Educators Battle ‘Fortnite’ for Students’ Attention

By Sarah Schwartz — May 03, 2018 9 min read
"Fortnite: Battle Royale," a multi-player video game accessible on mobile phones, has become wildly popular with kids and teenagers. Teachers are frustrated by students playing the game under their desks or coming into school half-asleep after playing all night.
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When kids open the wildly popular video game Fortnite, they might see a message that says “Mr. Hillman says stop playing in class.”

The message was integrated by the maker of the game in late March after a teacher, a.k.a. Mr. Hillman, complained on the internet discussion forum Reddit that his students would not stop playing it in class.

But the reminder from Epic Games, the maker of “Fortnite: Battle Royale,” hasn’t seemed to stick. Teachers across the country are still frustrated by students playing the game under their desks or coming into school half-asleep after playing all night. And the game’s popularity is resurfacing debates around video games’ addictive nature and violent content.

Many educators want to ban the game from their classrooms, but some are taking the opposite approach, attempting to weave students’ interest in Fortnite into class discussions and assignments.

When Karson Shipp, a world history teacher at Cactus Shadows High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., is talking with fellow teachers about their students, he said they all tell him “‘All my kids talk about is Fortnite.’”

There are two versions of the game, but “Battle Royale”—which is free to download—is the most popular. Users can play on a PC, one of several gaming systems, or—the biggest headache for teachers—on mobile phones.

The goal of the game is survival, with 100 players battling it out to be the last man or woman standing. Players scavenge for weapons and materials to build defensive structures, and as the game progresses, the map shrinks, forcing players to confront each other. Players can enter the contest alone, in pairs, or in teams of four. Unlike in many other shooter games, players only have one life—when another player kills them, they leave the match.

Kids don’t just play the game—they also watch other people play. Fortnite is the most popular game on Twitch, a streaming service where viewers can watch people play video games live.

Students often watch Twitch streams during lunch, said Young So, a junior at Castro Valley High School in California who plays Fortnite and wrote a review of the game for his school’s newspaper. Many of his friends tuned in when hip-hop star Drake played with popular Twitch streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins in March, drawing a record-breaking 600,000 concurrent viewers to the site.

‘Uniquely Distracting’

As the game has soared in popularity, middle and high school teachers across the country are facing growing challenges in the classroom.

“I usually don’t have problems with phones in my classroom,” said Shipp. But once Fortnite’s mobile version was released on March 15, he went from confiscating one device every two to three weeks to several every day, all from students playing the game.

Fortnite is “uniquely distracting,” said Shipp, because it doesn’t only take the gamer off-task. The tense, fast-paced action draws the attention of the surrounding students as well, in a way that other apps don’t. “No one else is going to be watching you play Solitaire,” he said.

The goal of "Fortnite" is survival, as up to 100 players scavenge for weapons and materials to build defensive structures. As the game progresses, the map shrinks, forcing players to confront each other. The game’s popularity is resurfacing debates around video games’ addictive nature and violent content.

Nick Fisher, a science teacher at Fort Zumwalt North High School in O’Fallon, Mo., said his students like to take screenshots of gameplay and send them to friends over Snapchat. Teenagers want to broadcast their victories, and because the game is on their phones, it’s easy to post updates to social media, making Fortnite “the perfect concoction of addiction,” said Fisher.

North High blocks all social media and gaming sites on its WiFi, said Fisher, but students tell him how they circumvent the restriction: They use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to establish independent internet connections. (Dozens of YouTube videos provide step-by-step tutorials for students looking to get around school WiFi controls.) It’s “almost too easy” to flout these rules, said one of Fisher’s students, in an email.

“As soon as there’s a moment where they’re not actively writing, or engaged in a lab—if there’s any moment of downtime—they’re trying to play,” said Fisher. He’s parked a plastic bin at the front of the room, reserved for phones taken from students playing Fortnite or “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (a similar mobile-accessible game) in class.

If students are consistently playing Fortnite in class, physically separating them from their phones is priority number one, said Liz Kolb, a clinical associate professor of education technologies at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Kids can’t multitask,” she said. “Even having a digital device within sight can cognitively distract the student enough that they can’t focus on the academics.”

Even if children are only playing Fortnite at home, it can still affect their ability to participate at school. Rebecca Young, a teacher at Stanley Middle School in Lafayette, Calif., said students have been coming into her class with unfinished homework and bags under their eyes.

Some of her 7th graders, including a few top students, had lied to their parents, saying they didn’t have any assignments, so that they could have more time to play Fortnite. Young said she sent notes home to parents, and as a result, some removed gaming systems and other devices from their kids’ bedrooms.

Schools and teachers should be guiding parents when it comes to appropriate limits around screen time, said Kolb. Most parents will appreciate research-based recommendations, such as turning off all screens a set amount of time before bed, she said.

Gaming Addiction and Violence

It’s not entirely a player’s fault that they have a hard time stopping the game. Kolb said video games such as Fortnite are often designed to encourage continuous play. When a player dies in Fortnite, they can begin a new game immediately. “You always want to go back in,” said Kolb, “and do a better job next time.”

And once a round begins, players can’t pause the match. “If you have to turn it off, you’re losing a lot of work you’ve put into it,” said Sierra Filucci, the executive editor of parenting content for Common Sense Media.

Young So, the junior at Castro Valley High, said he mostly plays on the weekends with friends. But some of his classmates play or watch Twitch streams almost constantly, scheduling their days around releases of new features in the game.

When Fortnite is designed to draw players in, how can teachers tell the difference between avid fans and students who have developed unhealthy gaming habits or even addictions?

If you have to take a student’s phone away, note their reaction, said Kolb. If the student becomes nervous, combative, or can’t focus afterward, that could be cause for concern. Not wanting to engage with activities or people outside of the game are other warning signs. But in general, said Kolb, simply loving Fortnite doesn’t mean a student is on the road to gaming addiction.

“Compared to other shooting games, Fortnite is pretty lightweight,” said Filucci. The game features cartoon-style art and doesn’t show blood or gore. Players engage in more strategy than shooting, scavenging for supplies and building shelters. Still, she said, “the goal of the game is to kill other players, and there’s no way around that.” (Common Sense’s “Parents’ Ultimate Guide to Fortnite” recommends that only children ages 13 and older be allowed to play Fortnite.)

Cooperation and Conflict

Still, parents and teachers shouldn’t worry that the violence in the game itself will lead to violent behavior in teenagers, said Kurt Squire, a professor of social informatics at the University of California Irvine. “The research is pretty well settled that there is no causal link,” he said. Fortnite’s structure, in which players track each other and aim to be the last one standing, isn’t all that different from “traditional types of kids’ play,” like tag or capture the flag, said Squire.

Games like Fortnite can even have social benefits, said John Velez, an assistant professor of journalism and electronic media at Texas Tech University. Velez, who studies the positive effects of video games, has found that playing violent games cooperatively with helpful teammates promotes pro-social behavior.

Gameplay presents opportunities for children to help each other in pursuit of a shared goal, allowing players to make choices like giving a wounded teammate a bandage or a healing potion. These acts “may seem trivial,” said Velez, but “for gamers, it is meaningful.”

But just as there are opportunities for cooperation, there is also the potential for conflict.

In Young’s middle school classroom, she overhears students argue about leaving each other out of matches or ignoring requests to join another group’s team.

Fortnite also has open voice chat and messaging, exposing players to messages from strangers that can include profanity and name-calling, said Filucci. (The game allows players to turn off the voice chat, but not the text chat.)

Teachers can use Fortnite as an opportunity to talk about cyberbullying and appropriate online conversations, said Kolb. Educators could even put together a “talking toolkit” for chats in the game to steer students away from unsportsmanlike behavior, she said.

If Fortnite consumes students’ interest and conversations, teachers should find ways to address it in the classroom, said Kolb. “We can’t ignore the play that is happening outside of school, because that’s their real world.”

Embracing Students’ Interests

Young led a class discussion about the similarities between Fortnite and dystopian fiction after her 7th graders compared the game to The Giver, a young adult novel they were reading in class. Her students, who are “completely enthralled with dystopian novels,” drew connections between aspects of Fortnite—the ominous sense of impending danger, the focus on individual survival—and themes of books like the Hunger Games trilogy, Maze Runner, and Divergent. Relating literature to students’ interests outside of school in this way makes her lessons more meaningful, said Young.

Chris Aviles, the coordinator of innovation, technology, and 21st century skills for the Fair Haven Public Schools in New Jersey, wrote “A Teacher’s Guide to Surviving Fortnite,” an exploration of ways the game can be used for instructional purposes. The guide, posted to his blog Teched Up Teacher, suggests how to integrate the game into writing prompts, math lessons on probability, and physics.

Aviles doesn’t advocate playing the game at school. There isn’t any educational value in letting students engage in virtual combat during a lesson, he said. Instead, teachers can build a lesson around one aspect of the game, such as having students calculate the best angle of approach as they jump from the “Battle Bus,” the floating bus that drops players onto the map at the beginning of each match.

Though Aviles hasn’t tested any Fortnite lessons with his students yet, he’s used other digital games, such as Minecraft, which is popular in educational settings, in classes before. He’s found that gaming can help engage and motivate students who otherwise exhibit behavior problems.

“Instead of fighting the tide of change and culture, if you embrace it and update what it is that you taught last year and make it relevant and interesting, you just get more out of your kids,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2018 edition of Education Week as Educators Battling Class Distractions Of ‘Fortnite’ Game


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