It’s a video game that many have described as Minecraft meets Left 4 Dead (which covers a pretty broad spectrum… in movies it would be like saying Incredibles meets Deadpool).
Every kid is talking about it, and anyone with an Xbox, PlayStation, computer or an iPhone can jump in on a match.
The game is Fortnite, and it’s all anyone is talking about.
It’s interesting how different elements in our culture provoke questions from parents at a given time. Like when Snapchat released their new SnapMaps last fall, I began hearing questions from parents, “Is it safe for my kids’ friends to all know where she is at any given moment?”
Right now the question I am hearing at every one of my parent workshops is, “I can’t pry my son’s eyes from the video game Fortnite! He even sneaks to play it! What do I do?” And then other parents ask, “Is this a healthy game for my kids to be playing in the first place?”
We’re now seeing articles surface from very concerned parents freaking out about the game like it’s Grand Theft Auto (it’s not). But are there some valid concerns with this game?
I turned to my game expert Samuel who reviews video games for us on TheSource4Parents.com and asked him his two cents about the game’s violence, it’s addictive nature, and whether it’s connective abilities pose any dangers. Here’s my conversation with him:
JONATHAN: Samuel we love your video game reviews. You bring such a fine balance between appreciating games, playing games with your kids, but also watching out for some of the negative influences out there. Tell us a little about this insanely popular game Fortnite.
SAMUEL: Glad to! Fortnite is a cooperative survival game that released in July 2017. The original game is about a mysterious worldwide storm that suddenly engulfed the earth, made 98% of the population disappear, and brought out zombie-like creatures to attack those who remained. Players team up with their friends to survive attacking hordes of the creatures, not only with weapons, but also by building structures with the game's dynamic building system. Hence the comparison to Minecraft and Left 4 Dead; those games have central elements of building and 4-player cooperation, respectively.
But the reason everyone is talking about Fortnight is because of another version of the game called Fortnite Battle Royale, where players battle against each other to the death.
JONATHAN: So like Hunger Games?
SAMUEL: Yes, but no Jennifer Lawrence.
JONATHAN: So what’s this obsession with the “Battle Royale” genre… we’re seeing a lot of games doing this. If this was the 80’s it would be like if Pac Man came out with a Pac Attack where you got to battle all your friends trying to eat each other. (Did I just come up with a good idea?)
SAMUEL: For sure, patent that!
The 30 second answer to that question is, yes, gamers really love the “Battle Royale” fight-to-the-death genre. It’s pretty new, with its origins in a Minecraft mod from 2012, but it really gained popularity with a game called PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, colloquially shortened to "PUBG." It released as an early-access PC game from early 2017, meaning it was unfinished, but released on computers for people to play while it was still in development. Most multiplayer action games pit teams of people against each other, and the first to achieve a goal (like holding a certain location or defeating enough members of the other team) would win. But Battle Royale games drop players into a large, open area with little to no items, resources, or weapons, and leave them to their own devices to gather the resources they need to be the last surviving player. After the popularity of PUBG exploded, Epic Games realized that Fortnite already had the base elements of a Battle Royale game in place, and released a free new version of Fortnite called Fortnite Battle Royale to compete. In Fortnite, 100 players start the game, and only one will win. It has since grown to become the most popular Battle Royale game on the market today.
JONATHAN: Nice. And that actually took 32 seconds.
SAMUEL: Aw man, I should have talked faster.
JONATHAN: So parents seem to be worried about two things: the violence, and how addictive the game is. Tell us about the violence.
SAMUEL: The violence is par for the course for action games, but it's not graphic. Fortnite is a competition, not a war, more akin to some kind of extreme survival paintball than Grand Theft Auto. The visual style is cartoony and vibrant, and there's no blood or gore.
JONATHAN: So you don’t rip out the guy’s spine when you beat him?
SAMUEL: Not even close; Mortal Kombat this is not. Fortnite isn't interested in framing these battles as a horrifying real-life event the way books like The Hunger Games or Battle Royale do; Fortnite is a friendly competition, through and through. There's a discussion to be had about whether it's appropriate for such competitions to take place with subject matter like death and killing, but considering how long kids have been playing cops and robbers, soldier and other sports like paintball (not to mention the warlike simulations of even more innocent games like Chess), I don't think Fortnite adds anything damaging to the violence-themed play children have enjoyed for centuries.
JONATHAN: So is this game more addictive than others? Why do we have so many parents complaining that this particular game is pulling their kids in like a tractor beam?
SAMUEL: Video game addiction is a difficult subject to talk about, because while it is absolutely real, it's also far more often misdiagnosed than not. The fact is that video games have been a favorite scapegoat of many demographics and causes since their inception, and when people disapprove of something to begin with, it's easy to label any amount that they think is "too much" as an "addiction." It's important to distinguish between simply spending a lot of time and thought on something, even too much, and actually having a compulsive addiction that negatively impacts one's ability to perform necessary daily functions. Especially when we're speaking about a simple activity like video games rather than a substance like drugs or alcohol that actually affects the body directly.
As for Fortnite, it definitely has a few elements of games that easily lend themselves to addiction. The chances of being the last player alive out of 100 are minimal, and this difficult but possible goal is rather tantalizing; victory feels constantly attainable as you play, but actually winning is very rare and requires a good deal of skill. I've been playing the game on occasion for the last month or so, sometimes alone and sometimes in the doubles mode with my wife, and I've yet to win a single game. This feeling of having a goal, knowing you can accomplish it, but rarely actually managing to, is absolutely something that drives players to keep on trying.
JONATHAN: Has your wife ever beat you?
