The Fortnite Phenomenon: Should Christians be Wary? (Part I)

July 10, 2018

The news coverage is enough to make concerned parents switch to panic mode: a young girl is so addicted to Fortnite that she wets herself rather than get up and leave a match, leading her to be committed to a rehab clinic for gaming addiction. Parents have long looked at video games with at least a sideways glance, worried that they are making kids more violent and lazy—while also leading to a generation of losers who never leave their parents’ basements. Regardless of the truth in any of these suspicions, there are ample anecdotes and urban legends that make the rounds to substantiate any of our worst fears. This means that when a game like Fortnite comes along raking in $100 million a month and boasting something like 2 million people playing online at any one time, it becomes a magnet for all parent’s worst fears.

So what should Christian parents do? Should we be fearful? Well, I have a simple, biblical answer that can guide all parents who are worried about whatever the new gaming craze is—be it Fortnite or whatever inevitably replaces it in a few months. As a special bonus, the answer comes straight from a book of wisdom (so you know it is good!):

There is nothing new under the sun(Eccles. 1:9)

I know, I know. It is going to take some convincing to get you to buy into this, and I plan to get to that, but it really is a helpful mantra to repeat to yourself anytime the news media has you preparing to ring the alarm bells and run around doing your best Chicken Little impression.

There’s nothing new under the sun

Before we dive in to looking at Fortnite, we should pause and consider the mantra that I am recommending. In saying “there is nothing new under the sun,” I am not saying “…therefore, there is nothing to be worried about.” What I am saying instead is that even though we have learned how to package things up differently over time, rarely is something entirely novel. Instead of being an encouragement to just shrug things off, “there is nothing new under the sun” is a call to be careful students of history.

Fortnite is popular for reasons that we have seen before—one being that it touches on aspects of who we are. Therefore, where there are reasons for concern, we are not completely unequipped to deal with the challenges presented. If we approach the issue from a posture that breaks down a phenomenon like Fortnite into its constituent parts, and we assume that no single part is unique until proven otherwise, the whole thing becomes a lot less scary and intimidating.

Using this approach, the important thing to attend to is how Fortnite serves in the formation of our children. Anyone familiar with James K.A. Smith knows about his emphasis on the formative power of habit. That is, what we do and the way we do it has a substantial shaping effect on who we are and what we desire out of life. However, our desires aren’t just shaped by what we do but also by what those actions mean to us. In other words, our self-identity affects the way that our habits integrate into who we are, especially in how “sticky” those habits are and what direction their formative effect takes. For this reason, I like to add a dimension of emphasis to Smith’s focus that points to the imaginative aspects of our identity. That is, who do we imagine ourselves to be, and how does something like Fortnite play into that self-image in a way that shapes a player’s disposition and desires?

So, in the rest of part I and part II of this piece, we will assess the Fortnite phenomenon by looking at an aspect of Fortnite, thinking about how it might be forming players, and thinking about how parents might work to guide the formation of their children in this area, drawing throughout on lessons reinforced by our mantra. Specifically, we will focus on the formative aspects of Fortnite as a video game, in its most popular playstyle, and as a profit generator.

How are Kids Shaped by Video Games like Fortnite?

The leading edge of concern over the Fortnite phenomenon is the fear of addiction. Kids are spending hours playing Fortnite (or other video games), and that can’t be good for them, can it? Young people have declining levels of mental health, empathy, and creativity, and they’re playing more video games, so it must be rotting their brains, right? As a result, a strain of popular culture that resonates with parents thinks of video games like dangerous narcotics.

Actually, the culprit researchers suspect is most to blame is a loss of unstructured play time, and video games are often one of the few types of relatively unstructured play that kids enjoy anymore. In other words, video games may be lessening, rather than aggravating, these negative trends. Kids need play time, and video games are play, not drugs, and they have many of the same benefits that come from freeform play in any environment.

So how does Fortnite fit in as an example of unstructured play? The game itself has a colorful and simplified aesthetic that feels somewhat cartoonish, and the gameplay is a mix between crafting and survival games like Minecraft and a more traditional shooter game. That is, players will harvest resources from their environments to craft walls, ramps, and more complex devices like traps and launch pads while engaging in combat using weapons they find in their environment. Players have a certain amount of health and can accumulate shields/armor that augment that, but each blow they receive will chip away at that total as a little cartoon number that pops out of their body on a successful hit.

The gameplay style of Fortnite encourages good awareness of one’s surroundings, conservative, but decisive play, and creativity in the formation of buildings or the laying of traps. Players have to constantly be aware of their immediate surroundings, keep a mental tally of their preparedness for combat (such as their ammunition), plan to accomplish immediate and long-term goals, pay attention to the ever-shrinking map, and be ready to adapt to new challenges at the drop of a hat. As a skillset that’s needed to succeed in the game, this is actually pretty cognitively complex. Alternately, players can lean in to their creativity and just mess around building absurd traps or structures. Either way, Fortnite taps into some of the benefits of more unstructured, creative games like Minecraft while also accessing some of the cognitive benefits of shooter games, which have been shown to have a positive effect on players’ abilities in areas of spatial navigation, reasoning, memory, and perception.

As to addiction concerns, evidence shows that video game addiction is much more of a concern among young people using video games to escape or cope with challenges in their lives. This isn’t unique either, and the root concern shouldn’t be with the inherent evil of video games or the moral failing of those who play them. Instead, parents should be seeking to figure out why their kids are playing video games, and where it seems to be rooted in coping, draw on a wealth of advice from other areas to help foster healthier coping mechanisms than escapism.

In short, Fortnite has more in common with playing in the back yard than it does with snorting cocaine, since it is likely to form players in ways similar to unstructured play while providing other cognitive benefits. We don’t tend to be as critical of a kid who spends all day shooting hoops, and that same attitude can be of use here. People playing Fortnite are cognitively engaged in a valuable way, but, like with diet, healthy variation is valuable, so sedentary free play needs to be complemented by exercise, reading, and the whole variety of activities that make for well-rounded adults. If advice on this part of thinking about Fortnite seems less than earthshattering, it’s because it is: there’s nothing new under the sun.

About the Author
  • Donald Roth serves as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Co-Director of the Kuyper Honors Program, and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Dordt University.

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  1. The addictive and otherwise brain-altering effects of video games has been receiving a lot of study over the past decade or so. This topic cannot be meaningfully engaged without reference to the scientific literature.

    On its face, the play/drugs distinction is entirely unhelpful. Play and exercise — as well as video games — trigger your brain to respond to gratification and stress with adrenalin, serotonin, cortisol, etc. Your body responds accordingly — elevated respiration, heart rate, etc. Popular games often cause the same level of serotonin release as sex or cocaine use. Only very fit, distance runners are liable to approach this in their exercise. Young brains flooded in serotonin can experience the same effects of taking Ecstasy — a high and then a crashing low when their serotonin supply craters. Depression is a common result of this chemical imbalance, however it is caused.

    Unlike sports and outdoor play, you’re not actually exercising or interacting with others directly in most video games, and many games are designed to have a physiological impact normal exercise and play will not have. Many video games today are designed specifically to induce and maintain high levels of engagement through the intense physical response they generate. Microsoft, for example, has monitored the vitals of young playtesters to refine games where they have targets like a 140bpm heart rate. Refining = more intense explosions and so on until the desired physiological response is induced.

    Flooding young developing brains with cortisol hour after hour, day after day will have well-known effects whether the cause is an abusive home or a game that elicits a threat response. The older, fight or flight part of the brain doesn’t differentiate between real and fictional violence. It simply triggers, and over time you get young people with diminished executive functions, diminished ability to regulate stress and focus on productive problem-solving.

    1. Hi Gerry,
      Sorry not to see this comment for so long. It wasn’t automatically flagged to me.

      I do reference some of the scientific literature here, but meta-analysis so far is quite different from the dismal picture that you’re painting. Studies are consistently showing that video games actually improve problem-solving skills. You are right that certain games, especially shooters, produce a stress response (others actually have the opposite effect), but more recent studies have shown that this stress response does not bear all the same physiological markers of other stress response, meaning that it is being handled differently by our bodies. As for depression, video games have been shown to reduce rumination and actually counter several depressive symptoms.

      That all said, there is reason to be concerned if children’s brains are being bathed in stress hormones, and regulating the amount of time that children spend in such a form of play should be helpful with that.

