The mum of three teenage boys is in the fight of her life…with the computer and video game Fortnite
“Mummy, what’s a word to describe when people don’t understand something?”
“You’ll need to give me a few more clues than that.”
“You know, when you’re trying to describe something, and people don’t get it”
“Well, what’s the context?”
“When people go to war, and they try to explain to people who haven’t what it’s like but they don’t get it. What’s a word that I could use to describe that?”
“Alienated? Confused? Estranged? Would that work?”
“Yep, ok, thanks.”
That’s my 14-year-old, trying to finish his English homework, analysing two World War One poems; “Disabled” by Wilfred Owen and “Out, Out” by Robert Frost.
Concurrently, I’m sitting at my desk trying to get my head round what has become known in our household as the F-word: Fortnite.
As I’m grappling with the language of ‘skins’, ‘mats’, and ‘vbucks’, I laugh to myself. I can relate to feeling “estranged”.
I’m going to be frank, mamas: Fortnite drives me insane. I feel like I spend my life policing screen time. There is a constant echo in our flat: “Will you get off that wretched machine?!”
I wish I could claim to be one of those families that has clear cut boundaries and fixed times when the Internet is on and when it’s not. There are so many guidelines, articles and YouTube videos about how you can tackle it (including right here on Sassy Mama!). I know what I should do, but it’s something that I just haven’t ever really made happen. I’m not quite sure why.
Perhaps the trouble is I am so far from being Internet-savvy, the whole thing feels like a foreign language. And to my three boys, and all their mates, this is a world they have been raised in and they are bilingual by default.
For the last three years, from the age of 11, our eldest has been the go-to computer guru in our house, sorting anything to do with the gadgets with a calm and composure that I am totally in awe of. It was a role my husband was happy to retire from and, whilst he’s pretty handy himself at all that stuff, we both thought this new ‘responsibility’ was a good thing.
However, I can barely turn on the TV anymore without asking him how. Not that that’s his fault, I know it’s mine. To be honest, even renewing our contract with Starhub sent me into a cold sweat, and I wasn’t even near a screen!
Although it feels relatively new and something that has appeared from nowhere to hit us mamas hard, Epic Games, the company that created Fortnite: Battle Royale, have been in the video game game for quite a while. The founder, Tim Sweeny, a self-confessed “awkward smart kid”, started out in his parents’ basement. He began programming for fun at 11, back in the 80’s, and he had reportedly spent 10,000 hours tinkering on his computer by the age of 15. He released his first computer game, ZZT in 1991, when he was at university.
Ok, so his company is now estimated to have made a profit last year of US$3 Billion which is clearly extraordinary but, to me, this feels a like a misspent youth. Surely his mum, also a mama of three boys like me, must have spent her days screaming ‘Will you just go outside, ride you bike or play or whatever? Just do something other than stare at that screen!’
It seems the lure of the computer does have a gender bias, with boys much more likely to fall for its charms than girls. There are many studies on Google to tell us why, and the figures, and I’m not saying that there aren’t many girls (old and young) who also game avidly, but the mamas I speak to who seem to be struggling the most with these ‘wretched things’ are generally other mamas with boys.
Anyway, in a bid to try and understand it all, I asked my boys to talk me through a game, to show me how it all worked. Their eyes lit up! “Seriously, you want to play?!” This was a Wednesday evening and here I was telling them to turn on Fortnite. They couldn’t believe their luck!
I can’t claim to never having seen a game being played before; I’ve walked in enough when it’s been on to know what the ‘island’ looks like and I’d seen people jumping from the battle bus (how ridiculous is that?). But in all my hours of ranting about it I had never been party to a game from start to the finish. And I have to admit, although I was slightly intrigued to experience what all the fuss was about, there was a small part of me that was slightly nervous, too: what would happen if I allowed myself to embrace it ‘for research purposes’ and became a convert!?
We kitted up and chose who was who. The boys told me we were playing as a squad (“It’s more fun that way”). As we only have one Xbox, my middle one went to his room to play via his PC, the youngest was graciously given the Xbox controller, and the eldest played via his phone. I just watched. I wasn’t allowed to play. I was casually told, “Because you’ll die too quickly.”
Choosing who you want to be and what skin you have is a big thing in Fortnite. Whilst you can’t buy an advantage in the game (one of the major appeals), its financial success is based on the principle that it’s free to play but there are in-game purchases, such as ‘skins’, which make the company huge amounts. With so many playing it (125 million a month is a figure banded around frequently, although that was recorded about 6 months ago so, given the game’s exponential growth, I expect it’s far higher now), you don’t have to be a genius to see how all the pennies would quickly add up.