SAMUEL: Well we’ve been playing as a team, so no. But I’m proud to say I married someone who can keep up with me on the virtual battlefield!
See, in video game development there are a number of common game mechanics that have been called out for their intentionally addictive nature. Some forms of character progression in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, the controversy over gambling with microtransactions and loot boxes; some games are intentionally designed to suck players in and keep them playing. Fortnite Battle Royale does not do any of these. The player has a rank that rises as they play, but it doesn't affect anything but bragging rights, so the addictive qualities of this mechanic are minimal. There are microtransactions (in-game items the player can purchase with real money), but they all contribute to the experience in ways that are fun, but don't grant advantages that could compel someone to spend money they shouldn't. As multiplayer games go, on a mechanical level, Fortnite is pretty tame in its addictive potential.
JONATHAN: So why do you think so many kids wanna play this?
SAMUEL: Aside from the fact that it’s legitimately fun, and only one of two major entries in its genre, I think the sheer popularity of the game contributes a lot. Popularity doesn't always go hand-in-hand with compulsive habits, but in the case of a multiplayer game like this, it becomes a cultural phenomenon. Similar to any hugely popular event, there are a lot of people talking about it.
JONATHAN: Like how our kids tell us “everyone is on Snapchat” so they want to be on Snapchat.
SAMUEL: Exactly. Everybody’s there. They want to be there too. It's fun to connect with people over mutual enjoyment, and just like anything as complex as this, there's a lot to talk about. When your child has other friends online, they'll want to play with them, and when their friends aren't online, they'll want to practice so they can be a credit to the team and talk about their victories with their friends. Not so much because the game itself is addicting, but because playing a video game with your friends is, just like anything else one does with one's friends, an enjoyable bonding experience both during the game and in the discussions afterward. Especially in a game like this, where you work together and develop strategies and learn to play to the strengths and weaknesses of each team member.
It is absolutely possible to play too much Fortnite. If your child is spending five hours a day on the game, perhaps it is worth telling them to slow down and introducing some new activities or limitations.
JONATHAN: Like knitting?
SAMUEL: Sure. Or Origami.
JONATHAN: I guess we’re covering our bases for activities that will 100% get you bullied at school.
SAMUEL: Just also be careful to recognize the difference between your child spending an unhealthy amount of time on the game, and your child spending more time on the game than you personally think makes sense, and respect the fact that this is a perfectly legitimate way to spend time with friends.
JONATHAN: I might push back just a little bit at that statement and qualify it. I think gaming can be a healthy activity to do with friends, like the example you gave of you and your wife playing. You two are face-to-face friends and you’re playing a game together. If little Taylor is playing Fortnite with Michael and Morgan, each connecting from their own houses, then they laugh and talk about it the next day at school and at soccer practice, I am in full agreement. But as soon as little Taylor is showing signs of having very few face-to-face friends, and quit soccer, and never leaves the bedroom, then I’m concerned.
SAMUEL: Absolutely. And if you think the time your child is spending on Fortnite is taking away from important elements of their lives or negatively impacting their performance in school or other responsibilities, take appropriate action.
JONATHAN: Now what about its connectivity. Do I need to worry about my 12-year-old connecting and playing this with some 44-year-old naked pedophile whose posing as a 7th grader?
SAMUEL: You don’t need to worry any more than any other game that connects with others. There is a typed chat function, but it's not very active, and the demographic of Fortnite has so many adult players as well as children that it would be a wholly nonsensical target for someone looking to prey on kids.
There's really nothing to note here except the same basic online safety we should be teaching every child using the internet; don't type your address or other personal information into the chat window while you're trying to win a game, and you'll be fine. And if that sentence sounded like a ridiculous thing to do (which it is), you may understand why it's not much of a concern.
The bigger issue is that people can say things in the chat that the game doesn't have programmed into it, and the video game community still unfortunately does have something of a bullying and harassment problem (which may or may not even include your child's friend group). The game by default has a profanity filter on the text chat, but that doesn't necessarily stop players from saying mean or offensive things, so I would recommend talking to your child to make sure they understand that such behavior is not acceptable.
JONATHAN: So if your 12-year-old wanted to play it, what would you say?
SAMUEL: I would have no problem with my 12-year old playing Fortnite. I'd be playing it right alongside them (a remarkably easy thing to do since it allows crossplay between PC, Xbox, and Playstation). It's about as mild as multiplayer action games come, it's a lot of fun to play, and based on my play sessions with my wife, it can be a really enjoyable bonding experience.
JONATHAN: Are there some redeeming conversations that can happen during this game?
SAMUEL: Personally, I tend to prefer story-based games for constructive conversation, but that's just how I think. Fortnite Battle Royale is a game about ingenuity, about doing the most you can with limited, sometimes woefully outmatched resources. And if you pair up with a friend or three, it becomes a game about teamwork and communication, both of which are more bolstered by these kinds of competitive experiences than you may think. I dare say, were you to try playing this game alongside your child, you might learn something about how they work.
Ultimately, video games like Fortnite Battle Royale are only some kind of bad or threatening experience if you detach and look on, confused, while your child sinks time and energy into something you may not think is worthy of it. Like any pastime, it can be a constructive and positive experience if you do it in moderation and use it to connect with the people around you. So long as your child is doing these things (and if not, so long as you're enforcing them), I don't see why Fortnite shouldn't deserve a place in your home.
JONATHAN: This has been very helpful Samuel. Thanks so much for your time!
SAMUEL: Glad to help! Now I’ve got to go do the dishes or my wife will ban me from playing Fortnite tonight!
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