Classroom Technology

Decoding Fortnite: 5 Things Educators Need to Know About the Hit Video Game

By Sarah Schwartz — May 10, 2018 4 min read
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The video game Fortnite has become wildly popular with younger players, consuming kids’ free time and frustrating teachers whose students play it on their phones under their desks during class.

“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 Nick Fisher, a science teacher at Fort Zumwalt North High School in O’Fallon, Mo.

Some teachers are looking for ways to curb that craze, while others are looking for ways to leverage students’ interest in the game to make connections in the classroom. Here’s what school leaders need to know:

1. The game can be played across different devices, which may allow students to have access in school.

“Fortnite: Battle Royale” is an active shooter game, where 100 players compete to be the last one standing. Players can enter the game alone, in pairs, or as groups of four, hunting for weapons and building defensive structures. The arena of play gets smaller and smaller as the game progress, forcing the remaining players to confront each other.

Unlike many other video games, which are only available on computers or gaming systems like PlayStation or Xbox, Fortnite also has a mobile version. The game is compatible with newer iPhone and iPad models, and Epic Games, the developer of Fortnite, has said they will release an Android version within the next few months.

2. Keeping Fortnite out of classrooms may not be as simple as blocking it on the building WiFi.

Some schools and districts have blocked Epic Games’ site with their web filtering capabilities, but students have figured out how to circumvent these restrictions. Fisher, the teacher from Missouri, says students in his class use virtual private networks (VPNs): private connections on public internet.

It’s possible for schools to shut down this access route as well, identifying popular VPNs and blocking the channels that they use to connect. But even if schools take all possible precautions, students could still play the game with mobile data on their phones—or a personal tablet, if the district uses a bring-your-own device program.

“The internet is so vast and dynamic that it is very difficult to be able to believe that you are going to keep everything blocked that could be potentially harmful all the time,” said Nathan Mielke, the director of technology services at Hartford Union High School District in Wisconsin.

Districts can deploy the best firewall and filtering technology that money can buy, and students will still find a way around the system, he said.

3. When web filtering solutions aren’t 100 percent effective, there are low-tech options available for removing distraction.

When students can’t seem to unglue themselves from the game, Fisher has them place their phones in a bin at the front of the room.

Physically removing the source of distraction is a good solution, said Liz Kolb, a clinical associate professor of education technologies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Kids and teenagers don’t have fully developed frontal lobes, one of the parts of the brain that controls self-regulation, she said. “Even having a digital device within sight can cognitively distract the student enough that they can’t focus on the academics,” she said.

4. Some educators are looking for ways to incorporate the game into instruction.

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 in English-language arts, math, and physics lessons.

Another educator connected students’ interest in the game—which features a dystopian, apocalyptic storyline—to literature with similar themes. Lucas Maxwell, the school librarian at Glenthorne High School in England, put together a list of 30 book suggestions for students who like Fortnite.

Weaving games into the curriculum didn’t start with Fortnite—teachers have been harnessing video games’ potential for engagement, hands-on learning, and assessment for several years now.

Fortnite shares a lot of similarities with Minecraft, a game that has been especially popular in educational settings, said Kurt Squire, a professor of social informatics at the University of California Irvine. The game has captured “a whole swath of Minecraft players who are ready for a little more competition and a little more visceral action,” he said. Both games give players the opportunity to build and create and center on team-based, strategy-driven action.

This kind of collaborative digital play can teach problem solving and higher-level thinking skills, said Kolb.

5. Even without integrating the game into lessons, teachers can leverage students’ interest in Fortnite as an opportunity to build connections.

“We can’t just ignore what our students are doing outside of school,” said Kolb. If all students want to talk about is the game, teachers should have those conversations with them, she said.

“It’s easy to embrace a kid who loves science,” said Aviles. It can be harder to understand a passion for video games, or something else that teachers might not be as familiar with—but making those connections is no less important, he said.

Sometimes, students will come into Aviles’s class in the morning frustrated and angry after losing a match. Instead of dismissing these emotions, he says, he will start class with a mindfulness activity. When teachers acknowledge the relevance of students’ interests and experiences outside of the classroom, said Aviles, students get the message that teachers care about them as people.

Image: Epic Games.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.