upfront what the consequences are for not following the rules.”

“Ultimately the power and responsibility lie with the parents to set and enforce the rules,” concludes Beekrum.

* Rakhi Beekrum is a psychologist in Durban North: