Parenting From The Trenches On Fortnite Island

Fortnite has taken on epidemic qualities.

We didn’t see one of my eleven-year-old son’s friends all last summer. We thought maybe he moved. But once school started again, we found out he’d just been playing Fortnite.

If you’re a parent of a teen or tween, chances are extremely good Fortnite is all you hear about. With over 200 Million registered users, Fortnite Nation is the 6th most populated on the Planet, just ahead of Pakistan.

I held out as long as possible before giving in to the bambi-eyed pleas of of my son and allowed him to download the free game. The secondhand social pressure to let him fit-in was oddly intense.

Regardless of the special conditions I set forth at the beginning— I now sound exactly like every other parent I talk to about Fortnite when I say, “It’s all he cares about.”

My kid now chooses to spend all his free time, money and mental horsepower on “The Island”, and as far as I can tell, so do all his friends.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that when he isn’t playing Fortnite, he’s watching YouTubers play it, talking about it, thinking about it, and probably dreaming about it.

Did Epic Games name it “Fortnite” because the infection takes just “two weeks” and your kid becomes a fiend?

Look Familiar?

By next summer, will he chose the basement over baseball? The island over the beach? Based on the compelling nature of tech, will he even have much choice in the matter?

What are we doing with this generation of our beloved boys who spend their days shooting at each other on Fortnite Island?

The Art Of War

Take a moment and watch your son play. It can be fascinating. When you observe an animal in his native habitat, you see a side of them not displayed in captivity.

He’ll be incredibly enthusiastic, competitive and strategic. You’ll learn the lingo-uage and be able to speak modern “kid.” You’ll understand the stupid dances, and notice kids and NFLers doing them everywhere.

Then try this — Next time your kid is griping, tell him to “Drink a Chug-Chug”. His expression will be amusing.

Part of me wants to engage my beloved boy wherever he’s at right now. I want to know my son. I want him to know he can talk to me about anything.

Part of me wants to give himThe Art Of War’ for Christmas, discuss strategy, and support his passion.

But I also can not ignore the Addictive side of technology.

It isn’t 2011 anymore — the technological landscape has changed — and it’s only getting crazier.

I find it scary that the “Attention Economy” is intentionally designed to be as addictive as possible.

The dopaminergic-pathways involved in addictive tech-design lead Tristan Harris and other Silicon Valley alumni in the Tech Backlash against the “FAANG” stock types, with dissertations explaining how “Your smartphone is a Slot Machine.”

The obvious implication is that most people would never let their kids play slots — yet toddlers are handed iPads and smartphones.

The implication is that Tech wreaks havoc on the hardwired dopamine reward pathways of our ancient Limbic systems, preying on our humanity in a way that we pretty much can’t avoid. Unless we just avoid tech.

Then there’s the growing number of stories about Fortnite players going into rehab for compulsive gaming.

And in June 2018, the World Health Organization recognized “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition for the first time, defining it as “compulsive playing that negatively impacts other parts of life.”

Part of me wants to be a total Ludite and move to Walden Pond.

I’m Ralphie’s Dad

Part of my problem is that I played video games when I was a kid.

As a product of the 80’s, I’m from that first generation of gamers. My video game career began with the original release of Nintendo and carried until after College.

I shit you not — I once rushed for over 1,000 yards in a single game with Bo Jackson in Super Tecmo Bowl. You can’t do that unless you know what a video game binge looks like.

Thus, I’m Ralphie’s Dad.

Out one side of my mouth, I’m saying, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Out the other, “I had one when I was a boy.”

When I finally gave up video games, it wasn’t because they weren’t fun — it was because I woke up to the fact that during each precious moment of time I wasted actualizing the potential of my on-screen Avatar — the real world sat waiting.

And the stakes are even higher now, but the landscape has changed. You can get a College scholarship for Gaming.

The top Gamers on YouTube are earning Millions of dollars. There are Professional ESports Leagues with their own arenas, and online Twitch Tournaments raking in cash.

I’ve watched a few of these Pro Gamers, and they can do some crazy shit, but I will never call them Athletes. Not as long as your chair is still killing you.

