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


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July 11, 2018
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In Part I of this article, I rolled out my “revolutionary” approach to the pressing question of how worried Christian parents should be about the current video game sensation Fortnite. For those of you who didn’t click on that part, here’s the quick version: remember, there’s nothing new under the sun. If we look at the formative aspects of the game, we’ll see them echoed in many other areas, and we can use insights from those other arenas to inform how we respond to this particular phenomenon.

I ended part I by encouraging parents to think of video games more as playtime than dangerous addiction. Today, we’ll poke at two other aspects of the game, its “battle royale” game mode and the business model that has made it such an astounding profit generator.

Will Battle Royale Turn my Child into a Serial Killer?

Okay, that subtitle is a little bit of a strawman, but many Christian parents’ first concern with a game like Fortnite will be the violence of the game’s most popular play mode, “Battle Royale.” This game mode plays like the rules of the recent Hunger Games phenomenon, with players parachuting off of a flying bus as it sails over the game map and scavenging what they can from where they land while the playable area of the map is progressively reduced as players are killed off. Eventually, one player (or team, in team mode) is the last one standing and is proclaimed the winner before a new round starts. Rounds take around 20 minutes from start to finish, but players who are killed off can leave to join a new round as soon as they die.

There it is: players are killing one another off in some sort of deathmatch scenario. This must be malforming children somehow, right? Yes, the action is to kill off other players, albeit in a rather cartoonish style that is more reminiscent of Looney Toons than Call of Duty, but this is where my little tweak on James K.A. Smith from last time is important. It would be simplistic to stop at analyzing the game as a habit of killing off other players; instead, we should look to the skills needed for success and what disposition is actually fostered by the game.

Solid research in the area of video games and violence shows no connection between in-game violence and serious real-world violence; although, some studies do show a weak correlation with more minor forms of aggression. Looking at the behavior promoted by these games, the same skills are rarely used in the sustained violent aggression that plays out in serious real-world violence. Yes, a certain aggressive, decisive impulse is required, but it is often checked by careful assessments of the costs and benefits of action. That is, gamers are trained to be decisive when a good opportunity presents itself but disciplined and measured in their aggression, lest they make themselves vulnerable. This is especially true of Fortnite, where health can be hard to come by, combat can be costly, and overly aggressive players are often the first ones knocked out.

What about the more minor aggression? Well, what this amounts to is kids smack-talking one another or getting frustrated while they play, something that can escalate, but which is hardly unique to the world of video games.  Fortnite can be frustrating at times, but the business model of the game, which I will get to shortly, is built around minimizing this and keeping things fun and light. So, again, it’s not the worst example out there.

However, this doesn’t mean there is no reason for concern, and again, the application of our mantra can be helpful. So where else are kids getting frustrated or leaning into tribal or competitive tendencies? How about sports? In this arena, we see the frustration of losing as something that actually teaches emotional self-regulation. Sports are good because they teach kids character, but we think a video game is bad because little Jimmy chucked his controller across the room. However, there’s nothing new under the sun: when we see something that presents a challenge to our children’s ability to control themselves, our default response shouldn’t be to cut them off from it but rather to help our kids develop better skills in this area. That is, self-regulation is only learned by practice, and emotional self-regulation, like the broader issue of self-control, is one of the most important skills our kids learn. There may be cases where the situation has deteriorated so far that it’s better to cut a child off, but video games should be viewed as providing teachable moments rather than dangerous temptations.

Should We be Concerned by How Fortnite is Making so much Money?

The real secret of Fortnite’s astounding financial success is rooted in its particular iteration of the free-to-play revenue model. Free-to-play games are games that can be downloaded and played without paying any up-front fee; however, unlike just about every stupid free-to-play mobile game on my iPad, the paid elements of Fortnite are purely cosmetic. That is, there is no advantage to spending money in this game, and you don’t have to watch a bunch of commercials to keep playing. However, if you want have access to any of the massive array of customizable looks and accessories, you almost have sign up for the “Battle Pass” as a paid subscription that accelerates how quickly you earn new cosmetic items.

