Arkansas families sue video game companies, contend games are addictive

Posted on Monday, November 13th, 2023 at 8:56 pm    

This article is sourced from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Two Arkansas families have filed federal lawsuits in Arkansas’ eastern and western districts accusing Microsoft and other video game software makers of engineering online video games to be addictive in order to drive up profits.

Casey and Thomas Dunn of Poinsett County said in a complaint filed Oct. 30 in the Eastern District of Arkansas that video game makers “use patented designs, algorithms and marketing containing addictive features and technology” leading to addiction.

In the Western District of Arkansas, Preston Johnson and his mother, Elizabeth Jones, both of Miller County, filed a similar lawsuit Wednesday alleging that Johnson — who is now 21 years old and began playing online video games at the age of 12 — was targeted and induced to enter into thousands of dollars of microtransactions.

The Eastern District lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey is assigned to the case in the Western District.

According to the Johnson lawsuit, the games Johnson played or plays are Call of Duty Modern Warfare, Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto 5 that he downloaded from the Microsoft Store and plays through Xbox Game Pass Cloud Streaming.

Named as defendants in the Dunn lawsuit are Activision Blizzard, Infinity Ward, Treyarch Corp., Sledgehammer Games, Microsoft, Epic Games, EA Digital Illusions, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft Divertissements, Ubisoft Entertainment, Nintendo of America and Google.

Named as defendants in the Johnson lawsuit are Activision Blizzard, Infinity Ward, Treyarch Corp., Sledgehammer Games, Microsoft, Epic Games, Roblox Corp., Mojang Studios, Xbox Game Studios, Rockstar Games Inc., Rockstar North Limited, War Drum Studios, and Take-Two Interactive Software.

Plaintiff attorneys Tina Bullock and B.W. Walas, both with the Bullock Ward Mason law firm in Atlanta, Ga., said Friday that parents are deliberately kept in the dark about how online gaming companies target users.

“They know their child is playing the game but what they don’t know is what’s going on behind the scenes,” Bullock said. “They don’t know that there is a patented addiction in the game.”

Bullock said privacy notices posted by the defendants are inadequate to protect consumers.

“A lot of privacy notices don’t put parents on notice or allow them to opt out of interactions that can cause the addiction,” she said, adding that a gaming addiction can be developed in only a few weeks’ time — “at a minimum, five weeks.”

Bullock said the problem cannot be dismissed by blaming it on “bad parenting”– that when it comes to video game addiction, parents generally are ill-equipped to deal with the problem.

“Parents are not accustomed to having a 6- or a 9-year-old becoming an addict,” she said. “They aren’t trained to treat addiction or to recognize it, quite frankly.”

Walas said patented technology that video game manufacturers have developed provides the ability to draw youngsters further and further into the games. But, he said, none of that is disclosed to parents when they set up online gaming accounts for their children.

“A parent is not given all the information when they are making the decision to let their child play the games,” Walas said. “Once their child is in the game, there’s all these hidden things the parent doesn’t know their child can access.”

Both lawsuits allege that the explosive growth of the video game industry has been largely fueled by patented “monetization schemes” that target minors who are induced to make in-game purchases of downloadable content, known as “microtransactions,” ranging from less than a dollar each to several dollars that are charged to a credit card attached to the player account.

The microtransactions embedded into the games, Walas said, contribute to an ongoing “purchasing loop.”

Bullock said that when a child’s account is opened, it is tied to a credit card associated with the parents’ account and that those microtransactions initially don’t attract much attention.

“As the addiction grows, that’s when it becomes a more recognizable transaction, with some parents reporting $300 to $400 a month,” she said. “If the parents complain to the video game companies, they’ve had their accounts locked — not just the video game but all of the Microsoft products the parents use professionally … They’re basically locked out of their own working products they purchased through these same manufacturers … It’s extortion.”

Simply removing a child’s access to online games, Bullock said, can lead to negative responses that may include violence toward others or to themselves and other destructive behaviors.

“We’ve got cases with parents where police have been called to the home, or child protective services,” she said. “They can’t get the children to attend classes, so they aren’t getting an education. This is the kind of pushback the addicted kids are giving the parents.”

Those interactions, Bullock said, go far beyond the typical give-and-take between parents and children and are unrelated to common sources of inter-family friction.

“This isn’t just a kid with rage or with ADHD,” she said. “The game is the trigger.”

In the Dunn lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that their child “has experienced severe emotional distress, physical injuries, diminished social interactions, a drop in grades and inability to attend school, depression, lack of interest in other hobbies and sports, withdrawal symptoms such as rage, anger, and physical outburst, and diagnoses of ADHD and Dyslexia.”

Casey Dunn said her child, who is now 13 years old, started playing online video games several years ago, and the trouble, she said, came on gradually.

“I don’t know exactly about when it was that I saw there was an addiction problem,” Dunn said. “I just know that I slowly saw my baby boy slipping away from me, and I knew that as a mama I had to stand up and do something.”

Dunn said her son signed up for the gaming platform with her knowledge but she was unaware of the possibility of problems.

“I was completely unaware of all the tactics and gimmicks that they used,” she said. “If I had known beforehand I never would have let him.”

Even after she took the games away, Dunn said, her son struggles with the aftermath.

“It’s a nightmare daily,” she said. “There’s never going to be a time that my child doesn’t struggle with this.”

The Johnson complaint alleges that Preston Johnson “specifically has experienced severe emotional distress, physical injuries, diminished social interactions, loss of friends, inability to limit game playing time, changes in eating patterns, a drop in grades and inability to attend school due to his desire to stay home and play video games.”

Johnson dropped out of school at the age of 16 due to his gaming addiction, the complaint said.

Other symptoms, the complaint said, include, “depression, lack of interest in other hobbies and sports, withdrawal symptoms such as rage, anger, and physical outburst, and a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety.”

Online gaming has exploded in popularity in recent years, according to the Entertainment Software Association, which says in two-thirds of American households there is at least one person who plays, and said a recent study suggests that roughly 160 million American adults play internet-based games.

The American Psychiatric Association stops short of labeling online gaming as an addiction but says while the games can be entertaining and the competition is easy to get absorbed in, health officials continue to debate the question. The APA does say, however, that “early evidence suggests that video games are one of the most addicting technologies around.”

The APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) — which is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders — refers to the condition as Internet Gaming Disorder and includes it in a section recommending conditions for further research, along with caffeine use disorder and other conditions.

Bullock said the problem is not just in Arkansas and that more lawsuits are planned.

“We do have multiple lawsuits we’re going to be filing around the country,” she said.

Activision and Ubisoft Montreal did not respond to emails seeking comment. A member of the Microsoft Media Relations team requested clarification on what information was needed but had not responded by Friday’s deadline.