I’ve been playing videogames for pretty much my whole life. I started with Pong in my neighbour’s basement way back in kindergarten and then moved on to Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 in elementary school. I traded floppy disks filled with dozens of computer games with my friends in middle school, while Nintendo ruled the day in high school and university. I even spent a good chunk of my twenties working as a game reviewer for a handful of magazines and websites. To this day (well into my forties!), I spend a couple of hours each week relaxing on the couch with my PlayStation or Nintendo Switch.
So it goes without saying that I think videogames are pretty great. At their best, they put players in imaginative worlds filled with branching stories, head-scratching puzzles, and endless opportunities for creative expression. They’re also just really, really fun!
Clearly, many of our students feel the same way, particularly when it comes to Fortnite. For the past few months, the halls of KCS have been dominated by Fortnite dances and play-by-play breakdowns of the previous night’s games. Some of our older students have even talked about the fact that their obsession with the game has had a detrimental effect on their homework, socializing, and sleep. But these types of conversations aren’t just happening upstairs in the Grade 7 and 8 hallway. They’re happening a lot in Grade 4 and 5, and even sometimes in Grade 1. And that’s a real concern.
Most parents and educators (particularly those of us of a certain age) assume that videogames are designed specifically for children, so, therefore, they must be perfectly appropriate for all ages. After all, we played Super Mario when we were little and we turned out alright! It’s just a game, no big deal!
The trouble is, as is the case for the vast majority of games on the market today, Fortnite is not designed for children. I can understand why many people think it is. On the surface it seems totally harmless. It’s full of candy-coloured characters doing silly dances and breaking open llama piñatas. It looks like a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. So of course we assume it’s meant for kids.
But at the end of the day, it’s a profoundly violent piece of entertainment. After all, the entire point of the game is that 100 people land on an island, and then 99 of those people get killed. The characters may look adorable, but they are only there to shoot each other in the head. Also, the other 99 people you play against are real people, most of whom have microphones on. So you end up listening to a lot of strangers saying a lot of really toxic stuff. (Take it from someone who has played a few multiplayer games – online gaming chatter is nothing short of a cesspool of sexism, racism, homophobia, and profanity.) Given all this, it’s no surprise that the game industry’s own rating system, the ESRB, gave Fortnite a “Teen” rating, which means it is considered suitable for ages 13 and up.
Now, I recognize that every parent (myself included) has to make choices when it comes to their child’s media diet. Parenting is the hardest job in the world, and it doesn’t come with an instruction manual. I regularly find myself staring down tough choices that seem to have no easy answer. Do I let my twelve-year-old daughter have an Instagram account? Should I let my six-year-old watch a Harry Potter movie? I have spent most of my adult life studying child development, but when it comes to my own kids, I’m usually just making my best guess.
So I’m certainly not intending to come off as judgmental or all-knowing. But I will offer the one piece of advice that I have found works best for me – educate yourself on the media your children are consuming. When my daughters ask for a new game, I take ten minutes and do a little research. My first step is always the ESRB website, where you can get a simple breakdown on the rating given to every game out there. I usually follow this up with a visit to Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that provides detailed reviews and analysis of most games, along with movies, television show, books, and apps (for the record, they also give Fortnite a 13+ rating). Sometimes I go to Metacritic, an aggregate site that pulls reviews from a number of different online sources. If after all that I decide to give the game a shot, I download it and then simply sit down with my kids to watch them play it for a half-hour. If at the end of that time I’m still feeling comfortable with the game, then we’re good to go!
Ultimately, it’s all about making informed choices as a parent. When it comes to videogames, it’s easy to fall into the “it’s just a game” trap. But if you take the time to learn about what your kids are playing, you can help them make good choices when it comes to digital media and gaming. Do your homework, pay attention to what’s on their screens, and engage in regular conversations about what they are playing. Because while parenting isn’t child’s play, their games certainly should be.