This is one area where Christian parents should be more concerned than they probably already are. The things you buy in this game are all cosmetic add-ons, but these cosmetic add-ons are what make your character stand out as unique among a sea of generic characters. Rather than the pure gambling mechanic of loot boxes made popular in other game franchises, Fortnite players buy in to a progression system where they are rewarded for playing more by unlocking more cosmetic items. This encourages players to outdo one another in their commitment of hours to the game, as often the most desirable cosmetics are achieved at the highest levels of progression. This creates both a sense of accomplishment in winning a silly hat and a temptation to excessive play.

This revenue model is accented by the way that this game taps into a social component by letting gamers play with their friends, but even more by the way that Fortnite features strongly in related media, such as Twitch and YouTube. Kids can play with their friends, then, when they can’t play, they can watch their favorite streamers play to pick up on new techniques or ways to mess around. Overall, this creates an immersive environment that plays into both our social impulse and the (especially American) narrative of individualism. If kids want to stand out (kids do) or gain social status among their friends (kids do), they need to play a lot.

Now, I know I said before that Fortnite is more like playing outside than doing drugs, but you might be questioning me at this point. It sounds like Fortnite is more addictive than other games because it tapps into a powerful impulse in the narrative of what it means to be an adolescent (in which social status is hugely important) and an American (you are unique), but, again there’s nothing new under the sun. These are powerful narratives that permeate many areas of our culture, and the real upshot is just discerning that the same narrative is at play here. Fortnite is profitable because it taps into this cultural identity at scale (the free-to-play model making it extremely accessible), not because it’s unusually pernicious in doing so. The key is for parents to teach their children to engage in what Smith calls cultural exegesis, discerning the spirits of our age, naming the counter narratives that might seek to draw attention away from who (and whose) we really are, and resisting them through intentional formation at church, home, and school.

Conclusion

To pull everything together, it may be beneficial to think of kids playing Fortnite as roughly equivalent to kids playing any game. Kids will often have a favorite, but we don’t tend to get as worked up if our children are playing capture the flag all the time outside; instead, we just make sure they have sunscreen on and set boundaries like “don’t go in the road” and “no shoving each other over.” We embrace the benefits (exercise) while correcting for the negative risks (sunburns, injury). Fortnite is the same. We can encourage children to translate the cognitive benefits to the real world while correcting negative behaviors. In addition, parents can use the reality of frustration as an opportunity to learn emotional self-regulation and curb excessive time investment to learn the critical adult skills of delayed gratification and self-control. We can identify positive dispositions that might be fostered by this particular game, and we can name those to our children, encouraging them to integrate these positive traits while steering them away from negative ones. Most of all, we can resist the urge to freak out. Fortnite might be unique, but it is not really new, and it will be old news before long. After all, 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. Ok, so how does Darwinism/survivial of the fittest-themed games glorify God and everything we are taught in the Bible about loving ones neighbour or turning the other cheek? These game objectives go against most concepts the Bible teaches, yet we humans will always try and justify our violent fun.

    Matthew 5:21-30 warns about how we imagine/meditate/practise murder in our hearts. Murder and throughts of murder are equally destructive, although it has different consequences. No matter how cunning/ premediated/ decisive the murder was, or how much strategy or maths it required, murder in your mind, thoughts or imagination is negative, not a fruit of the Spirit and your brain goes through the motions, even worse when it is fun, or justified for your own survivial. Fortnight and many other violent games reward these Biblically unapproved behaviours, either with points/levels/rewards or survivial. Does this not go 100% against the ways we as Christians are supposed to walk in this world as we follow Christ? How do players deal with death, or the killed people they are responsible for? Do they have funerals, apologise to their families, show any remorse? Thats ridiculous, right? (I have tried commenting morally/Biblically on players’ actions whilst seeing them engaged in this game, and they either find this hilarious, or very annoying when I say: “Oh dear, I think you just made a mistake, you killed someone by accident”, or “how about inviting that person over there over for dinner or blessing him?”). No, in these type of violent games, there is no grace and there are no negative consequences for any of these terrible socially inappropriate behavious (It is chilling to hear children respond to my “Biblical comments” with phrases like: “No, I wanted to kill him, thats what I am supposed to do, silly!” It almost feels like the enemy is mocking us from behind our children). In fact, they are rewarded and being trained away from Godly principles of interaction. No matter how you try and chalk this up as positive, it will never be justified. No amount of calculating, strategizing, regulating or “measuring of agression” or any kind of psycho-developmental babble can make this right, even if it is founded on worldly research. It is certainly not “beneficial to think of kids playing Fortnite as roughly equivalent to playing any other game”. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist against the enemy, I would go as far as to say, these kinds of statements promote thinking straight into being deceived by the enemy. It gives children the power in a game to “kill, steal and destroy”, without anyone blinking an eye or seeing what we are training their attitudes and affinities into. Yes, without drugs they might not switch these behaviours over into literally opening fire into a school or public place, but are we willing to take the risk? Just listen to the enthusiasm of gamers as the utter:” I got him… get out of my way… yes, I killed him” etc. and reflect upon what we really want our children’s hearts to overflow with. Now try and read Matthew 15:18-20. Ouch. Try and read Colossians 3:16, James 1:26, 2 Timothy 2:16-17. The list goes on as the Bible has so much to say about what we keep our hearts up with and what we utter.

    Apart from the addictive aspect, playing these games “online with friends” is really a poor substitute for real relationships. It lacks depth, interaction, reality, love, appropriate conversation, meaningful interaction, physical exercise, body language amongst many other things we are designed to do. Any reasonable person can see this. It teaches children how to “do” awesome things, only using their thumbs, constantly expecting something awesome to stimulate (or rather assault) the senses.

    This is not in line with reality, and it makes the real world boring by comparison. It also short circuits the possibility of real confrontation and potential rejection from others when they are showing socially unacceptable behaviours. It also programs their neurodevelopment and brain setups to expect a high turnover of excitement for life. Look at research done on the effects of TV on children under the age of four. Even adult mice shows a higher level of ADHD when they were exposed to a high turnover of entertainment/ flasing lights/ sensory overload when they were in their “toddler years”. We can only guess why so many children find real life situations (like washing dishes or making their beds) and school boring. We parents and game developers have created this and now we are unfairly requiring them to function “normally or like us” in reality and in schools. We are rewarding them for practising violence for hours on end in a fun and virtual world, then reprimanding them for being inappropriate socially, only giving them a negative experience of reality. We are training our children to repsond to rewards of Coke and chocolate, and then expecting them to eat their vegetables.

    Why are we seeing more ADHD and childhood depression? Which grandpa’s fireside story, devoid of special effects, visuals and action, can compete with an action packed multi-billion dollar animated blockbuster? Think “The time Grandpa almost missed the ship and would have never met grandma” vs “Ice Age 5”. Thus real life with infinte possiblities becomes boring vs an entertaining blast of meaningless escapism.

    I feel we have traded the special and real life moments, for cheap alternatives, because we are promised, fooled and deceived that it is better. It never turns out to be the truth or better. Real strawberries(infintely complex, wonderfully designed and produced by God’s intelligence and provision) are traded for a man-made E numbered ice-cream with no nutritional value, negatively affecting our health and fooling our bodies into thinking we are being nourished. When we see that picture of the strawberry on the packaging, our bodies anticipate to absorb vitamins and minerals and anti-oxidants, only to be tricked with hormones and transfats and chemicals. Real music (incredibly powerful mathematically genius and scientifically mysterious real sounds) are traded for synthetic fake music, devoid of overtones, lacking in depth and fooling our ears. The list goes on with what we smell down to the synthetic fibres we clothe ourselves with. It is cheaper and easier (nevermind the planet) to manipulate, produce, it lasts longer, has brighter neon colours and we overstimulate our senses and greed to profit and be comfortable even more. Think about what we see on a tv screen vs real outdoor experiences etc, how we are creating layer upon layer of deception and isolation, to ultimately give us meaningless, mindless and depressed lives. Just because of our WANTS… wanting faster and cheaper food, music, visuals, entertainment, comfort etc., we have fallen into a trap of manipulating things to suit us, and we have blindly also fallen into the trap of being manipulated up to the point where we are justifying violence and deception and not realising this. We are training our children in the ultimate comfort zone to be lulled down to nothing but lazy, unhealthy, depressed, inconsiderate and immoral beings witout any purpose, who will ironically blame God for the world we have created. Please wake up from this, pray and read the Bible. Then try and watch a minute of Fortnite, or read this articile again.

