Like many kids, my 12-year old son loves Fortnite. He started playing around a year ago when we finally gave in, realising that most of his screen time was spent on YouTube watching others play and hearing that the game was all anyone talked about at school.
I don't like Fortnite at all – I dislike like anything to do with guns whether in real life or virtually – but I do what I've always done with my son's interests (natural disasters and the solar system when he was young; Pokémon and Minecraft more recently). I listen to him talk and try not to be too embarrassing in my lack of understanding of key terms (for Fortnite, that includes 'emote' and 'skin' - here's a good guide if you also need some help).
Which brings us to 4am Tuesday morning. A live event was being held to build anticipation and introduce changes to the game between "seasons". These are virtual events - even prior to COVID there was no need to go anywhere other than your couch, you simply need to log into the game at a set time.
My son started asking about attending a few weeks ago. Given my dislike of the game, I was surprisingly relaxed about his idea and vaguely encouraged him to keep track of when it was happening – not straightforward given that it's been postponed twice (the first possibly because of COVID and the second in acknowledgement of the world's focus on Black Lives Matter).
Once it was rescheduled, we worked together on the maths to determine what time 2pm on the east coast of USA is here. The answer? 4am. On a school night. Hmmm.
My husband, who is working long hard hours in a small business recovering from the impact of COVID, apologised to our son that he wouldn't be able to help him wake up or watch with him.
I took a different approach.
I decided that I was happy for him to take part, on the conditions that he woke himself (and no-one else!), went back to sleep once the event was over (plus a small window to explore the updated game), got back up for his usual morning routine, headed off to school happily and didn't complain about being tired.
As my hubby and I went to sleep on Monday night, we discussed the likelihood of him managing to get up. I put it at 60:40 in Fortnite's favour.
On Tuesday morning, as my 7am alarm played, my son popped in to let me know that he had, indeed, got up – at 3:10am – and was online in time to get into the live event (I give him top marks for planning, as the event was declared full around half an hour before it started).
He was front and centre of the action as (spoiler alert) The Agency blew up and Midas' orbs nearly defeated the storm only to have it triumph and return as a giant wall of water. Wow!
Not only did my son greatly enjoy himself and not wake anyone else up, he took screenshots throughout the event in order to help us understand his retelling.
He says he went back to bed around 5am, woke to his usual alarm of 6:50am and was cheery before school, doing his usual tasks plus some extra jobs I'd lined up for him.
I reckon that's a win in any parenting book. My son pursued an interest, planned ahead, organised himself to get up, participated independently, and followed my guidelines about how it would ideally roll.
Would an online safety expert agree?
I asked Martine Oglethorpe, a Digital Wellbeing and Online Safety Educator and author of the book The Modern Parent: Raising a Great Kid in the Digital World. She's across Fortnite, having described it in her blog as a first person shooter game that is violent but, due to its cartoonish characters, is less graphic than something like Call of Duty. Here's what she had to say in response to my wondering about whether I'd made the right call:
"Getting up in the middle of the night to play video games should not be a regular experience," says Oglethorpe. (No argument from me). "I wouldn't be advising this for those under 12." (Phew, just scraped in there).
"It is something that should be encouraged only as a one-off experience, much like allowing a young person to stay up to watch an early morning World Cup or Olympics event." (That's a great description; this is exactly what it felt like).
Oglethorpe concludes: "If a child has a particular passion and can manage the fallout from a one-off early morning experience, then it is probably not going to do them too much harm."
My hunch is that this event may have gone further than that, and have done my son some good.
Though he's 12 now, it won't be too long (COVID-granted) before he's off to in-person events like music festivals or 'cons' (the hip version of a convention). Just like this morning at 4am, I won't be there to advise, guide or protect him. So I reckon this morning's Live Event was a good dry run.