British Columbia

Fortnite was designed to be 'as addictive as possible' for kids, B.C. parents claim in proposed class-action

A Vancouver parent has launched a proposed class-action lawsuit against the makers of Fortnite, saying the popular video game is designed to be "as addictive as possible" for children.

Plaintiff says her son 'developed an adverse dependence' on game; proposed suit could set legal precedent

A bunch of young people sit in front of computers, with the poster of Fortnite in the background.
A Vancouver parent launched a proposed class-action lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court Friday against American company Epic Games, creator of the popular video game Fortnite. (BARTOSZ SIEDLIK/AFP/Getty Images)

A Vancouver parent has launched a proposed class-action lawsuit against the makers of Fortnite, saying the popular video game is designed to be "as addictive as possible" for children.

In the lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court on Friday, the plaintiff — identified only by the initials "A.B." — says her son downloaded Fortnite in 2018 and "developed an adverse dependence on the game."

The game, with 400 million players worldwide, is free to download and play but sells things like character costumes and dance moves for money.

The statement of claim says the game incorporates several intentional design choices, such as offering rewards for completing challenges and making frequent updates, which encourages players to return repeatedly.

It says Fortnite creator Epic Games enriches itself by making content and customization options purchasable via an in-game currency, which is purchased with real cash.

The class-action lawsuit would still need approval from the court, and none of the allegations have been proven in court.

The plaintiff is seeking damages alleging the game breaches the B.C. Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act and for "unjust enrichment" and medical expenses for psychological or physical injuries, among other claims.

Epic Games says it will fight allegations

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Epic Games communications director Natalie Muñoz says the plaintiff's claims don't reflect how Fortnite operates and ignore all the measures parents can take to control their children's gaming experience.

She says one of these measures are "cabined accounts," which mean children under age 13 will have to provide their parents' email address in order to access certain features of the game.

"We will fight these inflammatory allegations," said Muñoz in the written statement.

The lawsuit would cover all persons affected by Fortnite in Canada except Quebec, where in February, Epic Games lost its attempt to appeal the court's decision there to authorize a similar class-action suit.

Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ont., says the B.C. lawsuit is significant because it could set a legal precedent for other common law jurisdictions in Canada and beyond.

"What happens here with this latest filing will, in fact, influence other potential future lawsuits filed against not only this game company but other game companies within Canada and beyond any other country that follows common law," he said.

Epic fined $520M US in December

Epic Games, headquartered in Cary, N.C., agreed in December to pay $520 million US in fines and rebates for tricking millions of players into making unintentional purchases in the game, which was the heftiest penalty ever obtained by a company for violating rules of the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The American regulator said the company would pay $275 million US for violating a law known as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by deploying design tricks to get kids to download in-game content that costs real-world money. The company will also pay $245 million to refund consumers for what they spent on the downloaded content.

In addition to the fine for the content downloads, the FTC says Epic Games also violated COPPA by disregarding privacy concerns.

The game's default settings allow for text and voice communications for users. That allowed children and teens to be bullied, threatened, harassed and exposed to dangerous and psychologically traumatizing issues such as suicide while on Fortnite, the FTC said.

"The company also required parents who requested that their children's personal information be deleted to jump through unreasonable hoops and sometimes failed to honour such requests," the FTC said.

Monitor kids, train them how to self-regulate: experts

Levy says as a father of a young child who plays Fortnite, he would recommend other parents to pay close attention to their offspring's gaming behaviour in order to protect them from bullying on gaming platforms.

"Don't just assume that because you as a parent aren't a tech expert or aren't a video gamer that you can't have an important role to play with your child," he said. "Make sure that you maintain that open dialogue all the way through, so they know they can come to you if they do have any questions or problems."

Director Matthew Johnson of MediaSmarts, a non-profit centre for digital and media literacy based in Ottawa, recommends parents give their kids gift cards or credit cards with a small pre-paid limit in order to restrict in-game purchases.

Johnson also asks parents to train their children how to manage their on-screen time and personal finances.

"It's important that they have learned the self-regulation skills they need," he said. "When they're no longer subject to our rules, they're able to manage their own time and manage their own spending."

With files from Pete Evans and Winston Szeto