The just-completed Fortnite World Cup was won by a 16-year-old player from Pennsylvania who practices Fortnite a minimum of six hours per day. By the way, he won $3,000.000! His parents report he has been playing video games since the age of 3 and limit his gameplay only if his grades start to slip.
The average age of the players at the Fortnite World Cup was 16. The youngest competitors were 13 years old—the stated age requirement for Fortnite, though a large portion of the fans who attended the World Cup were much younger. Six- and 7-year-olds routinely play Fortnite, a game where the goal is to kill every other person in the game. I find myself wondering: how young is too young to play Fortnite?
As a child clinical psychologist who believes there are many benefits to video gameplay, I am deeply disturbed by this Battle Royale-type game, where the objective is to be the last person alive. My younger patients and their parents who allow them to play Fortnite are not concerned about the underlying message being that the only goal is to take care of yourself, without concern for others.
Young children generally do not have the cognitive or emotional capacity to recognize human needs for collaboration and partnership. Developmentally, young children see the world as black and white, and self-centeredness is typical. My concerns about these issues are magnified in kids diagnosed with ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, executive functioning problems, anxiety, or depression.
But Fortnite is one of the biggest video game phenomena of all time, and kids are going to want to play it. So how old should your child be to play Fortnite?
Fortnite is rated T (for Teen) by the ESRB and recommended for children 13 years or older. Unfortunately, many younger children also play Fortnite. It is not uncommon for me to meet elementary school-age children in my clinical practice who play Fortnite regularly, either with their older siblings or on their own.
I immediately let parents know that I don’t think it is an age-appropriate game because of the nature of the violence. Yes, it is cartoonish, and death in Fortnite can be immediately followed by starting a new game, but the killing is random—if you see any other player, it’s either kill or be killed. In Fortnite, everyone but yourself is an adversary (though it is possible to be a small team of two or four) and threatens your survival, so you must attempt to kill them.
Everyone is your enemy: There are no friends, and you are all competing at the highest level for your survival. It’s not a great way to foster the type of collaboration that our planet and humankind need in the future. Most other violent games at least have teams, bad guys such as zombies attacking the Earth or defending one’s country against enemies.
Because younger children are still developing their capacities for understanding abstract concepts, others who are different, and hypothetical questions, the messaging of games such as Fortnite is troubling.
My professional opinion is that only older kids (11/12+) should be allowed to play Fortnite. This recommendation is less about the violence than the randomness of the aggression. I am not among the critics of violent video games who argue that it is the cause of violence and shootings in our society, as the research does not support this relationship.
In many countries such as China, South Korea, and the Netherlands, kids play even more violent video games than they do in the U.S., but murder and violence rates are far lower. However, the data suggest that exposure to violent media can desensitize individuals to violence and, in the case of individuals with a predisposition to aggressive behavior, can become one of many factors that could lead to other violent behavior.
In the case of Fortnite, I am less concerned about violence and aggression, but more worried about how younger children, who are not cognitively capable of asking themselves “what if” questions and who are limited by yes/no, good/bad, friend/enemy distinctions, may begin to think about their world and relate to those who live in their nearby and broader communities.
While I cannot cite any compelling evidence that this causes younger children who play games such as Fortnite to divide their peers into good and bad camps, I am uneasy about games that model a lack of empathy and practice random violence and selfishness in a world where collaboration, cooperation, and compassion are crucial to real-world survival.
One could (and probably should) argue that we don't want the same lesson to be given to our older kids. However, when advising parents of teens, I always attempt to have a pragmatic, real-world perspective. Screens, technology, and violent video games are not going to disappear. In many homes, restricting Fortnite might be impossible or not worth the conflict.
It is a very engaging game and so many of your child’s friends are already playing it. Our kids are growing up in a world where this type of entertainment is ubiquitous. If they don't play at home, they’ll play at their friend’s house or on their phone. This does not mean that we shouldn't set limits, but that we should use our own sensibilities to determine how old our children should be to play Fortnite. More importantly, allowing your kids to play these games with your awareness and permission provides an opening for discussing concerns about the themes underlying Fortnite.
Interestingly, the same intensity of focus and engagement in Fortnite makes it an interesting tool for teaching problem-solving skills. Our team at LearningWorks LIVE has begun to use the creative mode—where construction, exploring the sandbox world, and less random violence is possible—as a potential teaching tool for the development of executive functioning skills.
Given these issues regarding child development, how old should your child be to play Fortnite?
There are some 11- and 12-year-olds for whom playing Fortnite is acceptable because they understand and are not unduly influenced by the violence, nor do they want to spend all of their leisure time playing Fortnite. On the other hand, there are many 14- and 15-year-olds whose lives revolve around playing Fortnite and display signs of overuse or even addiction to it. For these kids, their age is less relevant than the problematic nature of their interaction with the game.
As a general rule, I suggest that you start by following the guidelines set by the developers of the game and consider Fortnite as “suitable” for 13-year-olds and up. If you want to allow an 11- or 12-year-old to play, consider your own child and determine if he or she can recognize the nature of the game and is also able to walk away from it.
Make certain that your chronologically aged child of 13 can view the game with eyes wide open. Talk to them, make certain they understand the random violence, and be vigilant with the expectation that they fill their leisure hours with many other activities beyond Fortnite.