When I was a kid, it was Pokémon; when my stepson was little, it was Minecraft; now, of course, it is Fortnite, a colourful, battle royal-style shooter that’s currently so popular that pop star Drake and footballer Dele Alli are fans.
When children get into things, they tend to do so quite intensely. (The concerningly detailed diagrams of the insides of Egyptian pyramids that I drew when I was nine are testament to that.) There is nothing wrong with a kid getting so into Fortnite that she wants to play it all the time; it’s just passion.
Naturally we shouldn’t let them play it all the time, in the same way as we’d probably step in to prevent a 10-year-old watching six episodes of Stranger Things in a row. But there is nothing sinister about the current obsession with Fortnite, or with the game itself. Unlike some of the games that become YouTube-driven school crazes, it’s both appropriate for the age range and a very good game.
Publishers would do well to veer away from social-media-style practices and prioritise a fun – and safe – experience
Nonetheless, widespread parental concern has prompted the culture secretary to respond in the Daily Telegraph. “Too much screen time could have a damaging impact on our children’s lives,” Matt Hancock told the paper. “Whether it’s social media or video games, children should enjoy them safely and as part of a lifestyle that includes exercise and socialising in the real world. We’re looking at what more could be done in this area alongside game publishers, developers and other agencies to promote safety and support parents.”
These remarks have, predictably if unfairly, been repackaged by both the Telegraph and the Daily Mail as an assertion that games themselves are in some way inherently dangerous to children (spoiler: they’re not). “Addictive online shooter games such as Fortnite have ‘damaging impact’ on the lives of children, warns culture secretary” is an especially creative interpretation of Hancock’s perfectly reasonable comments.
What he was actually talking about was screen time. It is obvious to everyone that kids sometimes want to spend so long on phones and consoles that it can interfere with a healthy balance of other activities. This problem is not video-game-specific: actually, as a parent and a gamer, I would rather my kid spent a couple of hours having fun and hanging out with his friends in Fortnite than watching endless unmoderated garbage on YouTube, or scrolling mindlessly through Instagram memes.
There are some problems, however, that are specific to video games. There is still a lack of awareness among parents who sometimes end up buying games that are age-inappropriate; I had to enlighten a parent just last week who thought that the 18 sticker meant simply that the game was difficult. Loot boxes, meanwhile, are an insidious invention that encourages players to pay real money for a chance at getting a virtual item; these have been likened to gambling, and several countries, including Belgium, are considering making them illegal.
Other games, particularly those played on smartphones and tablets, and which bill themselves as free, are designed to extract money and attention from players with countdown timers and “streak” mechanics that encourage you to come back several times a day, or spend money to speed up progress. These kinds of brain-hacks can be used for good in apps that help people form new fitness habits or learn a language, but in games, they can often be exploitative – especially when it comes to kids.
Rather than one-off purchases, the online economy values people’s sustained attention, encouraging genuinely insidious ways of keeping people hooked on services, apps and games. It’s the same principle that has turned Facebook a bit evil. If games publishers don’t wish to justify the the concern that popular games often attract, they would do well to veer away from these social-media-style practices and prioritise a fun – and safe – experience for players.
Happily, Fortnite is not a game that parents need to be overly worried about: like the majority of video games out there, its monetisation is transparent, fair and far from exploitative. As long as reasonable screen-time restrictions are in place, it’s not going to harm anyone. The best thing that parents can do is be aware of what kids are playing – so instead of panicking, why not join in?