There’s been a lot of conversation over the past few weeks about the video game Fortnite. I’m not talking about the usual conversations about games that you’d see on Twitter or in a Reddit thread, I’m talking about a broader discussion that’s happening on morning talk shows or between parents on Facebook. Fortnite has become a phenomenon with over 40 million players and is becoming one of those few games that transcends the typical gaming audience (like Minecraft or Call of Duty). People who aren’t normally a part of the gaming conversation are hearing about this game and are curious about what it’s all about.
The story that’s gotten the most attention is one that aired on the morning show, Good Morning America recently. It featured a mom who was concerned about how much time her kids were spending with the game, and a conversation about what kind of effect these games can have on children. I thought it was a pretty level-headed story that didn’t jump to any conclusions and actually brought up some of the positive things about gaming such as the social interaction. So I was a bit surprised to see how many gaming industry folks were pouncing on the story and lashing out about parents needing to do a better job of parenting instead of blaming games. It got me wondering, why are people so afraid to have this conversation?
I guess it makes sense for the initial reaction from the gaming community to be defensive when the mainstream media begins asking questions, for decades gaming has been under attack from journalists, politicians, and special interest groups. But things have changed in recent years. Gaming has grown to such a degree that half of all Americans now play video games. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, men, women, kids, grandparents. And study after study has not only debunked theories about the harm video games do, but actually pointed out the many positive effects they have. So I would argue that despite the unsubstantiated claims and finger-pointing from our current President, the games industry has nothing to worry about.
As far as the statements that parents should do a better job of parenting and not blame video games, I would say this: I think it’s good that parents want to know what their kids are playing and whether or not it’s appropriate. From what I’ve read, (most) of the questions haven’t been “Will this game turn my child into a killer?” but rather “What is the right amount of time for my child to spend gaming?”. Yes, in an ideal world parents would be fully knowledgeable about every bit of media that their children consume, but that’s unrealistic and a bit naive. Being a parent is busy and complicated and it’s just not possible to research every cartoon, book, game, and song that they like. I know myself that there are plenty of things that I don’t know about PJ Masks or Taylor Swift. That doesn’t make me a crappy dad, it just means I’m human.
For those that haven’t seen the game, Fortnite is a 3rd person shooter which features two modes. A single player version which has you building and defending a base from waves of zombies, and a multiplayer mode (which is by far the more popular mode) which has you and/or a team battling against 99 other players in a “last person standing” style battle. In the hours that I’ve spent with Fortnite it’s easy to see how it’s become the mammoth success that it has. The gameplay is fast, fun and not overly complicated, and it’s accessible for those who aren’t experts in online multiplayer games (like myself) but there’s enough of a learning curve that skilled players can excel.
It also features a colorful art style that makes it immediately more appealing than many of the other games in the online shooter space. The visuals help to create a more lighthearted tone that may help explain why Fortnite is more popular with younger players than other similar games. And while the game is all about gunning down everyone you see, there is no blood and the violence is more akin to something you’d see on a cartoon. So while you may not want your 5 year old playing it, it does make it a bit more friendly for older kids.
There are two factors though that I think explain how it has become so immensely popular. The first is that it’s free. You can spend money on season passes which help you earn outfits, emoticons and other visual improvements, but you can also play the game forever without spending a penny. The other is the social aspect. You can hop in and play a few quick rounds all the while chatting with your friends. Those two things combined make it incredibly easy to see how it has spread through schools and social circles.
The main thing that I think concerns parents who are unfamiliar with video games and Fortnite in particular, is how much time should a child be spending with the game (or their iPad, or television, etc.) and that’s not an easy question to answer. There are studies out there that deal with how much screen time toddlers and younger children should get, but when it comes to older kids I think it comes down to each individual child. Obviously there is such a thing as too much time spent playing games, as a parent I think you just need to take into consideration other factors such as how much social interaction they’re getting, making sure they get regular exercise, and making sure that too much time spent gaming isn’t affecting their grades. As long as your child has a healthy balance of these things, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about. And we in the gaming community shouldn’t be worried when people come asking questions.