Fortnite: Violent, Compelling, and (Sometimes) Manageable
Strengths, risks, and recommendations: 7 ways parents can manage Fortnite use.
Posted Nov 21, 2018
I learned about the power of Fortnite last spring at a Q&A session following a talk I’d given. Parents were interested in their kids’ needs for adequate sleep and balance in their lives, and then someone asked what I thought about Fortnite. I admitted ignorance and asked the audience to help me out. Almost all of them had strong opinions or urgent questions about the game.
Some parents were passionate defenders of the video game, arguing that its social nature was helping their less sociable kids—some on the autism spectrum—become more socially adept in the real world of school. Other parents expressed anxiety that their kids—mostly boys—were becoming addicted. Others expressed concerns about the violence and bad language. Still others argued that Fortnite was encouraging their children’s creativity and collaborative skills.
And then, a week ago, my 7-year-old grandson announced that Fortnite was all he wanted for Christmas. Nothing else, only Fortnite. I decided to look into it and emerged with very mixed feelings.
What Is Fortnite?
Fortnite is a free online video game with more than 125 million players worldwide, mostly between 8 and 18. Players can play alone, or in a team of two or four, or in a 50-versus-50 match. In the game, 100 players are parachuted onto a gradually shrinking island, on which weapons and other resources are hidden. The point of the game is to kill the other players, and the last survivor is the winner. In spite of the deadly goal of the game, there is no blood or gore, and the graphics appear friendly, but players can say and type whatever they want, and foul, aggressive language is rampant.
Strengths of Fortnite
- It is free to download on almost any device. (There are, however, a lot of heavily marketed, optional extras available for purchase.)
- The Playground mode allows new players to learn the game in a friendly, non-competitive environment with friends.
- Cartoon graphics are vivid and appealing, and not too gruesome.
- Like Minecraft, there is a construction component to the game (although this is relatively minor in Fortnite).
- Kids can play alone, but what has really caught on is playing in teams of two or four, so there is an element of friendship-building and collaborative problem-solving.
- Although shooting and killing dominate the game, there is no blood and no gore. Bodies disappear or vaporize when the character is defeated.
What Makes Fortnite So Compelling?
- The cartoon graphics and place names are colorful, humorous, and creative.
- The island is filled with surprise rewards.
- The game is played in real time.
- Fortnite can be played with friends.
- When a player’s character is defeated (i.e., killed), the player can see the “health bar” of the character who killed them; often, the opponent was close to death, too, which encourages the player to keep playing. As with any kind of gambling, a near miss is psychologically tantalizing.
- The game encourages the player to feel they’re getting better and better, and closer and closer to victory (another characteristic this game shares with gambling).
- The games are short—about 20 minutes—so after a defeat, the player doesn’t have to wait too long to start the next game.
- Weekly updates keep the gameplay fresh.
Risks of Fortnite
- Social anxiety: If a player misses the time slot their friends are in, they’ve missed it. Feeling left out, or like they’ve disappointed their friends, can be powerful sources of anxiety for a child or early adolescent.
- Family conflict: Because the game is so compelling, players don’t want to stop. In addition, kids don’t want to let down the other players, so even if their parents say it’s time to stop, Fortnite can easily become a source of arguments and frustration for parents and kids.
- Emotional agitation: Kids can get wound up and upset about many aspects of the game.
- Aggressive language: Fortnite is intensely competitive, and trash talk is part of the game culture. This can easily escalate into bullying, or descend into nastiness, including exposure to violent and profane language from random strangers. In addition to the risks associated with bullying and violent language, there can be a spillover of nasty language into real life. Finally, unless the voice chat is turned off, a player’s trash talk can be overheard by other parents or recorded; there have been cases of kids being suspended from school for what they said on Fortnite.
- Pressure to buy: The game pushes players to make purchases of outfits, dances, and other extras.
- Indulgence of lazy habits of mind: Kids prefer low-effort, high-reward activities like Fortnite to anything requiring hard work, like academics, sports, and the rest of life.
- Objectification of women: Although the female characters can be effective fighters and are as serious about victory as the male characters, they have exaggerated breasts and buttocks, tiny waists, and body-tight clothing.
- Aggressive behavior: The American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed concern about children’s exposure to virtual violence (such as that in Fortnite) and the effect it has on their overall health and well-being, including increasing their aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- Risk of addiction: This is a controversial area. The World Health Organisation has recognized “gaming disorder” as a diagnosable condition. They define it as “impaired control over video gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.” The American Psychiatric Association questions this, as do other associations of mental health professionals, arguing that more research is needed and that the World Health Organization is reacting more on the basis of resistance to new technologies than science.
At What Age?
Citing the relatively mild—but very real—violence in the game, minimum age recommendations start at 9 and go up to 13.
- Child Mind Institute: 9+
- Parents on Common Sense Media: 9+
- Kids on Common Sense Media: 10+
- Pan European Game Information: 12+
- Common Sense Media: 13+
- Entertainment Software Ratings Board: 13+
My take-home message from the wide range of expert opinions is that parents of children under 6 should just say no, and that parents of kids from 7 to 13 should be careful, taking into account their child’s personality and other activities, in addition to restricting time and monitoring play closely.
