This morning, my son threw a joypad at his big brother in a rage before kicking him, all because his turn playing Fortnite was over.
It made me remember, again, why my worries about him playing this particular game were less about the violence on the screen and more about the violence (and tantrums) it might encourage in our family.
Have you heard of Fortnite? If you’re a parent of young gamers ages seven and up, chances are you have, as it’s already displacing Minecraft as the console and/or tablet game of choice for millions of tweens and teens.
Like Minecraft, Fortnite wasn’t originally made for children. It started life as a PC and console game in 2017, age-rated 12-plus in Europe, where squads of four players teamed up to fend off a postapocalypse zombie uprising.
Last September, the game’s publisher, Epic Games, released a spinoff called Fortnite Battle Royale, which is what’s caught fire among younger gamers — not least because (like many mobile games, but rather fewer console games) it’s free to download and play. (For the purposes of this article, I’ll use Fortnite as shorthand for Fortnite Battle Royale — throughout, I’m talking about the latter.)
This standalone mode threw up to 100 players into battle, working in small teams or completely alone in an every-player-for-themself scrap. There are guns and shooting galore, but also a dash of Minecraft-style crafting, as players break down objects into metal, wood, and stone and then build stairs and platforms to boost their chances of survival.
The first thing to say is that Fortnite Battle Royale is a great game, if not entirely original in concept: the “battle royale” genre’s recent popularity started with another game called PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG for short), earlier in 2017.
Fortnite’s quality has made it a financial success. Games-industry research firm Superdata claims that the game made $126 million from in-game purchases in February alone. Another analyst, Sensor Tower, claims that in the first month after the game’s release on Apple’s App Store, it made $25 million from in-app purchases on iPads and iPhones.
It’s a good game that’s making lots of money, but should parents worry about it?
The first red flag is that age rating: When my not-yet-11-year-old sons first started yammering on about wanting to play Fortnite, my initial reaction was a firm “No. Not until you’re 12.”
It’s a difficult position to hold in the current digital environment. Many children already expect to be allowed on Instagram and Snapchat long before those apps’ minimum age of 13; they want to be on “proper” YouTube rather than YouTube Kids, including uploading their own videos (also a minimum age of 13); and they want to message friends on WhatsApp (age 13, although soon that’s going up to 16 here in Europe).
Strong parenting, you could say, is saying no and sticking to it. Modern parenting, however, is arguably more about balancing the knowledge that these age restrictions are set for a reason, with the awareness of what our children’s wider social group is doing, the boundaries being set by their parents, and the cultural conversation that our kids are taking part in (or not) based on our judgements.
That cultural conversation includes YouTubers. Many of the child-friendly YouTube gaming stars who made their names with Minecraft videos are now uploading (or live-streaming) their Fortnite sessions, like iBallisticSquid and DanTDM, while the game is also bringing new digital stars into children’s orbit: like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who recently attracted more than 630,000 viewers for a live Fortnite stream with rapper Drake. There is even a 13-year-old professional Fortnite esports player.
A child in 2018 will see their favorite online stars playing Fortnite and hear their friends talking about playing it. That makes the decision about whether to let them play it, for all but the firmest parents, much harder. That, at least, is my self-serving justification for giving in.
Which brings us back to violence. Perhaps surprisingly for a game built around guns and shooting other players, Fortnite isn’t so problematic on the in-game gruesomeness front.
Common Sense Media, the U.S. site that helps parents navigate their way through the world of media that is and isn’t appropriate for kids, put it well: “The game has a cartoonish style, and the violence, while persistent, isn’t bloody or particularly gory.”
(Interestingly, while Common Sense judged Fortnite a 13-plus game, age-wise, parents contributing their verdicts were two years below that on average, at 11-plus.)
This isn’t Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, in other words. Other possible concerns around Fortnite include its use of in-app purchases and the ability to hear other players talking as they play. I locked down my PlayStation 4 and iOS accounts so my kids can’t spend money without my permission, and I turned off the voice-chat feature, so both of those issues are solvable.
But my bigger problem is with the dynamics of the game itself. In Fortnite Battle Royale, death often comes without warning from a long-range shot or someone leaping out from a hiding spot behind you. Once you’re dead, you’re out of the game — it’s not like most action-shooter games, where death is followed by a quick “respawn” to get back into the action.
This is an absolute trigger for my younger son, who struggles with his temper when losing anything, be it board games, football in the garden, or (especially) console games. The sudden and downright unfair — at least this is how they feel — deaths in Fortnite are a red rag for him.
Joypad-throwing, sibling-kicking, vocal-screeching tantrums ensue, and as a parent I’m now grappling with choosing the appropriate punishment. Does he lose Fortnite for the weekend? For the next week? Do I delete it forever? And then there’s the undercurrent of guilt I have for letting him play in the first place.
Fortnite has had some good, unexpected effects on my family. Like recently persuading my sons to come out on a 45-minute yomp through the surrounding countryside, because we were playing “real-life Fortnite” (with very much not-real plastic water pistols and rubber axes, I stress).
Also, Fortnite was the carrot for the least whingey and most speedy completion of weekend homework in recent memory. And even just seeing how it’s stretching my sons’ strategic and teamwork skills shows me the good in it.
I wish I had a resolution here and some authoritative advice. Perhaps the conclusion is this: Like most issues around digital parenting, the suitability of individual games is rarely as simple as their age rating (below age-18-rated games, I mean) and their content.
It’s about the impact a specific game has on the specific behavioral makeup of your child. Which is tough, because “you can’t play Fortnite because it will make you angry and sad” is a much trickier parental line to hold (especially in a family with a sibling who reacts differently) than “you can’t play Fortnite because you’re too young.”
It may not be the most positive message on which to end this series of articles—that digital parenting is hard, and often upsetting, with very few firm principles that don’t wobble like jelly in the face of day-to-day life. But then again, perhaps accepting that is the best possible basis for plotting a good path forward.