If you have a child, particularly a boy, particularly a boy who’s a tween or teenager, you are no doubt acquainted with Fortnite, the third-person shooter game that never met a platform it didn’t like. And perhaps you, like me, have witnessed your darling child’s transformation from cuddly, relatable quasi-innocent to meme-spewing, floss-dancing obsessive.
I sometimes wonder whether my 11-year-old son dreams in Fortnite. I know he browses for new costumes in the item shop with the same zeal with which my mother once combed the racks at Loehmann’s. And when he is not playing Fortnite, he is often watching YouTubers play Fortnite, yowling men-children who go by names like Ninja and Tfue and Fearless, spelled Fe4RLess, narrating their virtual exploits.
But after several months of careful observation — during which I have not merely mom-tolerated Fortnite but actively spectated and interrogated and (yes! even!) participated — here is what I’ve concluded:
I am pro.
Not without qualification or caveat. But I’ve lately decided that many of us are thinking about this game the wrong way — including Prince Harry, who declared on Thursday that it really ought to be banned.
A brief tutorial for the Fortnite unlettered: Think “The Hunger Games,” but with less gore and more contestants. Each player is dropped onto a candy-colored island and armed with only a pickax. He or she joins 99 others — some friends, perhaps, but mostly strangers (and mostly adults) — and spends the rest of the game scavenging for weapons, building fortifications, hiding, exploring and laying waste to everyone in sight. The last person standing wins.
Also, it is officially named Fortnite Battle Royale. But no one calls it that.
As a mother, I’ve never been much of a calamity howler, and having once written a book about parenthood, I know enough about the history of childhood to understand that most new forms of entertainment are met with gales of protest that in hindsight seem ridiculous. In the 1920s, social critics believed movies would turn our children to lives of wild delinquency. In the 1950s, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee held hearings about the moral dangers of comic books.
But part of me, I’ll confess, was at sixes and sevens about the sudden appearance of this game. Why — and how — had it so quickly become the rabid preoccupation of so many?
A great deal of the answer is that Fortnite is social. More than social, actually: It is, as the tech writer and developer Owen Williams has written, a destination, an actual place. “It’s like going to church, or the mall,” Williams explained on his blog, Charged, late last year, “except there’s an entire universe to mess around in together.”
Which explains a certain wisecrack my son likes to make when he peels off to play. “I’m going to see my friends now,” he says, though he’s in fact joining them on his headset. Jumping into a game of Fortnite is paying a social call, the equivalent of dropping in on a cocktail party.
That Fortnite is its own place — specifically “a third place,” or lively harbor for communities outside of home and work — matters quite a lot. Middle-class children today don’t have much freedom to find such places. They’re rigidly scheduled and aggressively sheltered — parents of my generation are more inclined to roll their children in bubble wrap and tuck them on a high shelf for storage than allow them to wander off to parks or shopping malls on their own. Gaming is their form of self-determination, a means to take control of their constricted, highly regimented lives.
I’ll toss in at least one paradoxical, unanticipated benefit of this socializing, at least in my house: My son now demands to see far more of his friends in real life. All that socializing via headset has whetted his appetite for embodied interaction. (Perhaps he’s an outlier. But Williams says the same thing has happened to him.) Sometimes those play dates don’t even involve Fortnite. But when they do, they’re far more social than meets the eye. The kids aren’t just plugged into their devices, but to one another — barking orders, exchanging intel, passing joysticks, cracking jokes.
“There’s just this nonstop talk,” said Clive Thompson, author of the excellent new “Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.” “It’s like two people who are watching a sporting event together. Except they’re the athletes.” The classic mistake that adults make, Thompson adds, is that they focus entirely on the screen when they see children huddled around iPads and Switches, Xboxes and PlayStations. “What they don’t focus on,” he says, “is what’s happening inside the room.”
A terrific article on Axios last Christmas articulated something I’d had a hard time putting words to: Fortnite is its own social network. It’s Facebook for a new generation of adults — and tweens, like my son.
In a cage match between Facebook and Fortnite, I’ll choose Fortnite, thanks, where people actually talk to one another in real time.
Are there unlovely, habit-forming aspects to the game? Yes. When I reached Owen Williams by phone, he said the game was devilishly good at lulling players into believing they’re closer to winning each time than they probably are. Psychologists call this the “near miss effect,” which incentivizes players to keep playing. And every two weeks, there are subtle shifts in how the game is played (with new weapons added, for instance, or taken away), a seductive trick.
But the world my son is entering is already a blinking bazaar of distractions, engineered to hot-wire our attention. Instagram, Twitter, group texts, email, Gchat — all of them can turn us into compulsives if we’re not careful; all require self-regulation. Whenever adults fret about their children’s inability to control themselves, I think of the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s observation that perhaps it’s because adults identify so very well with this loss of control: We’re the ones who are alcoholics, gamblers, serial killers. Not kids. “Excessive behavior,” he wrote in “On Balance,” “is not so much something we grow out of as something we grow into.”
Excessive gaming is just one more thing to guard against if you’ve got a teenager, along with alcohol and drug use. The problem existed long before Fortnite darkened our consoles.
Here’s what I learned from my son: The real harms of Fortnite do not come from the game itself. He explained this once in a comment so casual and epigrammatic that I knew it instantly to be true. “When people are behaving badly during the game,” he said, “it’s 10 percent because of their personality, 10 percent because the game is getting stressful and 80 percent because they’re imitating YouTubers.”
On YouTube, there are countless videos of adults playing Fortnite. They’re the game’s hidden influencers. Many of our kids, unbeknown to us, are taking their behavioral cues from them. Some are harmless, but some are not. YouTube, as we know, is algorithmically designed to show you the ugliest content in a hurry. Which generally means, in Fortnite’s case, a lot of trash talk and sore losing — and in the case of the fringier types, hate speech.
So if we want to guard against the hazards of the game, maybe we should screen which videos our kids are watching. Or maybe just tell them to turn off YouTube altogether — and play more Fortnite instead.
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Jennifer Senior has been an Op-Ed columnist since September 2018. She had been a daily book critic for The Times; before that, she spent many years as a staff writer for New York magazine. Her best-selling book, ”All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” has been translated into 12 languages. @JenSeniorNY
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