  2. This is absolutely true. The brain does not distinguish between fiction and non fiction, it consumes what is being fed or in this case projected to. A shooting game with a cartoonish style is just an invite later on in life for them as grown ups to play shooter games with more gore ore if you want it more real; joining the army. Blending in a hardly to distinguish virtual world and the real world in a cross switch platform of different consoles all around the world is a disturbing development when you consider people leave their work or play at work while they should be doing other things that is more beneficial to us all. We have to stop this ongoing madness of sugar coating how it benefits certain parts of our brain and intellect as a human being individually and in groups. The reality is; this is how soldiers are being trained and stimulated and we have seen how they are affected by playing music and games before actually engaging combat thinking they are doing the right thing in a 360 degrees virtual world and then the real world. Go ask every psychiatrist in the world how this is/was beneficial for our veterans and other veterans of other countries and for all our families? We as believers in Christ are led to be deceived that killing “friends and enemies” is a good thing and fun untill reality kicks in and a real knife or bullet has been subjected in someone elses body. In a game you would be rewarded with a form of medal popping up and we as future parents or grandparents are actually saying ” that was a good kill or head shot ” to our own and other ((grand)-children). Consider that this is occuring in every country in the world real time. At the very moment millions are playing a form of game we call survival because of these kind of games that began as fun targeted at our mind when we were young. Shame on us all. We ask how to get rid of our – spiritual -warfare and this is our solution? The problem now is we have portable devices that are so powerfull in displaying visual and audible contents even mature audiences we call scientists /teachers and leaders have trouble figuring out what is true and what not thanks to green screen factories and every form of these games with disturbing story telling elements included that are downloadable at every place in the world. In the hardware and software are sources and references of the serpent – the bible and our savior has warned us about, but because we have developed contracts on an all your need to now basis we have silenced ourselves and others by this and afraid of the truth coming out and saying out loud because we had to gather more evidence and statistics, the body of christ suffers of this and that means we all suffer.

    Thanks for all the plowsnares we have been delivering to the nations for all these years we still have a long way to go before we call ourselves human beings and earned an invitation the Kingdom of Heaven

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      I will have to disagree with your opening premise. Our brain can absolutely distinguish between fiction and non-fiction, between games and reality. This is something that has been repeatedly demonstrated, including with violent video games. They have even shown that young men who play 2+ hours a day of violent video games have equivalent responses to real-world violence as “normal” people. We simply don’t encode virtual violence the same way.

      As to military training. It takes a substantially different form and environment from Fortnite or the like. Further, even where soldiers are playing something like Fortnite in their free time, at most the crossover is improved reaction times and decision-making skills. These are things that carry over to many different environments. Video games are not combat training at a meaningful level.

      I commend your concern for the holiness of Christians, and I won’t defend the idea that more sadistic or graphic video games are God-honoring. However, you seem to denigrate games wholesale, even criticizing the idea that someone at work would ever play them. To me, this represents a view of play that undervalues its continued beneficial role for adults. Further, it’s a view of work that both overlooks the practical benefits of taking breaks in terms of increased productivity and seems to assume that we are slaves to our jobs, wasting any minute that we do not spend contributing to the common good. You seem to believe that computer hardware itself is stamped with the mark of the beast, rather than a faithful development of God’s gifts to us (which we may misuse). For those reasons, I just can’t share in your assessment.

      Overall though, whether it is you or I who have the right of it, we are human beings, made in the image of God, and our great comfort is that we are invited into the Kingdom of Heaven not on the basis of what we earn, but on the basis of Christ’s blood and merit.

  3. No matter how long I think about video games, I can’t find one single good argument apart from lazy parents having peace as their children become couch potato doing nothing saying nothing, not even asking food as they are too captivated into the game.
    The results on long term are:
    -a generation that all what they dream about is fight, weapon and blood
    -people becoming slaves to the idol of gaming that would steal their time, career, relationship and future. Very often they end up losing their job as they would play so long that working would become depressing and too tired.
    I know men losing their wife and children because the same habit of playing games instead of spending time with the family and working to provide for them.
    Games are the idols of our days and people are worshipping them not even realising they are slave to it and through the games Satan steals all from their life.

  4. The bulk of the article does not answer the question, “Should Christians be wary.” Yes, we know the game is a phenomenon but where is the spiritual aspect of the repercussions of playing the game?