If you’re the parent of boys aged between eight and 18 as I am (mine are eight and 11), chances are that Fortnite is one f-word that has well and truly entered your sons’ lexicon.
For the uninitiated, Fortnite: Battle Royale is an online video game where the sole aim is to emerge victorious (that is, alive) from a battle that can include up to 100 online players at a time.
“There’s also Fortnite: Save the World”, my eight-year-old son tells me earnestly, “but Fortnite: Battle Royale is the free one and the one you start off with.”
The game has been dubbed dangerous, violent and highly addictive so, of course, my initial reaction was an outright ban. This lasted all of 12 hours. After that, the only thing my partner and I could do was employ strict time restrictions and privacy settings to ensure the boys weren’t interacting with nefarious types.
Still, more often than not, this meant that I stood by helplessly as first my eldest and then my youngest disappeared into the animated universe that intermittently pierced the silence with the sound of artillery and, more worryingly, brought the shutters down on our interactions.
So I’m the last person you’d expect to give in to Fortnite, right? But I have. Totally. I won’t deny that the decision was initially driven by my battered resignation and an incontrovertible desire to stop screeching at the top of my lungs, but things have since changed.
The more I observed my boys playing the more I found myself thinking: ''Could it be that I’ve got this Fortnite thing all wrong? Do the boys see the game as a way to hang out with friends?''Once my cloud of hysteria lifted, I noticed my kids were indeed "hanging out", rather than just shooting others at random.
There was more at play here, too. They were employing sophisticated problem-solving methods, such as collaboration, negotiation and, more surprisingly, teamwork. In each new game they were also coming up with different strategies and pushing boundaries.
Granted, gratuitous violence should never be condoned, but perhaps the problem lies more with us adults than with the game itself. After all, history tells us that Fortnite is hardly the first video game that parents have wrung their hands over, and it won’t be the last.
On the topic of violence, it wasn’t that long ago that buying your son or daughter a toy gun was considered the definition of bad parenting. And despite there being a prevailing thought that video games make players more violent, a 2018 research paper looking at the behaviour of more than 3000 gamers found "no evidence" to support the theory that violent games primed users for real-life aggression.
Another thing I’ve noticed in my boys is the need for them to talk, really talk face-to-face and in the real world, with their friends about the game. The irony that an online game has made them more social, gregarious and engaged hasn't been lost on me.
There has been surprising news on the home front, too. The boys seem genuinely closer (all that working together as a team), I’m definitely shouting less and the house seems much calmer.
Is this all down to me simply giving in? Maybe. Or maybe it’s due to finally accepting the role we parents play in turning video games into online versions of the bogyman. While we’ve been arguing over Fortnite’s suitability, our tweens and teens have been busy negotiating new worlds, hanging out with their friends and learning a few life skills in the process.
Sounds a lot like that other f-word, doesn’t it? Yep. Freedom.
Jen Vuk is a freelance writer.