Then in March, the coronavirus pandemic hit and, with it, video games suddenly became a main source of social interaction for both of my kids. Each night (and often during the day, too) my son and his best friend would FaceTime each other on their iPads so that they could talk while playing NBA 2K20 simultaneously. The enthusiasm they shared for picking out uniforms and hairstyles for their virtual alter egos dispelled any leftover guilt I had about the increase in screen time. This was 2020’s version of a play date and I was okay with it.
My opposition to Fortnite, however, remained steadfast. Part of it was the game’s premise — the whole point is to do whatever you have to (including shooting your adversaries) to remain the last player standing — which isn’t a life lesson I want my children to learn. But also the negative reaction the game often elicits from parents gave me pause. A game that’s likened to an adrenaline overdose was not something we needed in our lives.
With so much of what we considered normal on indefinite hiatus, the allure of Fortnite was hard to ignore. His friend, who goes to a different school, began playing with his classmates and wanted my son to join in. Then my nephew, who we hadn’t seen in person in months, began playing. One night, after his friends had abandoned basketball for the Battle Bus — where players are parachuted onto Earth and race to collect the supplies needed to survive — I noticed his downcast demeanor. “I feel lonely,” he told me, as my heart sank. “All of my friends play Fortnite.” Was I doing him more harm by isolating him even further than the covid-19 pandemic had? Coupled with the fact that we were staring at a long summer with several question marks on the calendar, I relented. And onto the Battle Bus he went.
A couple of months later, I now understand the love/hate relationship parents have with Fortnite. I will admit that there are some positives. Unlike most video games, Fortnite is free to access and can be played across multiple platforms and devices, which makes it easier to play with friends. And it does encourage strategic thinking and team building when kids play in a squad — a group of up to four players — because they need to work together to navigate the field successfully. In the “Creative” mode, players can create their own platforms and structures, which does engage kids’ imaginations somewhat.
But as a whole, Fortnite is much more aggressive than most of the sports-based games he used to favor. Our Xbox is hooked up to a television in our family room and I can often hear my son chatting with his friends. “Kill the kid,” my kind, sweet boy screamed into his headset one night. When I told him to tone it down, he replied that he “was practicing his trash talking.” These are not words I wanted to hear from my 9-year-old.
I also noticed a lot more pushback — and an outright attitude — when I asked him to turn the game off to come to the dinner table or head upstairs to read before bed. (“But I’m in a match,” is a familiar refrain.) This heightened my concerns that the combative nature of the game and its addictive, win-at-all-costs mantra was going to bleed into his real-life relationships.
It’s not likely, says Jeff Hutchinson, an adolescent medicine specialist in Austin and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media executive committee. “Just like FIFA or NBA2K aren’t going to make you better soccer or basketball players in real life, Fortnite isn’t going to give you the skills to hurt people,” he says. “Will kids act differently after playing hours of video games? Absolutely. But it doesn’t translate into violent actions.”
Hutchinson says the key to lessening the negative impact of video games is to limit the amount of time that kids spend playing them. “A great goal is for every hour of screen time, there should be an hour of something else,” he says.
It’s an excellent idea in theory, and one that I try to enforce, but this is admittedly more difficult when the “something else” is still so restricted. I realize that as his parent, I can simply forbid him to play. But our school year is beginning remotely. And as the fall and winter months loom large with uncertainty and the prospect of the pandemic forcing us to shelter in place once more, locking down Fortnite — and its conduit to my son’s social circle — does not seem like a viable option.
So I am learning to coexist with it. I’ve established firm parameters on how much time he is allowed to play, and he can only do so when his friends or cousins are also online. (He’s already in the habit of announcing who he is playing with when I walk into the room.)
Hutchinson suggested that I try playing once, too. So on a recent Saturday morning, I asked my son to teach me how. His eyes lit up as he showed me his avatars — I was secretly proud that several of them are female — and the worlds that they travel through.
“What’s your favorite part about Fortnite?” I asked him. “That I get to play with my friends,” he replied. I hope that as we head into fall, he’ll be able to do so in person. But if not, the Battle Bus awaits. And I’m trying to be okay with that.
Michelle Hainer is a freelance writer and mother of two.