This July, as the orthodontist wheeled over to my son to tighten his braces, he tried to make conversation.
“How’s the summer. How’s Fortnite?” he asked.
“Oh. Sorry, I don’t play,” my son shrugged.
“You don’t play?” He stopped cold. “I…I don’t know what to talk about.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” my son said.
There are no clear reports on the number of middle school boys playing Fortnite, but as the parent of a 13-year-old who doesn’t, my guess is nearly all of them. According to the survey by the Pew Research Center, 97% of boys play video games “in some form or fashion” and Fortnite has dominated the gaming space since its release in July 2017. With over 125 million downloads and active players in August alone, in-game revenue is projected at this year.
Fortnite is , a huge topic of conversation, and a virtual way to spend time with friends, because players strategize and talk to each other during the game. Season 6 launched on September 27th, complete .
“There’s going to be some level of feeling like they’re missing out. Because they are missing out.”
My son got his invitation to play Fortnite on April 21, the day after he received detention for participating in The National School Walkout. The idea of protesting gun violence one day, then signing up to spend hours playing a first-person shooter game with “cartoonish” killing and a wide range of weaponry the next? Neither of us could stomach it.
We didn’t expressly forbid Fortnite in our house, and our son knew there would be a social cost to his decision, something that played to our advantage as parents. “Kids who choose not to play independently typically feel more confident in their choice compared to kids who are not allowed to play this particular game — those kids often feel unjustly punished,” says Dr. Adam Pletter, clinical psychologist, founder of , and the administrator of for Fortnite parents with over 1,200 members.
Even so, neither my son nor I anticipated the ubiquitous phenomenon Fortnite would become. “Kids are playing on the school bus, in class, and often after school in place of other extracurricular activities,” Pletter says.
For a kid who doesn’t play, it can be isolating. Not playing will “result in the child hearing about Fortnite in most social settings,” says Pletter. “There’s going to be pressure and some level of feeling like they’re missing out. Because they are missing out.”
He went on to suggest that it’s good for parents to understand why a child chooses not to play, especially given the social consequences. “Maybe he’s seen friends play and it’s not something that he wants to be part of, and maybe for really good reasons. But I would try and understand what those reasons are because there’s probably something pretty important there.”
The social pressures extend to parents as well. Want to stop conversation? Tell a group of middle school parents your child doesn’t play Fortnite. It’s like claiming your newborn sleeps through the night while your toddler eats vegetables and your second grader works ahead on her homework. It might be true, but nobody wants to hear it. I spend a lot of time nodding, silent while other parents bemoan the hours lost to the game.
“I don’t know of another generation of parents that have been faced with this level of difficulty in making parenting decisions.”
“Parents can respond to other parents in a matter-of-fact way. It’s totally OK to set a limit in a household and not have to defend it,” says Dr. Danny O’Rourke, a clinical psychologist in Seattle, Washington, who specializes in treating adolescents, and author of the blog . I’m still working on not defending it.
During the summer of 2017, tween boys in our neighborhood filled the park with soccer and basketball games, bikes, and skateboards. Fast forward to summer 2018, and much of that social interaction had been taken inside, to Fortnite headsets and mobile devices. I asked my son if he wanted to reconsider his decision.
He turned me down. Partly, it was staying true to his values. Partly, I’m sure, pleasing his mom. But instead of feeling left out, he had become more confident in his choice. He saw his friends enough, he said, and preferred the freedom that came with time to do other things. I breathed a sigh of relief, with an eye towards the future.
“I think that it’s probably a strength, for your kid to not necessarily fit in with all the things that people are doing. This teaches a lot of resilience, how to say ‘no’ to peer pressure, and how to fit in with others even if you do different things in your spare time,” says O’Rourke.
I’m still cautious, but I’ve started to mention that we are a Fortnite-free house. It’s one aspect of a larger conversation around gaming, social media, and our kids, common ground for parents as technology continues to proliferate around us.
“The digital age has given us all never-ending, amazing content. So, the challenge remains for all families to find fun, engaging activities that are varied and lead to a healthier developmental path,” Pletter says. “With the amount of technological advancement that has happened in the last twenty years, I don’t know of another generation of parents that have been faced with this level of difficulty in making parenting decisions.”
Read more great stories from Small Humans: