If you have a tween or teen kid, or grandkid or nephew or neighbor or any young person remotely connected to you, you probably know what “Fortnite” is.
If you don’t know what it is, perhaps you’ve heard your kids discussing chug jugs, slurp juices, skins, and kills.
“Fortnite: Battle Royale” is a third-person shooter game in which players are dropped onto a previously-inhabited-but-now-apocalyptically-deserted island and fight other players to the death (although, happily, joining with their friends to do so). The violence is cartoonish compared with other similar games, and players get to build things like ramps and forts to assist their quest -which seems weird, but apparently enjoyable. My four boys, ages 9 to 15, love it.
As a parent, I can see the upside. My kids tell me they’re being “social.” I’m not so sure that sitting on a couch in your basement talking through a headset to your friend sitting on his couch in his basement is being social. But I’ll concede the point.
I do think the game crosses age-group categories in unique ways. I once walked into the room when my 9-year-old was playing with the 22-year-old brother of my 13-year-old’s friend. If the two of them were together in my living room, I don’t think they’d speak to each other, but “Fortnite” makes them playmates.
My boys also tell me they’re working on teamwork, because they’re not killing their friends, they’re working with their friends to kill other people. I’ll give them that one, too, because I’m feeling generous. (The other upside for parents: It adds a huge carrot to our bag of tricks. It’s amazing how quickly bathrooms get cleaned and lawns mowed when “Fortnite” is on the line.)
But I see a downside. My kids want to play it all the time. And when they’re not playing, they want to watch videos of other people playing. (I know this makes me earn the name “Old Man,” but I just can’t understand that.)
You can’t tell them to stop playing either; the game designers brilliantly structured the game so that players simply cannot stop in the middle of a round (at least that’s what my boys tell me). This has caused parents everywhere to learn how to disconnect their Wi-Fi, or unplug gaming devices and throw them across the room. But what concerns me most, partly as a parent, partly as a sociologist, is what they’re not doing this summer because of the “Fortnite” craze.
With apologies for annoying nostalgia, I remember summer days laying in the grass, listening to the eerie call of the cicada, staring at the clouds overhead, and being utterly . bored.
For my boys, boredom seems to be their most feared evil - worse even than eating Brussels sprouts.
What’s even more interesting to me at this particular moment is how “Fortnite” has changed the way I experience parenting. I get primary parenting duties in the summer and this year, my task has been singular: find ways to occupy my kids’ time so they don’t resort to “Fortnite.” It means finding a job on a farm for the older two, and scheduling sports and activities for the younger two, planning outings to parks and museums, playing games in the backyard with them, and sending them off to a wilderness camp for two weeks where they don’t have electricity, let alone Wi-Fi.
There are some who would explain all this away by describing this parenting approach as “concerted cultivation” of middle-class parents that seeks to implicitly reproduce class structures. Kids in these highly structured environments gain social and cultural rewards that their peers in disadvantaged settings don’t get. I’m sure there’s truth to that. But it seems to me that the tightly scheduled childhood of the summer of 2018 may have less to do with social-class reproduction and more to do with “Fortnite” workarounds.
The more fundamental point is how we humans, and human institutions like families, engage with technology, the fruit of human creativity and ingenuity. And how a product of human labor - a video game that can be played simultaneously by 3 million people around the globe - in turn reshapes our experience of being human. That’s culture. Humans have been at it for millennia. It may be worth reflecting on how things like “Fortnite” reshape our experience of being human, and the benefits and consequences of that reshaping.
I just heard my boys make a break for the basement, so I need to herd them out to the yard to play a few rounds of “Whoppernerner” with me -a game they invented involving a ball and a trampoline and usually a few bloody noses.
I’m hoping those experiences stick in their memories from this summer more than chug jugs and pickaxes.
Jeffrey S. Dill teaches in the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa.