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You can't sue us for making games 'too entertaining,' say major game developers in response to addiction lawsuits

 A motorcycle wheelie in GTA 5.
A motorcycle wheelie in GTA 5.

A string of six videogame addiction lawsuits have recently been filed against Microsoft, Activision Blizzard, Roblox, Epic Games, Rockstar, and other major game developers and publishers. The complaints, which were all submitted to courts within the past 12 months, claim that game developers are intentionally making players addicted to their games.

As part of a motion filed this month to dismiss one of the complaints, that of an Arkansas woman and her son, the targeted game developers called it "an attack on the First Amendment rights of videogame creators."

The Arkansas lawsuit alleges that Roblox, Fortnite, Call of Duty, Minecraft, and other popular games used "addictive psychological features" to hook the son starting when he was 12 years old. Now 21, he currently spends $350 a month on games, dropped out of school, has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and "anxiety," and has experienced "withdrawal symptoms such as rage, anger, and physical outbursts," according to the suit. It also alleges that the mother could not regulate her son's gaming because she "feared" him as a result of his outbursts.

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The complaint says that the game developers are liable for defective and negligent designs that "take advantage of the chemical reward system of a user's brain (especially a minor) to create addictive engagement, compulsive use, and additional mental and physical harm," as well as failure to warn users of the risk of addiction.

In their motion to dismiss, the developers' lawyers argue that games are an expressive medium, as established in a 2011 Supreme Court decision, and that finding their expression "too entertaining" is not a valid reason to limit constitutionally protected speech. They also say that the plaintiffs fail to clearly establish what features of each game specifically caused harm and how.

The complaint dedicates a number of pages to describing generally the alleged addictive properties of each game. Some commonly criticized aspects of modern games come up, such as "predatory monetization" and deceptive UI tricks called "dark patterns," but many of the complaints relate to aspects of games we'd consider normal or positive.

Call of Duty, for instance, is criticized for rewarding players with gun and attachment unlocks, which the suit calls "a form of operant conditioning," as well as for featuring "fast-paced play, satisfying graphics, sounds, and other dopamine lifts." Minecraft's multiplayer features are said to "addict players to connecting with others in the Minecraft world" and the suit warns that players with ADHD "can become easily hyper focused and addicted to building worlds." Grand Theft Auto 5, the suit says, "includes endless arrays of activities and challenges to continually engage users and ensure they are never bored."

The game developers say that the complaint uses "ominous" terms like "feedback loop" and "monetization scheme" to justify attacking regular, creative features that make their games more attractive and challenging.

"That Plaintiffs find the expression in games 'too persuasive' and 'catchy'—ie, too entertaining—'does not permit [them] to quiet the speech or to burden its messengers,'" the developers said.

(The bit about quieting and burdening is a quote from a 2011 Supreme Court decision which said that the marketing efforts of pharmaceutical companies can't be restricted for being "too persuasive." I have to imagine that the lawyers here would've preferred not to cite a win for the pharmaceutical industry—just, you know, to avoid irony—but I suppose you have to use the precedents you're given.)

Five of the six addiction lawsuits, including the Arkansas suit, were filed by Atlanta law firm Bullock Ward Mason, which counts videogame addiction as one of its specialties.

"Videogame addiction is a serious problem created and perpetuated by a multi-billion industry with a profit incentive to create addicts out of our children," said a representative for the firm in a statement provided to PC Gamer. "The addiction we are seeing in children and young adults is severe, with gaming taking over their entire lives, causing drastic and detrimental impacts on their wellbeing.

"As we continue to investigate this crisis on behalf of impacted families, we look forward to shining a light on this industry, holding these videogame companies accountable for the harm they are causing, and ensuring changes are made to protect children going forward."

modern warfare 3
modern warfare 3

The World Health Organization recognizes videogame addiction as a disorder, and the American Psychiatric Association says that the question of whether or not videogames can be addictive is "still being debated," but that "early evidence suggests that videogames are one of the most addicting technologies around." The Chinese government restricts the number of hours children can play videogames, saying in 2021 that "parents have reported that game addiction among some youths and children is seriously harming their normal study, life and mental and physical health."

The Entertainment Software Association, a trade group whose members include the companies targeted by these lawsuits, defended game makers in a statement provided to PC Gamer.

"Videogames are among the most dynamic, widely enjoyed forms of entertainment in the world," said the ESA. "We prioritize creating positive experiences for the entire player community and provide easy-to-use tools for players, parents and caregivers to manage numerous aspects of gameplay. Claims that say otherwise are not rooted in fact and ignore the reality that billions of people globally, of all ages and backgrounds, play videogames in a healthy, balanced way."

Should the Arkansas lawsuit (or the others) not be dismissed, the developers have each motioned for the case to go to arbitration—as we all know, there's not a TOS on the planet that doesn't make us waive the right to a jury trial. The plaintiffs have asked for more time to respond to these motions as they await a decision on whether or not the pre-trial proceedings of all six very similar addiction cases will be consolidated.

This article has been updated with a statement from the ESA.