    1. I am impressed that you are devoted to the standard of truth found in the Word of God! Amen and Praise the Lord! Thank you for being a voice of truth! Now I know why I felt the Lord was displeased when I considered what I was doing, in rather blindly allowing my boys to play Fortnite. The way they were talking while playing it alarmed me and I knew I needed to look into it! Wish I had sooner!

  2. Rick,
    Thank you for commenting, and my apologies for not reading this sooner, as I was not notified of the comment until recently.

    First of all, do you say the same things about children playing sports? Most of our organized sports have martial themes, and competition in them naturally takes a “winner takes all” form. Did you never play “King of the Hill” as a kid? Further, we call knocking out an opponent in Fortnite “killing”, but the person affected just logs into a new game. In most other games, you actually respawn and jump right back in. This simply isn’t killing in a meaningful sense. It’s scoring points in a specific way. Unless you believe that all competition in sports is inherently sinful, I just don’t think your premise carries.

    It absolutely is not the same thing as murder. First of all, as mentioned, the other person does not “die” in a real sense. They are not harmed in any way. Secondly, and more centrally to the Biblical context, you can (in fact, should) play these games without any malice in your heart toward another person. You’re making video games weirdly more real than they really are when you say that it’s a clear violation of the 6th Commandment to eliminate my brother’s character in a video game when I do not hate him in my heart.

    As to the social aspect. I really miss the chances I had to play games with my close friends in college and high school. It was a shared activity that provided common ground for bonding, but it wasn’t the only thing we ever did together. If that was all we ever did, then your criticism would hold, but as just one of the things we did, your criticism of it for not containing the whole constellation of human experience falls short. (After all, how would reading the Bible together give us physical exercise? If that was all we ever did. Sitting in a room, not moving, reading Scripture to one another, would we not similarly be failing to fully engage Creation as we are called?)

    I 100% agree with you that people should not have this children playing video games for endless hours every day. The “Coke and chocolate” analogy is, to a degree, apt, in that varied engagement is ideal, and just having a sedentary lifestyle or only doing one thing is poor formation for well-rounded, godly people. I never argued that it was ideal to allow children to just sit and play Fortnite all day. At the same time, there are terrible costs to having children do nothing but play a specific organized sport from an early age, too. A generation ago, we also criticized children who stayed in and read books and never got outside. Similarly, there is some disdain for the “jocks” who just played sports and never developed their minds. Fortnite is like other types of play in that it has cognitive benefits and drawbacks, and it should be treated as such.

    In the meantime, I will continue reading my Bible and praying, regularly. I played some Fortnite in writing this article, but it isn’t a game that wildly appealed to me, and I haven’t kept it up, but I still don’t agree with your assessment, whether that makes me literally a voice of Satan in your book or not.

  3. Hi JoAnn,

    Thanks for your comment.

    If your sons were using inappropriate language or showing signs of unhealthy aggression, I commend you for intervening. This is precisely something I recommended in the article. See my response to Rick, though, as I don’t think that “killing’ as it occurs in a video game setting necessarily implicates the 6th Commandment (although it may for some, depending on how they are interacting). If the game was stirring up hatred in their hearts, then that deserves loving correction, but the game itself is not demonic or compromised in any special way beyond most of the world around us. We must always be discerning in how we act.

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