I asked my seven-year-old son if he knew about Fortnite, and he started telling me about how he played it with his friends at lunchtime. After a minute or so I realised that he and the other boys were playing a live-action version of it in the schoolyard. Yep, this game is so big that kids will play it in real life when they don’t have access to screens.
So what is it exactly, and why has it become an obsession for so many kids around the world?
Fortnite Battle Royale is a multiplayer shooter game, described as a cross between Minecraft and The Hunger Games. The idea is that 100 players land on an island that has weapons and other combat items around it. From there, it’s a fight to become the last player standing.
What makes this different from other battle-type games is that it’s more cartoonish than gory, so it’s appealing to younger kids. Players die, but you don’t see the blood and guts. Dance moves are a part of the game, and people – including Major League Baseball players in the US – copy the moves in real life. There’s also random fun stuff being added all the time, like dinosaur-inspired outfits.
To make it even easier for kids to get into, it can be played on a range of game systems, as well as phones, and it’s free (although players can pay to buy “skins”, AKA outfits). Real-life friends can team up to play together online.
Released last year, the game already has more than 40 million players. It’s believed that many of them are under the recommended age for the game, which is 13 plus.
For older kids in the US, there’s even more incentive to play. Ashland University in Ohio is offering partial scholarships to students who excel in Fortnite.
Plus, it’s just been announced that there will be Fortnite tournaments, with $US100 million in prize money in the first year.
What worries a lot of parents is that their kids seem to be addicted to Fortnite. Is it okay for young kids to be so obsessed with battling and killing? Should parents ban the game – or maybe just ban all screen time?
Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer spoke to This Glorious Mess podcast about Fortnite, and what she had to say is likely to set parents’ minds at ease.
Brewer agrees that excessive time spent gaming can be a problem. But it’s not a simple case of the less gaming, the better.
“We used to think that the more you game, the less you’re doing something else,” Brewer explains. “But now we say, actually, if you’re not playing some games or if you’re not doing some connecting using digital media, it’s a negative impact. That’s that digital divide where you’re not getting the opportunity to connect and learn.”
She believes kids can learn things like working together from playing Fortnite. Kids who band together to survive in the game might then go back to school and find themselves banding together “to survive this PE lesson with the teacher who is a real power-tripper”.
“With most of this kids get the skills they apply to other contexts,” she adds.
As for kids who get aggressive after playing violent games, Brewer believes they usually have other personality traits or things going on in their lives.
“I don’t think that’s purely a digital kids’ issue.”
Brewer thinks parents should get involved in what their kids are playing.
“My main suggestion is co-watch, co-play and conversation,” she explains.
“Definitely have a go and definitely then have the conversation around, ‘Wow, what did you learn today?’ Or, ‘I found that really hard. What’s your tip for this?’”
It’s a really fine line we have to walk as parents. We know, instinctively, that it’s bad for our kids to spend a lot of time on the couch, absorbed in a screen, and we feel guilty about it. But we also know our kids have to live at least part of their lives online – if only to complete the work that their teachers set. Plus, if our kids don’t have any screentime at home, there’s a risk that they’ll be the odd ones out among their classmates.
No parent wants to make it harder for their kid to make friends.
I guess this all means that pretty soon I’m going to be sitting down and playing Fortnite with my son. There’s always that $US100 million prize pool to think about...
Holly Wainwright and Andrew Daddo of the This Glorious Mess team also speak to psychologist Jocelyn Brewer about how to deal with video-game-obsessed tweens, as well as asking for cash gifts for your toddler's birthday party. Get it in your ears.