Apparently, the video game Fortnite has become even more of a phenomenon than I was aware as the parent of a boy in exactly the target demographic. It’s reached the point of alerting parents to the psychological tools that game designers (like advertisers and political advocates) deploy to nudge people toward certain types of this behavior. In the case of Fortnite, it’s more an effort to cause addiction than action.
On his blog, Rod Dreher posts and responds to the better part of a Wall Street Journal article that bears the title “How Fortnite Triggered an Unwinnable War Between Parents and Their Boys.” Dreher sums up his underlying reaction thus:
Here’s what I genuinely do not understand: why so many parents are afraid to be parents. Why did those people have to go to a public meeting to find out what to do about Fortnite addiction in their boys? Pull the plug on it, and don’t look back! Is it really that hard to know the answer? The moms and dads in this story despise the effects this game has on their boys. Toby, for example, is a sweet kid normally, but when he’s on Fortnite, it’s like the game possesses him. But his mom would “rather not fight about it,” so he gets his way.
Dreher may be asking his question one step beyond where it actually applies. Maybe these kids escalate hostilities with their parents on behalf of the video game because they know the adults won’t pull the plug. By the time your child is swearing at you, he already senses that he’s won. Sons who know the danger of upping the ante don’t do it.
The genuine problem that these parents face is that they are encountering not a problem with a particular video game, but evidence that they have to rewind much of what they’ve been doing. In most cases, the solution probably means a significant lifestyle change for the whole family.
Along similar lines, I wonder how much of this modern problem is a function of having so few children in each family and in each neighborhood. The Wall Street Journal article relates the story of parents who finally unplugged the game and sent their son outside only to watch him ride his scooter up and down the lonely block looking for someone to play with. Whatever children might have lived in the neighborhood might have been inside on their own game sets.
By contrast, my own kids can always play with each other; that’s what they are doing as I type. As an only child, I can attest that when you have only one, he or she is much more dependent on other families and the habits and rules of their families.
Culturally, we’re in a tough spot… balancing amazing technology that opens up worlds of possibilities with our basic human needs and natures. Probably the biggest principle that we must assert is that standards for children should be different from those for adults, and our society should reinforce that principle rather than constantly attack it.
When Fortnite was still new, I found myself being drawn into it along with my son and had much the same reaction that I had to World of Warcraft some years before. As an adult with broad interests and substantial responsibilities, I can sense the effort required to learn the skills necessary to win these games. I therefore make the rational decision that I’m not going to invest the time to practice building fake things or shooting imaginary guns rather than doing real things that will improve my life tangibly. And if one isn’t willing to put in that effort, dabbling isn’t all that fun.
With this experience, an adult must wonder: What about kids who haven’t learned to have that level of self control?
This leads to a deeper question about how one learns self control. Answers might vary from person to person, but for me, it all comes down to having a larger meaning and purpose.
Oddly, given the Christian focus of his writing, Dreher leaves this question entirely out of his post. He almost tacitly concedes that the purpose of childhood is simply to fill time one way or another while absorbing the world.
What we need — perhaps as part of the lifestyle change mentioned above — is to supply for our children that thing that they’d rather do and show them through our own behavior why they should want to do it.