This is the refrain that often goes through my head: “Thank God I’m not raising children today.” Partially, this is because I don’t have the stamina I had in my twenties and thirties and am glad to pass the baton to the next generation. However, it is not after a delightfully exhausting afternoon with my grandchildren that I most often sound this mantra. It is when I see the decisions that today’s parents face . These high-stakes quandaries were never issues for my friends and me.
Reading about the uber-popular videogame, Fortnite, brought these feelings once again to the fore. Fortnite is a “shoot ‘em, kill em’” game designed to capture and retain the attention of boys. It does so very effectively whether we are talking of twelve-year-olds or males in their forties. This visually vivid and violent game was carefully designed to gain a rating that would let parents allow their teens to play. That is to say that you don’t actually see blood or dismemberment. (Parenthetically, it has to be one of the great ironies of our age that some parents who meticulously refused to let their six-year-old boys play with water pistols or run around with sticks saying, “Bang, bang, you’re dead,” seem to have lost a much greater battle when it comes to their pre-teens and technology.)
Utilizing the latest science, Fortnite is constantly being tweaked to be increasingly addictive. Involved parents report seeing worrisome changes in their sons’ behavior and attitudes. When these parents discuss Fortnite they sound eerily similar to parents worried about having children on drugs. And this is a game that counts its users in the tens of millions.
It is true that every generation of parents worries about the fads that absorb their teenagers. A mother today might lament that her son won’t leave his video game to come to dinner. Years ago (and still today) “selective deafness” while absorbed in a good book led many a youth to tune out the call, “Dinner is ready.” Fathers in the 1950s were appalled at the hours their teenage daughters spent on the phone and fathers today are appalled at the hours their sons interact technologically with their friends playing Fortnite.
Fortnite, and other video games, its proponents will argue, prepare boys for lucrative careers in gaming and sharpen their reflexes. It is an interactive game, so boys are socializing as they play online with their friends. It can encourage teamwork as groups compete against each other. Yes, it might absorb boys’ attention, but parents can set limits just as they did when Monopoly games threatened to last all night.
So, Is Fortnite simply one more example of things that parents worry about, yet which in hindsight seem relatively benign? Or is something quite different happening here? An article in the December 21, 2018 Wall Street Journal quotes Ofir Turel, an associate professor at California State University who says, “We’re all pigeons in a big human experiment,” when discussing games like Fortnite. Technology and the ability for mind-alteration that it affords might be a game-changer. Yet, you can find other professors, like Christopher Ferguson from Florida’s Stetson University who says, “There’s no evidence that violent video games are more impactful than other forms of media.” Parents, of course, need to make decisions today. They don’t have the luxury of waiting to see what the follow-up research shows twenty years down the road.