The Washington Post reported that scouts and Professional Sports teams are now inquiring into Athletes’ gaming habits. Teams are concerned about their investments after a high NHL draft pick turned into a bust “because he was “addicted” to Fortnite.”

Son is extremely tired on Monday morning despite doing nothing but play video games on Sunday? “One agent who represents NBA players noted he heard concerns this past season of fatigued players from team personnel. We used to be worried about drinking, but now it’s video games.”

Tactical Anecdotes

Sometimes I get scared and think I should just bond with my son. Meet him where he’s at. But then I worry he’ll associate Dad’s love with video gaming.

Sometimes when he’s in the middle of a game and the call for dinner or bed is ignored — I forget that sage parenting advice to “React, but don’t overreact” — and lose my shit.

When necessary, I simply take away the controllers for a few days of enforced AFK. That helps reset the authority structure of the house IRL.

Will he grow up and play video games as a way to spite his old man?

It’s hard to predict what the right move is, today and for the future.

Without a handbook, I try to be consistent, and reiterate what comes first before Fortnite.

Luckily, I’ve found the flip side of being a fiend is that he’ll do just about anything to get more Fortnite.

Parents, use this to your advantage. Leverage that shit. School work, chores, clean plate, clean room, extra division, run a mile, Tae Bo — whatever.

I’ve become content when we aren’t playing video games, regardless of what that is. I never thought I’d worry about his activity level.

Keep them in sports. Send them outside. Be on the constant lookout for tech-free moments. And take away the damn controllers whenever you want.

He may piss and moan, but remind him the real world (and its real rewards) sits waiting.

Flow States and Addictive Design

The purpose of life might be Flow States — those beautiful moments where the task is perfectly challenging and we pleasantly lose all track of time.

I believe Flow is “the bliss” Joseph Campbell famously suggested we follow.

I believe Flow is the creative nexus — “The Zone” — that all athletes and artists continually chase.

Flow is also the Holy Grail for Game Designers. Fortnite is designed to put players into The Zone in order to fuel and sustain long periods of game play.

Elements in Fortnite that showcase the textbook levers of addictive design include:

  • The game’s bright color pallet.
  • The series of random glowing Treasure Chests that deliver variable rewards akin to BF Skinner’s famous “Skinner Box.”
  • Open-ended, 24-hr game play.
  • Social pressure to be successful when comparing accomplishments.
  • Social pressure to reciprocate friend requests and invites.
  • “Challenges” which can be completed for XP, and sometimes V-Bucks (the in game currency) that unlock variable rewards, like new gear and “skins” for your Avatar.
  • Never-ending “Leveling-up” the false hope that one can reach an end point.
  • Constant updates, Map changes, New Seasons FOMO.

My favorite cartoon growing up was G.I. Joe, and — talk about “shooter games” — our favorite game was “Guns”, aka “Cops and Robbers” aka “Cowboys and Indians”.

Nothing was better than running around the yard pretending to shoot each other.

My father once said, “Take away a kid’s gun and he’ll just pick up a stick. Take away the kid’s stick and he’ll just use his finger as a pistol.”

There’s something cooked into us at a deep level.

I’ve explored these depths in the work of Dr. Jordan Peterson who determined certain childhood pursuits (he used skateboarding) are not idle wastes of time — but all about the pursuit of competency and building general pathways to mastery, which thus provides ultimate safety.

Which underscores the biological purpose for Dopamine — to keep us searching for the next morsel of sustenance and greater safety.

But the obvious difference between skateboarding and video games is that screens are docile. So perhaps then my great concern about Fortnite boils down to the screen time.

Kids may strategize and talk on their headsets, sure — but they stay at home and sit on their asses to do it, right?

A synergistic mind-body-spirit matrix defining a complete human being requires an engaged body. One can’t neglect their pesky meat suit forever.

In conclusion, I feel the right starting point is to educate myself and my kids. And to set a good example with my own screen time and phone manners — especially in their presence.

I want to teach them to see the design elements of the game (and other media), specifically pointing out the things which are purposely addictive.

Awareness alone pulls back the curtain on the realities of Tech.

Now you know. And, to paraphrase G.I. Joe, knowing is half the Battle Royale.

God Speed, Fortnite Parent.

Pattern recognition is the task of the Artist. This is the pattern recognition you’re looking for.

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