To Fortnite or Not to Fortnite…That is the Question!

There is an ongoing debate about whether or not the video game Fortnite is something that HELPS or HURTS our kids. Let me begin by saying I am not here to settle that debate! However, I am going to attempt to lay out my findings as an educational psychologist and parent of young (and teen) children, mostly as a result of an increase in parents asking about whether or not they should let their child start to play this game!

First let’s talk about what it is..if you have children older than 5 you have probably heard about Fortnite. Even if you don’t have it in your house, they hear about it from friends at school and come home sharing some of the information they have learned. You might even see them doing the dances associated with the games.The goal of the game is pretty simple: BE THE LAST ONE ALIVE! The game begins in a waiting room while everyone joins (they need 100 players to start) and during hat time, the players show off their dance moves and costumes. Once they hit the 100 mark everyone is dropped onto an island and they begin by rushing to gather supplies then fight to the end. Although the game is free, throughout the game you have the opportunity to purchase things (in-app purchases) that give you a leg up.

So what’s so bad about this? Well some would say it isn’t bad at all. In fact, some think there are many positive aspects associated with Fortnite. It has been argued that this game does a great job at teaching and practicing problem solving and collaboration skills. Teaching kids how to manage each person’s strengths and weaknesses to work together as a team. Additionally, there are others that praise it for being an all inclusive game that evens the playing field for anyone playing (gender, culture, etc).

Then why not just get it for your kid? Well..hold on…there is also some interesting research out there on the negative impact it may have. First, the element of addiction with video games is a real one. See, games like Fortnite have various elements that encourage to play and even more importantly, BUY more things while playing. The game is built on a Random reward format. This is a type of behavior modification tool that has been found to be VERY effective for increasing behaviors (in this case purchases and continued play). By randomly rewarding players during the game, it acts like a virtual slot machine which in turn jacks up their “feel good” brain chemicals and wants them to play more to get the next reward since they don’t know when it might be coming. It could be one minute or 30 minutes….either way….it is worth the wait, so they keep playing.

It also possesses the Near Misses Effect a term referenced by Jamie Madigan (author of Getting Gamers) . This states that you don’t have to win to feel a similar level of excitement and satisfaction ..you just have to get CLOSE to winning, which often happens in this game. This keeps kids coming back for more.

So these things, in general, can be a challenging aspect for anyone playing but for children and teens, it is even more of a red flag. WHY? Because their brains are in the “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” mode so the parts our adult brains, that are developed to manage and control these urges to continue playing, are not yet developed in children and teens. The frontal lobe of the brain is in charge of helping us regulate our thinking, behavior, and actions. It is in charge of things like self regulation, impulse control, problem solving, and attention. So when young children start to play…and KEEP playing Fortnite (and games like it), they often do not have the skills to be able to inhibit themselves from buying things or even stop playing because the chemical brain response is stronger than their ability to manage it since that part of their brain has not fully developed. In addition, even if they had some emerging skills in this area, the game’s format doesn’t allow them to PAUSE as it has so many people fighting to win that if you take a moment to stop you die. This causes a type of tunnel vision that doesn’t allow them to pause for questions, dinner, or even to go to the bathroom once they start or else they risk losing ground and the game. This completely contradicts our goal of helping them develop their ability to stop, think, and react in certain situations.

Here is the bottom line…
Placing the blame on this game or any game for challenges that our kids face is dangerous. There are pros and cons for playing Fortnite. If you feel your child is cognitively mature enough to start playing, then I would encourage you play with them, at least in the beginning, to help point out the problem solving and collaboration opportunities. It would also give you a chance to open a conversation about what might be happening each time they get a REWARD in the game. Start with time limits so it is not a battle later and definitely introduce EARNED screen time so that it becomes something that is a privilege and not perceived as a right.

That being said, there is enough research out there supporting a delay in introduction to screens as well as some solid support for minimizing exposure time to video games to children that we have chosen, as a family, to not include Fortnite just quite yet…but every family, child, and household is different so hopefully this little blip on the information map that is out there will help you frame your response when you son or daughter comes to you and says…

Can I get FORTNITE? EVERYONE is playing it at school!

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http://www.psychologyofgames.com/2016/09/the-near-miss-effect-and-game-rewards/

https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/08/08/no-fortnite-isnt-rotting-kids-brains-it.html

http://www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2018/08/24/fortnite-habit-kid-problem