As the game started, I felt rather sick. Not in some profound esoteric way, but literally. I felt seasick. Watching the screen made me really queasy. I asked my boys if they felt the same (they certainly do when we are on a long journey!), but they seemed to have no idea what I was talking about.
We jump out of the flying bus and parachute down to a chosen spot on the island below. There’s a dialogue box on the side of the screen that’s one of the areas that can cause great worries, as it allows the exchange of language, stuff you’d rather your kids weren’t hearing but, as we begin it comments on those who have thanked the driver! This makes me giggle. “I hope you said thank you, boys!” We may be in an unreal fantasy world but I like that good manners are still a thing!
As we touch down, the game begins in earnest. There’s checks as to who else is in the area, “mats” (which I learn means ‘materials’) are collected, using an axe to break up rocks and trees and then stored in backpacks. I joke that that’s quite some bag to be able to store so much timber and so many bricks. I get told I’m being stupid. I say I realise I’m missing the point but seriously, this is stupid!
We dash around and the boys get excited as we find a treasure trove full of ammunition and guns. They’re definitely playing as a team, giving each other tips, exchanging tactics, quickly discussing where to go next.
One of the arguments often used to defend the game is that it is a game of strategy. But I’m afraid it doesn’t wash with me, mamas. Give me chess or Monopoly any day. Even Connect Four. Oh, how I used to love that game!
Back to Fortnite. There’s a panic as apparently our health is slipping (you can see how healthy you are by a green bar chart on the screen below). We’ve had to run fast, as the circle was closing in and we were hit by acid rain. Fortunately we are able to refuel ourselves by lighting a fire in the fortress hut thing we’ve built (at super-fast speed with “mats” from our back pack) and so all is looking a bit more hopeful.
“We’re doing well, mummy, we might even win!”
Every game starts with 100 players – that battle bus is always full, mamas! The challenge is to be the last one standing after a Hunger Games-style race to the finish, where killing each other is how you get ahead.
As there is no blood ever shown, apparently this makes things alright.
Anyway, let’s not get me started on that as we’ll never finish the game.
Things start to get tense and I can sense that the pulses of all my three are racing. I have to confess I must have succumbed a bit, too, as my pulse was racing bit as well. There were 11 of us left and the area we had left to play in was shrinking fast.
Then BANG! Seemingly out of nowhere, my eldest had turned himself into a snowman.
“What are you doing? Why is there a snowman there?”
“It’s a good place to hide.”
“But there’s no snow anywhere. Surely your opponents would know that you aren’t meant to be there. You don’t suddenly see a snowman in green grass.”
But he ignored me. I had no idea what he had done or how he had done it, but his snowman was lumbering towards a tree.
“Hide there for a moment,” he’s told by his brother.
The screen now tells us there are five left in the game. The clock is ticking. We can see people being blown up around us.
“Surely you can’t win a game by pretending to be a snowman hiding in a tree? This is madness.” I say, thinking all those claiming it’s a game of great strategic choices would struggle to argue this one out.
But apparently he was never going to stay as a snowman, that was just to get him to where he wanted to be.
As quickly as it appeared, the snowman disappeared.
“Oh, you’ve melted!” I laughed.
“Mummy, stop it!” I’m told I’m being distracting. They are trying to concentrate.
Then it happens: the last standing player in their squad, the snowman guy, gets obliterated. Zapped like he’s being beamed up into a space ship. He’s gone. The squad leave with a respectable 4th place.
We flip now to spectator mode. I’m not sure how it switches but we watch the guy who killed us play out his last few minutes.
“He’s such a try-hard”
“What does that mean? Surely the whole point is to try hard to win?”
“But look at him, he’s building so much. Too much.”
I didn’t really understand what the term meant but, whatever he was doing, he went on to win. And then, as is the Fortnite way, he did a little victory dance (a big thing).
“Can we do just one more?”
“No! It’s teeth and bed. I’ve seen enough, thank you, boys!”
Despite having ‘experienced’ a game, I was still at a slight loss as to how and why it could have taken over so many of our lives and in such a way!
The World Health Organisation has recently classified the term “gaming disorder” alongside gambling disorder in its diagnostic international classification of diseases. And according to figures by Divorce Online, last year there were 200 divorces which cited “Fortnite addiction” as a major grievance.
Protecting our children, mamas, and trying to bring them up in the best way possible, is not easy when you have a powerful and highly addictive force to reckon with. And, as far as I can see, its mission is simply big business. I’m not alone in worrying that our children are being exploited and we are being fleeced as they become dependent on easy kicks and computer-generated highs.
Alongside the games that are being played, my boys also tell me about the ‘streamers’, YouTubers and ‘Twitch’ players who are making a fortune from Fortnite. They talk of them as aspirational characters. ‘Professional’ players gaming at least 8 hours a day can make up US$500K a month through advertising and sponsorship deals. All because people just watch them playing.
