15.3 C
New York
Monday, April 15, 2024

‘Wait, Sylvie’s Dad Plays?!’ The Joy of Fortnite Parenting

I'm in the end stages of a Fortnite battle royale. The game's lethal storm circle is tightening around the combat zone, a sleepy beach town with a bubblegum-pink ice cream parlor, and the handful of remaining squads are duking it out for survival. My three teammates, who are all children, are taking intense fire. One squares off with an especially ruthless competitor and is promptly dispatched. “Watch out, that kid is sweaty,” he warns. Another falls to a grenade burst with a cry of “I'm knocked!” A third pleads for the Fortnite equivalent of a field medic: “Rez me!”

And then—suddenly, alarmingly—the game is in my hands.


A torrent of instructions, piped out in shrill voices, comes crackling through my headset. As I chug a health-restoring Shield Potion, a grinning gold-crowned skeleton drops in front of me, taking aim with a Pump Shotgun. I try to switch back to my weapon, but my fingers fumble and I pull out a healing Bandage Bazooka instead. “What?!” my squad mates cry in unison as I'm eliminated. “He was a bot!” It's the worst put-down in the Fortnite lexicon: A bot, in this case, isn't an AI but simply a human who sucks at playing.

Then, through the headset, I overhear a deeper, more authoritative voice on someone's audio feed.

“Ollie, that was your last game.”

“Dad! Please one more?”


When my 11-year-old daughter, Sylvie, began asking earlier this year to play Fortnite, I'd said no. She'd been largely ensconced in the world of Minecraft, with its building-not-killing educational gloss. I had only a vague awareness of the cultural colossus that is Fortnite, but I reflexively wrote it off as too violent, too exposed to a toxic online world. My wife also objected, fearing a nightmare carnival of gore. Sylvie tried to assuage our concerns with such parsings as “You don't see heads explode.” After an intense lobbying campaign, we finally relented. But I told her I'd join her at first, like some UN peacekeeper, to make sure nothing strange or unsettling was going on.

Our initial foray was hesitant. At that point, we had one Xbox and no headset, so she'd play a round of battle royale in Solo mode, then I'd play one, and we'd see who could survive longer. With 99 other combatants in the game, including a whole lot of “sweats,” we rarely lasted more than a few minutes.

Even as I tried to dispassionately evaluate the gameplay (the violence, I concluded, was acceptably cartoonish), I felt a vestigial itch. At age 52, I'm already getting junk mail from the AARP. But I'm also part of the first generation raised on video games; at my daughter's age, I had an Intellivision in my living room and a stockpile of loose quarters for the arcade. As an adult, I revisited video games at key junctures: Metal Gear Solid, Grand Theft Auto, Halo. But when my daughter arrived, my free time evaporated in a manic fugue of playdates, pediatrician visits, and the competitive adulting of Brooklyn parenthood. Now, under the guise of fatherly supervision, I again had a controller in hand.

After a few days in Solo mode, we graduated to Duos. This required playing together in split screen, which turned out to be too much of a strain on my eyes and attention. And so I bought a Nintendo Switch—ostensibly as a reward for Sylvie's stellar academic performance, but also because I wanted the Xbox all to myself.

Once we were on our way to becoming a reasonably competent pair, the door opened to squads. Before I even really knew what was happening, I was being drafted onto teams with her friends.

“Who's Cubic Racer?” some kid would squeak, seeing my randomly assigned user name on the screen.

“Uh,” my daughter would reply, “my dad.”

A moment's pause, and then: “Oh. Cool.”

I had been given a strange window into the lives of these fifth-graders—their language, gossip, social dynamics, personalities. (Apart from Sylvie, I'll refer to them all by pseudonyms.) There was dependable Aidan, who always had your back; bossy Owen, constantly clamoring to be given the best weapons; quirky Henry, who liked to “emote” and “meme” as much as battle. They were boisterous and filled with braggadocio but almost heartbreakingly innocent. On the rare occasions when someone swore, you could virtually feel the nervous titter ripple through the ether.


I also discovered that I was sometimes privy to the lives of their parents. Through voice chat, which picks up the ambient rustle of the house, I heard it all—the endless negotiations for more playing time, the clatter of dishes, adults talking grimly about something in that day's New York Times. One kid, on weekend mornings, always sounded as though he was in a crowded room, which at first I chalked up to hypersocial parents. It turned out he was playing at the gym while they worked out.

