If you have a kid who’s part of video game culture then you’ve heard about Fortnite. My colleague Anne, who lives on the west coast and teaches essay writing to middle and high school students every summer, told me about the Fortnite frenzy that went on during her classes. Every time her students took a break, all of the them were glued to their phones, yelling at their screens, not engaging with one another directly, but rather through the battle playing out on their devices. They’re dropped onto an island after “The Storm,” an apocalyptic event in which 98 percent of the world’s population has simply vanished and their task is to find raw materials to build structures while scrambling to find hidden weapons to defeat enemies and ward off their own destruction. The ultimate goal is surviving on an ever-shrinking map by shooting and killing all of the other players. (On the plus-side, even though there is shooting and killing going on, it’s in a cartoonish style, so minus the blood and gore.)
In addition to being played on Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows and Xbox One, Fortnite can also now be played on Apple mobile devices meaning kids can hang out and play with other kids in a virtual landscape, no matter where they are physically. Up to one-hundred players can compete to be the last-player-standing, either solo, with a partner, or as part of a four-player squad. Anne was amazed that even though her students were talking to their screens and not each other they were all playing on the same battlefield. (There is a single-player version called the Save the World campaign, but the multiplayer mode has eclipsed the solo format.) All of it makes our neighborhood games of kickball and tag seem quaint in comparison, but the jury’s definitely out on whether virtual social encounters benefit kids in the same way in-person social interactions.
One of the big draws of the game is that it’s free to play. But, even though it doesn’t cost anything to download there are add-ons that do cost money. Kids can buy in-game currency (called “V-bucks”) and use them to unlock loot and buy an outfit for their character, or a new dance move, or a unusual looking pick axe.
Anne gave me vivid details about how animated and engrossed her students were while they were playing and how difficult it was to get them to stop when it was time for class to resume. Because each game is only about 20 minutes long playing Fortnite is like binge watching a television series and who’s not familiar with how addictive that habit can be?
Dr. David Anderson, PhD, head of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, has seen some of the detrimental aspects Fortnite’s had on his young clients. While there isn’t any profanity in the game dialogue, because kids play in groups, younger players can be exposed to off-color language from random strangers in voice or on-screen text chat. And because it’s a competition, emotions can run high. When kids feel competitive — or slighted — it jacks up their adrenaline and they can say things they wouldn’t ordinarily say face-to-face.
As a parent it’s important to be in an ongoing conversation about your kid’s behavior online. Kids shouldn’t feel that the rules are different in games than they are in real life, especially because the habits they develop while playing video games can generalize into other settings, including school.
Figuring out how much time you allow your kids to be online and/or interact with a screen is an ongoing household conversation. Learning the positives and negatives of a vast universe of video games is a continual challenge. The good news is that there are a lot of tools and helpful resources out there to help us parents navigate. Here are a few we thought were particularly useful: