Kids around the country, if not the world, spent the year mimicking Fortnite dances, discussing Ninja’s scoperless-sniper rifle shots, and being generally obsessed with the popular video game. Is Fortnite something we should be concerned about?
What does research say about this latest kid obsession?
As researchers, educators, gamers, and parents whose kids play Fortnite, we see little to be concerned about with the game, but some things that could be encouraging. Playing video-game shooters, we now know, is not a major contributor to youth violence. Granted, kids’ enthusiasm for Fortnite can be a little much, but we are old enough to remember Garbage Pail kids and have played Pokémon.
For kids, coming home and playing Fortnite is very similar to playing army men in the woods and building forts. From purely a safety standpoint, playing digital laser tag is probably safer than having crabapple battles with garbage can lids as shields like we did, or shooting each other with BB guns.
Coming home and playing Fortnite is very similar to playing army men in the woods and building forts."
In fact, as a play experience, there are parts of Fortnite that may even be valuable. Fortnite is, in many respects, a classic “third place”—a place that is neither home nor school, but where kids can socialize and play beyond the watchful eyes of parents or teachers. These are places where kids learn to negotiate conflict, become independent, and explore what kind of person they want to be. They are important experiences that we too often design out of our kids’ lives through structured activities and all of the shuffling back and forth we do in today’s busy world.
This isn’t to say that we should just let kids go it alone online. Recent news highlights how racism, xenophobia, and bullying have come out of the shadows and are thriving online. It’s more important than ever that we talk with kids about what is appropriate behavior, what’s acceptable humor—and what’s not.
In our work with Esports in California’s Orange County school system, we’ve seen that one of the best things educators can do is bystander training. That is, we can teach kids appropriate ways to respond when they see distrustful, harassing, or hateful behavior. Researchers have found that interrupting inappropriate behavior, publicly supporting the harmed person, and calling for help when appropriate are useful ways to combat toxic situations.
Can we really blame kids for being so taken by Fortnite? The game itself—a combination of army guys, building forts, and king-of-the-hill battles—would have taken place with sticks or toy guns in the vacant lots or wooded strands that are increasingly designed out of today’s suburban neighborhoods. Further, many children do homework or are engaged in extracurricular activities until long after the pole lights come on, which means that online spaces are the last available place to socialize.
We are lucky to be writing this from a neighborhood where there are still undeveloped spaces where kids roam on bikes and play these same games offline with Nerf guns. Research shows that, if anything, access to these informal play spaces is good for you. Strong communities, peer relationships (including those forged through gaming), and belonging (including to groups like gaming guilds) can maximize youths’ resilience against issues such as substance abuse and depression.
As researchers with decades of experience studying youth and games, we encourage educators to look beyond the immediate content of the game (its characters and themes), and focus more intently on what kids are doing with it. Are kids making new friends? Becoming more confident? Or are they becoming more withdrawn? Are they picking up any toxic or negative views? Are there signs that game-play might be an indication that something else in their lives is wrong?
Although there are no established links between games and violence, there are some obvious connections between gaming too much and wider problems. More than 25 hours of gaming per week while also in school is not a sustainable schedule, for instance. Wrangling over what extent games are the cause or the symptom somewhat misses the point; unhealthy game play can be a signal. When one of us was teaching middle school, he saw a student online after midnight and used that as an opening to ask if everything was OK at home. It turned out that his parents were getting divorced. The occasion was a good chance to talk through how the student was dealing with it, and how he could manage it better.
Similarly, there are some indicators that not playing games can be a problem if kids are being left out of important socializing experiences. Being left out of the nightly hijinks and inside jokes about new Fortnite dances is not only not fun, but can lead toward broader alienation. There is some evidence that youths (especially boys) who are not gaming at all can become disconnected and enter down bad paths.
Rather than focusing on what games kids are playing, we should attend more to who they are meeting and gaming with online, what type of talk they are engaged in, and what kinds of groups they are becoming a part of. Online peer groups can lead to strong, lasting friendships, but they can also be toxic and evolve in less healthy directions—just like offline ones. As with most issues around education, we hesitate to give rigid advice, other than this: Get to know and stay connected to your kids, make spaces for them to write or read around their interests, and engage them in conversations around their gaming whenever possible. Many young people are eager to talk about their games and can be brought into conversations about how to manage their gaming productively.
If you’re feeling bold, you might see if your school has a gaming club or would be interested in sponsoring one. Gaming together is one of the best ways to build trust outside the classroom that can spill back in and create a positive learning climate.