The voices of my son and his buddies echo in our upstairs hallway as they play. I hear them directing each other frantically: “Go to the left!” “Get him! Behind you!” Then my son lets out a celebratory shriek. Victory! He’s won his first illusive Battle Royal with three of his closest friends — all of them playing from their own houses around town, but rejoicing in unison thanks to the beauty of technology.
He was a champion at last, after months of begging and pleading with me for permission to participate in this highly popular pastime, a parenting decision that has left me a bit uneasy in moments, and my son’s favorite game. I’m speaking, of course, of Fortnite.
If you aren’t at the Fornite stage yet, it is the current chart-topping video game for young and adolescent boys. It is a fantasy, (arguably) non gruesome, last-man-standing game that can be played individually or in teams. And it wasn’t an easy choice, allowing him to play. But after some diligent research, good teacher reports, and a powerfully persuasive oral presentation from the prospective player himself, I decided it was time. Now, a couple of months and one birthday later, he is fully equipped with an Xbox bedroom setup complete with a gaming chair and computer monitor. You see, my toxic trait is that I go all-in. I’m a consumer and a cheerleader of interests so it escalated quickly, okay?! I’m not proud. And today I sit here, him still a “noob” for all gaming intents and purposes, and my feelings on the whole thing are pretty mixed.
I love that Fortnite can be used as a tool to connect with friends. It’s nice to have a virtual place for kids to connect during sick days, rain outs, and cold winter months. And I know all of the friends he is playing with online. I know their parents, I have a basic understanding of their family values, and I feel comfortable having him engage in this gaming world with these chosen pals.
But of course I had to set limits. We created an earned gaming schedule and, most importantly, put a strict rule in place allowing for zero communication with non-friend gamers. I learned the importance of this pretty quickly, overhearing some randomly chosen teammates talking to one another using wildly inappropriate language. So today, we allow the sound to be on for controlled, small, invite-only games. Otherwise, the game must be put on mute, and he is allowed to connect with his real friends via Kids Messenger video chat during the game. It becomes a bit of an electronic cluster, but a much preferred workaround to the alternative.
And there are other benefits, too. I love to see the joy on his face as he earns new titles and forges new virtual territories. He laughs, cheers, and troubleshoots. Sometimes he even includes me, asking me to watch him as he proudly teaches me things about his electronic universe. And it has become an excellent reward, a carrot that I can dangle for good behavior. It is something he earns, and something we can take away that has a real impact — which I have been struggling to find at this stage.
But there are things that still leave me feeling unsettled.
I don’t love that there are so many in-game purchase options, clearly distinguishing the players who are spending for their experience and those who are not. Each gaming avatar comes with one outfit, or “skin” as it is called. But over time, gamers collect hundreds. Current technology allows for incredible detail and enhancements, and new skins are available every week. And while you can take the time to earn battle stars to save up for them, you can also buy them using “V-bucks” for a quick fix. Each player’s collection of skins creates a weird hierarchy among friends and in the gaming community. So on top of the general annoyance about fielding constant “v-bucks” requests, the whole thing just feels gross.
And I am obviously concerned with the violent content. In his presentation, my son explained that there was no blood or gore, which helped his argument, although I am not sure why — players still eliminate enemies using their arsenal of collected weapons.
Studies done internationally conclude that engaging in gaming is not the catalyst of violent behavior. I also have my own personal experience, growing up in a family that allowed video games. My two younger brothers, both very big gamers as kids, grew up to be well-adjusted, non-violent adults. I firmly believe that family values, love, and parental connection much outweigh any potential negative impacts of games, movies, and the like.
But still, I am nervous. I am nervous of the impact that too much screen time will on my kids’ brains. I am worried about the inevitable (and normal) defiance of some of the rules that we have set up around the game, and my son pushing boundaries without my knowledge. And I am fearful of how these games ultimately impact his growing and maturing male mind at a time where creating empathetic, kind, softer men feels extremely important.
Basically, I am still figuring it out. I definitely do not have the perfect plan in place, but I am working with him to create space that can feel fair, fun, and safe. And I kind of feel like this is just the onramp to a long road of parenting decisions that leave me feeling a little uneasy — like the inevitable introduction to the Internet, phones, and social media. Certainly the pre-teen and teen years will present a lot of questionable decisions and choices, so I plan to work with him to navigate it all in a way that works for both of us, starting with this.
Samm D. is an ex-lawyer and mom of four who swears a lot.