At times I felt like a field biologist, scribbling notes on my subjects from the safety of a hide. At other times I felt like, well, a weirdo. When the father of Jean-Luc, a kid in the French immersion program at my daughter's public school, asked him who he was playing with, I could almost see the raised eyebrow on the other end when he replied “le père de Sylvie.” This was shaky ground.

But the lack of parents was, in a sense, a curious disconnect. In The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, the researcher Jordan Shapiro notes that parents are active participants in most areas of our kids' lives: We correct their table manners, arbitrate their sibling squabbles, supervise their homework. “But when they're playing Fortnite,” he writes, “we leave them to their own devices.”

Even as the first video game generation hits middle age, the idea of adult participation is still seen as vaguely disreputable, or simply beyond the cohort's abilities. On places like Reddit, there are anxious queries: “Is it weird to play Fortnite in your mid-30s?” In one YouTube video, a group of “senior citizens” (one guy didn't look much older than I am) are handed controllers and asked to play Fortnite for the first time, with particularly plodding results. Without even knowing it, I'd already been parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Adam Driver plays a hapless Gen X dad with sensible glasses and a business shirt (user name “Williammctavish1972”) who joins Fortnite in hopes of finding “a fun bonding activity” with his 11-year-old son. “Let's get a Fortnite!” he declares.

Certainly there's something funny about a middle-aged dad trying to squad up with a bunch of kids. But I'd like to suggest that, rather than simply monitoring your child's gaming activity, you should occasionally be joining in.

For the past few years, I've been working on a book, called Beginners, about learning new skills at any age. What got me started on it was the sudden realization, as I took my daughter to what seemed an endless round of swim classes, soccer games, chess tournaments, and piano lessons, that it had been eons since I'd learned anything new. Like most of the other parents, I'd sit on the sidelines or in the bleachers immersed in my phone.

And so I'd vowed to acquire some new skills, the way she was. It had never occurred to me, however, that Fortnite could be one of them. I didn't think of video games as having any sort of benefit. Rather, they were something I'd more or less survived, as a loosely supervised latchkey kid. An activity like chess, by contrast, had a veneer of academic respectability; the landing page for my daughter's school had a picture of kids hovering over boards.

Chess, the argument went, was a way to practice all sorts of important abilities—decisionmaking, patience, resource allocation. But so, I realized, was Fortnite. You had to pick a strategic place to parachute down at the beginning of a battle; you had to choose what equipment to include in your “loadout” and what to leave behind; you had to calculate how much storm damage you could take. A chess enthusiast might memorize dozens of time-honored opening gambits, but was that so different from gleaning strategies from pro streamers on Twitch?

No doubt, Fortnite could be addictive. But so could chess: Marcel Duchamp quit making art to play it. (The best games always border on obsession.) And sure, Fortnite could be mindless. But you could also be mindful about it. Alex Pang, the founder of the consultancy Strategy and Rest and the author of The Distraction Addiction, tells me that when he played video games with his young children, he tried to teach them to do more than “just mashing the buttons.” In the early Call of Duty, he recalls, you could participate as a Russian infantryman in World War II. “It was super clear that you were going to die,” Pang says. “Fundamentally, you knew your life did not matter.” He found this “compelling and antiheroic,” an example of how “games can actually raise questions.”


It's not as though Sylvie and I discussed the problem of free will as we dodged RPG rounds. For the most part, our interactions weren't nearly so high-minded. We stole each other's kills and squabbled over loot. She badgered me for V-Bucks so she could buy her character new baubles in the Item Shop. But sometimes, after playing, we'd go for a walk and analyze how we were able to notch a dub—Fortnite-speak for a win—or how we might have done better. We'd assess the quality of newly introduced weapons. (The best were OP, for “overpowering,” but often the makers of Fortnite would later “nerf” them for being too OP.) She'd chide me for trying to improve by battling more, rather than by practicing in Creative mode—which suddenly made her open to hearing about the late Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson's theories of “deliberate practice.” (Like many kids, she had a built-in filter against my teachable moments.) We actually were, per Adam Driver's character, bonding.

And in our Fortnite games I saw her cultivate prowess. I'm not talking merely about the widely discussed perceptual and cognitive benefits of video games, which include an improved ability to track objects in space and tune out cognitive “distractors.” I'm talking about that suite of abilities sometimes referred to as “21st-century skills”: imaginatively solving open-ended problems, working collaboratively in teams, synthesizing complex information streams. “Unfortunately, in most formal education settings, we're not emphasizing those very much,” argues Eric Klopfer, who directs the Education Arcade at MIT. “Just playing Fortnite doesn't necessarily give you those skills—but playing Fortnite in the right way, with the right people, is certainly a good step in that direction.”

