The Fortnite Phenomenon

Why the Fortnite fad probably won’t fade fast.

Posted Jun 01, 2018

Grady Reese/istock
Source: Grady Reese/istock

I recently posted a comment on social media about Fortnite, and the response I got was overwhelming. Friends and family from all over the country responded via social media, texts, email, and phone. To be honest, I really wasn’t a bit surprised.

Everyone I was in contact with had a similar tale to tell, their tweens and teens it seems are all obsessed with this game. Perhaps most intriguing is that many of the folks I heard from related that their kids were not gamers. So many stated that while their kids might occasionally play a game on their phones, game consul, or computer, they all seem obsessed with Fortnite. As a watchful parent you maybe wondering, so what’s all the hype? Why is this game so popular to the point of obsession with so many kids?  What should I be doing about it?

Why the Obsession?

To be honest, the rational behind why anything goes viral these days can be somewhat elusive. Fortnite does however offer several things many games have not, at least not in one platform. To begin with, the version that has gone viral is free. When the game was originally released it came with a price tag. Perhaps the smartest thing the developer did was rollout a free version. Other attractive aspects of the game include that it is both time-limited and winnable. Unlike other games, each battle is discreet. In other words, winning does not take you to higher levels of play although it does offer higher-level enhancements to play. Unlike many other challenges it doesn’t take hours and hours for a winner to emerge. It is also a game that can be won by the average player. Even kids who are not usually gamers can win. The rules of the game are straightforward and uncomplicated.  Another attractive feature is it is interactive. Players can engage as individuals, duos, or teams of four.

Pitfalls & Precautions

We all understand that producers of all products want to make money, and of course the makers of Fortnite are no exception. So while the game is free, players can buy items that enhance game play including Battle Passes, Emotes (aka dance moves) and skins. The important thing for parents to be aware of is that although the cost of each particular item is nominal, it can quickly mount up, especially if your child tends to be impulsive. If you are sighing in relief thinking, no worries because my child has no access to my credit card, take pause. If your game consul was set up with your credit card, that number is probably automatically saved. This is something both you and your child may not realize. All your child may know is that when he clicks "buy" his purchases easily go through. I can assure you the average kid will not question this, especially in the throes of game play. I have known scores of parents whose kids racked up hundreds of dollars before parents caught this on their credit card statements. Be sure to talk with your kids about this to avoid such situations.

Other more obvious pitfalls of the game include that its appeal can easily result in obsessive play. Because the game can be accessed on multiple types of devices (from consuls, computers, tablets, and phones) an engaged child could literally play all day long. I know more than a few kids who admit that unbeknownst to their teachers, they actually play during class too. But the obsession doesn’t end with simply with play, because the game is so popular, it has already produced a slew of "celebrities" — individuals who have become social media famous because of their skills at playing. In addition to playing the game, many kids spend additional hours watching these top guns engage in play through YouTube, Twitch, or other similar video live stream platforms.

It is also important to be aware that the game is rated as ‘T for teens.” According to the Entertainment Rating Board (ESRB) this means:

“Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.”

ESRB is an industry-governed agency. In other words, the game developers themselves created the rating system. The game has been assigned this rating due to violent content (it is a battle game which involves killing other players in order to win) and due to the ability to use open chat so that players on the same team can talk to each other while engaging in play.

That being said, I know multitudes of tweens ages 8-12 playing the game regularly. I believe it is helpful to know that so many younger kids are playing this game so as a parent, if you make the unilateral decision to deny your child access you are aware what’s going on in the outside world. It is certainly less challenging to enforce this decision if there are not that many other children around yours playing.

Redeemable Reinforcers?

It is easy to balk at, judge, and reject the idea of your tween or teen engaging in this activity altogether. It is helpful however to at least hear out the possible redeeming qualities of this craze. Because the game is easy to understand how to play and time-limited, it is attractive to many kids, especially those who do not usually play video games. The game has a very social aspect to it. As previously mentioned, players can engage as individuals, duos or "squads" of four. It has become a very social activity because of the live chat capability between players on the same team. This has given less socially savvy and/or shy kids a new way to engage with their peers, an opportunity to feel part of the social scene. This is especially true if a particularly quiet or less socially active peer becomes a good player. The game provides an arena to be acknowledged as valued and competent by fellow peers. It also provides an opportunity for social interaction because anyone can play and get better at play. At an age when many kids may feel awkward, an activity that requires little upfront skill evens the playing field for kids to interact socially. The game can also be used as a way to keep siblings connected. Stop in any college dorm room and you are sure to find at least a few people playing. Gameplay is therefore a great opportunity for siblings at home to stay connected with their siblings away at college.

Once in a while when a carrot like this comes along, as a parent it behooves you to claim it. I have witnessed first hand what a great motivator time- limited play can offer. Want your child to complete his homework, or practice her flute?  Reward these expectations with playtime. Rarely do we see a fad take hold as firmly as this one. Fortnite can also provide an opportunity for parents to engage with their kids. Even a vidiot like myself understands how to play. Why not make it a family affair?

Setting Limits to Strike the Balance

Because the average game only lasts about 20 minutes, Fortnite offers the optimal opportunity for parents to set time or game related limits on play. Let’s be clear, a good general life rule is that moderation makes for mastering balance. One function of Fortnite that encourages social interaction between players is the chat capability between team members. Such platforms as Xbox Live allow players to interact with each other. It is important to sit down and discuss the concerns and rules related to this function. You need to consider whether you want your tween or teen "talking" with players whom they do not personally know. It is noteworthy to be aware that you can turn off voice chat capability on the game through the settings menu. Obviously older kids can quickly figure out to change it back. Physically monitoring if and whom they are interacting with is the best course of action. Listen to whom they are talking to and of course ask.  Remember as a parent you are the gamekeeper. Therefore, if you are trying to limit use you need to be aware of the multitude of ways your kids can access the game as discussed above. The reality is that there is now a clear body of research suggesting that video game playing can become addicting. A structured set of rules that are consistently enforced is the best way to avoid addiction. While it may seem easier to simply ban play, when parents set up firm structure around any activity they teach their kids how to engage responsibly. It is of course important to know what your kids are seeing and doing. A full review of any game content is not only recommended, it should be required before you offer carte blanche or even limited play.  This ensures that you are clear about the content to which your children are being exposed. As a parent the questions you need to consider include:

  • Is the game age appropriate?
  • Am I okay with the content including graphics and objectives of game?
  • How long and how often will you allow your child to engage in play?
  • With whom are they engaging?
  • When?

Suffice it to say that many parents have walked in on their kids at all hours of the night to find them engaged in play.

Finally, it is important to realize that other parents are your best resource. Take the time to discuss your concerns and considerations with other parents.

Fortnite is clearly a phenomenon. As I sit down to write this I am reminded of many Fortnite related anecdotes; like the dad who confused his son’s friends when he silently jumped in to take his place in the game while his son walked the dog, or the time I was out to dinner and ran into friends who were also without their child and we simply looked at each other knowingly and said “Fortnite?” to which we both nodded "yes," or the fact that almost every parent I have come across recently (no exaggeration) perks up the minute Fortnite is mentioned. At dinner parties, restaurants, school events, athletic games, dance recitals, plays, musical performances, etc., the Fortnite murmur is in full force. As a parent such talk is hard to avoid. Perhaps this fad will fade in time, but for now it is important for parents to take the time to discuss with each other how we can best manage this battlefield game fanaticism.  It takes a village, and when we rely on our resources to guide us, we are better equipped to negotiate the complicated world in which we find ourselves parenting. Now, who wants to talk about Slime…?