This is a world gone mad, surely?
Even though she always slightly annoyed me on Location, Location, Location, I wanted to hug Kirsty Allsopp when I read about her style of parenting (she smashed her kids’ iPads when they violated screen time rules). There are so many times I have wanted to smash a screen and throw it out the window I admired her hugely for actually going through with it!
We were recently away for Chinese New Year on Sea Gypsy in Sibu, Malaysia. It was bliss. Beautiful sea, great waves, chilled days. And, importantly, no Wi-Fi.
The boys swam, made sandcastles, flew kites, snorkelled, played cards, even read a book! I was in heaven. Admittedly they had downloaded some YouTube to watch from time to time – I’m not deluded enough to think I have angels on my hands – but the effect of no Wi-Fi, no Fortnite, was wonderful. Most importantly, no one seemed to miss it, either.
After five days, we drove back home, crossed the causeway, and there was a loud screech from my youngest in the back.
I jumped. “What’s the matter?”
Well it was nice while it lasted, I thought.
One thing I know I need to do is work through what I need to do. The trip away strengthened my resolve for clear limits and boundaries. The management of Fortnite and the issues between kids and parents are explained really well in a little video circulated by Scotch College, a school in Perth, along with a very measured letter about the risks that the game and others like it poses.
Also, while we were away, I read about “The Hour Rule” in a book, Teenagers Translated. It’s full of great advice about all things teenager, but this one really stood out. It does exactly what it says on the tin type thing. Basically, every hour online should be balanced by an hour doing something physical or creative, ideally outside, but at the very least away from a screen. It’s a straightforward calculation and I’m currently negotiating with my boys as to the best way to get that started!
There is also part of me that knows I need to face up to the fact that I am maybe part of the problem. Whilst it’s easy (and often very justifiable on many occasions in my mind!) to blame the creators, big businesses, online influencers and the general state of the world in which we live for exploiting young minds and turning them into zombies, I know I could do more as a mum and I need to take some responsibility for Fortnite gathering momentum.
The problem is it’s all too easy to turn to it as an electronic babysitter. It’s handy to be able to tell them to watch something or play something when you need a few hours to get some work done or make a phone call, or simply have a moment of peace! There are centres in the US where you can drop your children off for the evening and they will sit at a screen in a room full of hundreds of others, undoubtedly fully absorbed, while you go out for dinner! It’s things like this that make me worry we are in a scary new world, totally unreal, totally unknown. But one, sadly, of our own making.
Whilst trying to be a good mama, helping my eldest bottom out his homework, we looked up one of his poems, Out, Out, on Wikipedia. It states the poem: “Can be read as a critique as to how warfare can force innocent, young boys to leave their childhood behind, and ultimately be destroyed by circumstances created by the ‘responsible’ adult.”
I don’t want anyone to think that I am aligning Fortnite to the horrors of World War One (which the poem is about), but the words hit me hard. There was a synergy to the meaning that focused my mind. And terrified me.
We live in a time where gaming business are making more money than many third world countries and universities in America have started offering gaming scholarships. Climate change is rife with evidence daily of floods and devastation caused by the weather, but the news that’s more read is of a picture of an egg gets more hits on Instagram than the Kardashians. Much of the developing world still live off less than a dollar a day and food banks in the first world are at bursting point, yet online in-app purchases of unreal products for an unreal world soar.
“Don’t worry, mummy,” my son assures me, “I don’t think Fortnite will last. Most of my friends don’t really play it any more. In fact we are much more into Black Ops now.”
I think he said it to make me feel better. But my heart just sank.
Fortnite is not actually its full title. Officially, its ‘Fortnite: Battle Royale’.
It always makes me giggle slightly. I can’t ever hear the word ‘Royale’ without thinking of the Pulp Fiction “Royale with cheese” moment. I don’t want to date myself too much, but I had the tape at university and could recite pretty much all the lines!
But what’s not a joke is that this is a battle. And a royally huge one that sometimes feels like a war between us and our children. And although Fortnite is not solely to blame, it has come to be synonymous with a culture of computer and screen dependency and addiction. Surely that can’t be good for anyone, apart from those who are making lots of money from it?
The only good I can think that might have come from it all is that my boys have learnt how to dance! I don’t think anyone at a teenage disco ‘back in my day’ could do anything more than an embarrassing shuffle step from side to side. Now they can floss and groove with extraordinary skill and finesse!
It seems a very small win.
And despite my boys’ best efforts, sadly, I remain confused, alienated, estranged.
Whatever the rules of the game, it seems they keep changing.