It’s time to think about slowing it down or seeking professional help if your child is:
- losing interest in other activities
- declining academically
- choosing video games over time with friends and family they previously enjoyed
- showing negative moods, language, attitudes, or behavior
- not getting enough sleep
Can Your Child Use Fortnite Safely?
Not always. It’s perfectly reasonable to say no to your 7+ child’s entreaties, especially if you have reason to be worried about your child’s susceptibility to vicarious violence. However, you may find things go better for you and your family if you give a conditional yes that includes the following limits.
- Time limits. You might start with one or two 20-minute games during the week, and two on the weekend.
- Age. Under 6, kids shouldn’t be exposed to any kind of virtual violence, including Fortnite. They’re too young to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Under 13, kids need strictly enforced time limits, as well as active parental monitoring of the play itself. Once they reach 13, it’s time to slowly loosen the restrictions, while continuing to pay attention to danger signals, like reduced interest in other activities.
- Balance. Make video game time contingent on your child’s engaging in a balance of real-world social interactions, school and homework, other hobbies, outdoor activities, and sleep. For example, if a child stays up too late, they might get no Fortnite until their sleep is in balance. You might want to discuss your concerns explicitly, reviewing the list of dangers of Fortnite so that your child understands what's happening when you set limits on their play.
- Voice chat. For kids under 13, turn it off and keep it off. After that, if your child wants it on, let that be contingent on an absence of foul and aggressive language. Help your child realize that the rules of good conduct and acceptable language are the same in games and online as they are in real life.
- Monitor. With a child under 13, there should always be a responsible adult in the room when they play. Even better, play with them.
- Reward. Fortnite sessions can be conditional on your child’s good behavior and attitude and having already taken care of their responsibilities.
Comments from Parents Whose Kids Have Fortnite Experience
I asked friends with young children about their experience and heard as wide a range of perspectives as I've read about online:
- Parental monitoring leads to loss of interest. "Lots of peer pressure so we caved. Super violent. Super addictive. Our 10-year-old was quite obsessed. With lots of parent supervision, interest has now waned considerably."
- Nothing new about this game. "Fortnite is fun and not greatly different from the 'war games' of the past. The attraction likely comes from the fact that it is cartoony and fantasy-like as opposed to the more realistic Call of Duty."
- Can be a quick reward. "It could be a good side thing to have, and then you could refocus on work once a round is complete."
- Easy friendship-building activity. "The benefit is the squad play, where they can team up with friends without anyone needing a specific console to play with each other."
- Addictive. "The downfall is that kids can't seem to put it down."
- Family bonding, with limits. "It could be a good way to connect with and play with your child, as the controls are easy, but it comes down to parental involvement to set boundaries."
- Absolutely not! "I screened it and deemed it inappropriate for my 12-year-old son. Shooting realistic humans with realistic weapons is not what we do for fun, even if it's all cartooned up. Particularly creepy to me that you can do so in realistic neighborhoods."
- Great for the family and the neighborhood. "I play it with my kids (13 and 11), and our neighborhood kids often join our teams. We love it!"
- Social benefits. "Luke wanted it because all his friends had it. We allowed it—extremely tentatively. I hate guns, and we allow extremely limited screen time. He played a couple of times and is no longer interested. I think for him, it was important to have it, to know the characters so he could participate in certain conversations and not feel like the only kid who didn’t have it. So it was a good lesson for me to trust him a bit, and that there are now external factors (friends) that are very important to him."
- Parents' job to set limits. "I know other kids who play Fortnight a lot. I've heard a lot of parents complain about it, that their kids play too much... which strikes me as funny, because if I think there are too many screens, I just remove them, and the problem is solved. As I mentioned, we really don't give them a lot of screen time—not a set amount, but it's just not available to them—we don't leave iPads or computers around to play with."
- Too much else to do that's more fun. "My kids are really busy with school and sports, and we spend a lot of time together as a family—we're lucky to be able to do that, and to be able to be outside so much, which takes away the question most of the time."
- Give him a taste. "It’s definitely been more of a social pressure thing than an interest in the actual game. We let him play (with limits and monitoring), but he pretty quickly lost interest. Now that he can chat with his friends about it, he really never asks for it."
“Virtual Violence,” a policy statement, by the American Academy on Pediatrics, lead author Dimitri Christakis
“Your Kids Are Playing Fortnite: What You Need to Know About It,” by Megan Ellis
"Is Fortnite Ruining Your Kid?" by Mike Brooks
“A Parent’s Guide to Dealing with Fortnite,” by Rachel Ehmke
“Fortnite Game Review,” by David Chapman
“Fortnite: a parents' guide to the most popular video game in schools,” by Keith Stuart
“7 Things Parents Need to Know about Fortnite,” by Amy Oztan
“Has Fortnite Gone Too Far in Your House?”, by Melanie Hempe
“How Fortnite Captured Teens’ Hearts and Minds,” by Nick Paumgarten
“What Parents Need to Know about the Videogame Fortnite,” by Chad Sapieha
“Could Playing Fortnite Lead to Videogame Addiction?” by Joanne Orlando