Mary McCarthy: 'Why I changed my mind over 'Fortnite' as youngsters fight for an adult-free childhood'
Prince Harry might want 'Fortnite' banned because of its addictive qualities, but the online video game has clocked up another advocate to add to its 200 million fanbase after I recently realised its true attractions.
'Fortnite' was becoming an unbearable battle in our house with weekends tainted by squabbles over how long my son could play for. That is until one Saturday afternoon when I wanted it turned off RIGHT NOW after my son had already spent an hour playing. The echoing gunfire was giving me a headache and my nephew was due in an hour, and I knew the boys would want to play then.
After some pleading my son changed tack and begged to stay talking to his friend with his headset on, even if I turned off the screen. Taken aback I agreed and hovered around the door. Over the next 50 minutes they chatted about lots of different subjects - 'Fortnite' yes, but also 'Lord of the Rings', cola bottles v Haribo. It hit me then that 'Fortnite' is his platform to casually hang out with his mates. Kids are not allowed to knock around to each other's house or head out on their bikes having adventures like in the past, and so have to play together online to get away from the adult supervision.
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Yes, they probably should be out playing footie in the park instead of video games online. But we don't let them. Instead they do adult-organised football where they don't get to sort out the rules by themselves. Ten year olds these days are not even allowed to walk home from school. It's no wonder 'Fortnite', where they are free to make their own choices, is so attractive. Constant supervision means no adventures.
The Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray is very vocal that online media is not a problem for children, and even says the internet is the "saviour of children's culture today and the one reason why adults have not managed to completely crush the culture of childhood".
"We have created a world in which children are more or less prevented from congregating in physical space without an adult, but children have found another way. They get together in cyberspace. They play games and communicate over the internet. They create their own rules and culture and ways of being with others over the internet," he told me.
He says older children share thoughts and feelings with friends through texting and social media, yet the hue and cry we keep hearing from so many educators and "parenting experts" now is that we must ban or limit children's screen time.
"Yes, if we all did that, while still banning them from public spaces without adult supervision, we would finally succeed in destroying the culture of childhood and prevent children from educating themselves in the way they have always done," he warned.
He says there is no proof video games are bad for psychological well-being in children. "By now, many dozens of studies have examined psychological correlates and consequences of video gaming and, taken as a whole, the results overwhelmingly support the idea that video gaming produces many of the same kinds of benefits as other forms of play," he said.
Prior to my new mindset, constant negative media coverage and also other parents moaning (myself included) had backed up my negative bias against 'Fortnite'. In fact my sister's child even brought a letter home from primary school forbidding the game to be played at home and also banning any talk about 'Fortnite' in school. Which sounds like a surefire way to get kids interested. When my son's teacher expressed her concern that my son talked about the game a lot in school this just added to my 'Fortnite' free-floating anxiety. But now, unlike the Duke of Sussex, I know it's not a problem - kids will always get obsessed with stuff. When I was 10 it was fancy paper. It's just the topic has changed and we need to let our children experience the world as it is now.
'Fortnite' requires skill. These days you'll find me actually suggesting my son plays if he has had a stressful day or is fighting with his siblings. I also sat down once and played, which also added to my new-found 'Fortnite' appreciation.
If you're not acquainted here's what happens. There is a 'free' version of 'Fortnite' called 'Battle Royale'. You can play by yourself or in squads of two or four. The goal is to be the last man or group standing out of 100 to be awarded a win.
To stay alive you harvest materials with your pickaxe to defend yourself, move around the map and scavenge for weapons to kill others. There is an ever-encroaching storm you dodge. I would say it definitely teaches resourcefulness, map navigation and good hand-eye co-ordination, and most importantly it gives you more empathy as you immediately realise why your child can't stop suddenly and come to the dinner table. If you are part of a squad it's not OK to suddenly drop tools to go eat your macaroni cheese. Now I always give a 15-minute warning.
'Fortnite' does not have to be a family battlefield. See it for what it is. A place for kids to hang out without parents listening and actually it's probably a phase. You could set sensible limits, for instance no playing on weekdays, but outside of these limits, don't freak out if that's all they want to do. Once they get a bit older and can go to the park on their own with their mates they will most probably prefer to do that.