Every parent wants to do right by their child. Developing these bewildered little primates into kind, admirable human beings is hard work, and curating your youngsters' exposure to popular culture will always be part of that task. In 2019, one of the most powerful cultural forces in a young person's life is likely to be the online video game "Fortnite," and never more since last weekend's Fortnite World Cup, in which a 16-year-old boy named Kyle "Bugha" Giersdorf walked away with the top trophy and $3 million in prize money.
As in any sport, most players will never sniff the professional ranks, though Giersdorf's success will doubtless inspire young people to follow, if they haven't already. A survey conducted by Common Sense Media last year found that 75 percent of teen boys and 47 percent of teen girls had played "Fortnite," and a quarter of their parents worried about the time their children spent with the game. Parenting and child psychology websites abound with articles geared toward grown-ups worried about what their children might learn spending hours immersed in environments defined by looting and deadly melees. Any activity that dominates kids' free time naturally spurs parental concern. But "Fortnite" and games like it are actually a valuable antidote to worrisome trends such as a decline in unstructured playtime in open spaces and an international epidemic of loneliness.
It's no surprise that "Fortnite" has become so popular among children and teenagers. It's a bloodless third-person game, which means players see the action through a broader perspective rather than just the point of view of the character they are inhabiting. "Fortnite" has a bright and clean visual style, a wealth of unlockable dances and cosmetic accessories players can use to express themselves in-game, and unlimited, cost-free gameplay. Using the enormously successful "Battle Royale" model, in which up to 100 players roam across a vast landscape shooting each other until one stands triumphant, "Fortnite" has more than 250 million registered players and brings in $3 billion a year for its developer, Epic Games, largely on sales of cosmetic items.
The most important thing to know about games such as "Fortnite," however, isn't how much time your kids spend online, it's what they're doing there. Kids gather with their friends in "Fortnite" the same way prior generations might have mustered themselves into an "E.T."-style cycling gang — occupying sectors of the game's ever-changing island map the way they once monopolized backyard courts and diamonds. They team up to make their way across a landscape of other players who may fight or flee or fortify, who represent challenges conquerable through improvisation and teamwork. Each round becomes a fresh story, a new adventure not unlike a session of "Dungeons & Dragons" or any other system of improvised narrative.
In nearly two years since "Fortnite Battle Royale" launched, the nature of the game has markedly changed. Software companies lose control of online structures the moment they become popular; the best developers furnish their communities with tools they can use to challenge themselves and grow. Epic Games' early innovations, such as guided missile launchers, fell flat before a youthful audience less interested in efficient killing than in new experiences. Since then the developers have focused on jump pads, teleportation rifts, and drivable vehicles like golf carts and airplanes. "Fortnite" players want new ways to interact with and traverse the environment, not new ways to kill each other. The best players distinguish themselves not only with pristine aim but cunning and creativity.
The end result is a prime example of what game critics and academics refer to as a "third place": locations, in the real world or online, separate from home, school or work, where people choose to spend their time. Online games allow children to express themselves without fear of supervision from parents who value academics over self-expression or the censure that powers so many social media networks and makes even ephemeral embarrassments feel chiseled in stone. Faced with increasing pressure from their elders and diminished social resources in their neighborhoods, children who feel isolated by the modern world often find valuable resources in online games.
If you're a parent inclined to limit screen time, it's worth taking a deep breath. Rather than treating games such as "Fortnite" as the enemy, make time to ask your kid to show you what they're building there. Ask about the friends they've made and the skills they've learned. The problem isn't "Fortnite," and it never has been. Rather, if you want to get your kids offline, the best way to do it isn't to ban a video game but to supply alternative "third places" for youngsters desperate, as many of us once were, to safely spread their wings.
Anthony R. Palumbi is an author and game writer based in Sacramento, California.