Indeed, as I played in my daughter's squads, or just listened to her games while I made dinner, I witnessed intense negotiations with her largely male teammates. (Games with her female friends sounded a lot more collaborative.) I heard her working in tandem to devise strategies, tactfully soliciting input or advancing her own opinion, deftly delegating responsibilities. At times it seemed less like a game than a virtual workplace. As the writer Andi Zeisler joked on Twitter, “My kid is always playing Fortnite with his friends on my phone, and I cannot see the appeal; it's literally just a conference call with occasional shooting.”

But this wasn't just about seeding the managerial skills of some future knowledge worker. Playing video games with your kids is a useful pedagogical experience in and of itself. As Pang points out, games provide a remarkably level ground for children and adults. “It's very hard for most 9-year-olds to play tennis against you,” he says. “But when you're playing Mario Kart or Star Wars: Battlefront, you can be much more evenly matched.” Kids can assume, briefly and unusually, the role of masters, with adults like me put in the uncomfortable (and yet exhilarating) position of novice. This can be empowering on both sides: Adults get to see their kids as teachers, while kids get to see their parents struggling to learn something.

It's not that traditional roles never stepped in. Sometimes, playing Duos, Sylvie would stray far from me and get eliminated. I'd then try to explain why, strategically, it might be better if we stuck closer together. “You're such a bot!” she'd yell. I was tempted to blame these outbursts on raging tweener hormones, but it was hard not to see the symbolism: Before long, she'd want to fly the coop.

A month or so into my Fortnite debut, the coronavirus epidemic struck, and we suddenly found ourselves in one of the world's epicenters. The schools shut down, my travel-dependent work dwindled, and the walls began to close in as we sheltered in place in our privacy-depleted two-bedroom apartment. Not surprisingly, screen time spiked, both globally and in our home.

At first I fought against this. I was as leery as anyone about the dangers of video game addiction, which is fueled in part by a carefully engineered suite of dopamine triggers. And Fortnite has them all—copious rewards, abundant novelty, near misses, leveling up. (This is as much a risk for adults as for kids; in the UK, Fortnite has shown up as a reason in at least 200 divorce proceedings.) My wife and I had instituted a never-on-a-school-night ban, and we held fast to it.

But for Sylvie the game seemed to have value as an escapist refuge from the increasingly scary events of the day—the baleful procession of sirens outside our door, her parents' hushed conversations about dwindling savings, the upward slope of the fatality curve. Fortnite was sometimes an escape for me too, a temporary departure from endlessly reading about R0 values and herd immunity modeling. Sometimes I'd hear an adult conversation going on in the background of a kid's voice chat—something about a film director, or collateralized debt obligations—and guiltily feel the tug of the real world.


After a week or so of remote schooling, I began to relax the Fortnite restriction. I realized that, deprived as my daughter was of playdates and park visits, the game had become her social life. Others have made this argument before: Fortnite isn't so much a game as a place. Sure, she was going for dubs, but between shotgun blasts she was also chatting with her friends about the anime they were watching or the rescue cat we'd adopted. She often seemed to spend more time deciding which of her many friends to join in a squad than actually playing.

I also began to have a clearer view of what Fortnite had come to mean to her. I'd largely dismissed the whole Item Shop, with its outfits and toys, as a profit-seeking exercise in planned obsolescence and scarcity economics. But for her and her friends, these little tokens of identity in an age of lockdown—when they couldn't see each other, could barely leave the house—seemed an important way of exercising autonomy.

Gradually, I began to scale back my involvement in her squad campaigns. We were already together 24/7; she needed time with her friends. But when I did occasionally join in, there would sometimes be a brief bit of chatter from kids who didn't know me.

“Who's Cubic Racer?”

“That's Sylvie's dad.”

“Wait, Sylvie's dad plays?!”

He does, in fact. He's not great, but he's dubbed a few games, and he's handy in a squad. He only asks that you refrain from using him as an excuse to get more playing time when your parents want you to stop.

Illustrations by Sam Whitney

When you buy something using the retail links in our stories, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Read more about how this works.

TOM VANDERBILT (@tomvanderbilt) is the author of four books, including Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, out in January 2021. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

This article appears in the November issue. Subscribe now.

Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at mail@wired.com.

Related Articles

Latest Articles