Does the end justify the means? Fortnite: A mother and son discussion

| 02 Aug 2019 |

In July, during the summer holidays, a 16 year old boy called Kyle Giersdorf (gamer named Bugha) became the first Fortnite world champion, winning a colossal $3million.

The event took place in New York, in a fully packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, a stadium known to most for hosting the US Tennis Open. In front of a crowd of 10,000 people and an incredible one million live streamers, Bugha won the Fortnite World Championship.

Bugha was one of the four million people around the world who entered the qualifying rounds. They lasted four weeks and they subsequently led to one hundred contestants being invited to play live in the New York Stadium.

This event carried the largest prize pool in the history of e-sports, with $30 million shared amongst the winners. If these numbers were not scary enough, it is estimated that the Revenue for professional video game competitions is expected to reach $1.1 billion in 2019, that is 27% more than in 2018.

Now that the scene is set, I would like to get to the real discussion. Bearing in mind that a child won $3 million playing a video game, effectively proving that you can make a living out of something that most of us parents disapprove of, does it justify the hours spent playing online? And more importantly, should we review our judgement?

I suppose that the answer to my initial question largely depends on who you are asking the question to.

My first reaction was: “Absolutely not!” I still struggle to see how a handful of children winning a lot of money makes it ok to spend hours on end alone in a room, in front of a screen, talking to strangers over a microphone. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned face to face conversations with real people? And maybe, most importantly, what does money have to do with our children’s healthy lifestyle and development?

Dr. Richard Freed, psychologist and author of “Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age”, reports that the study of addictive technologies has identified some 200 persuasive design tricks in Fortnite. He argues that because there are so many persuasive elements in the game that are often combined intentionally, it makes for an unfair fight for parents. Once the brain’s pleasure and reward system is hijacked, nothing a parent offers will feel more satisfying and rewarding than one more chance to play and win.

As parents, most of us will tend to at least entertain the possibility that Fortnite is an addictive game and that, while the game in itself is not the real issue, what often becomes the issue is the amount of time our kids spend on it and the behaviour that they can display once asked to leave the game to engage in other activities.

So, coming back to the fact that playing the game can effectively become a job, how do we parents deal with that? And more importantly maybe, what do our children make of this troubling piece of news?

In order to provide you with a more balanced argument, I decided to turn to my children and ask for their views on the subject. This immediately led to an inter-generational debate with my two adolescent boys challenging me on basically everything I said. Both of them became very vocal. The interesting thing is that none of them really plays the game actively any more. I therefore started asking myself what I was missing.

Here are a few of the remarks that my fourteen year old son made. I decided to share them with you (below in Italics) just in the way he expressed them. So here we are:

  • The world is changing, as are jobs. In a few years, online competitions will be as big as real-life competitions. Even now there already are big events taking place, beyond Fortnite, such as the FIFA e-world cup.
  • Not everyone feels confident to play sports or “go outside” as parents often put it, and an alternative is to find safety in video games where they feel in control.
  • Some people read, others play musical instruments, and some play video games. Parents often say “IT’S NOT THE SAME!” “Why not?” All of these afore-mentioned activities stimulate the brain, while inside, and alone. You can’t read as a group, whereas you can play online as a group. These interactions are described by my mother as not real. Why are they not real? If you can speak to someone and they respond, they are real. Of course, they will speak about the game and tactics for example. But it’s not like people in a reading club will not speak about the book in question and that doesn’t make them not real!
  • Of course, playing for hours every day is not healthy. But the constant criticism and attack made by parents on video games as if they corrupt children and are the source of all evil are simply not true.
  • So, does the money prize justify the hours he spent inside playing the game every day?
    • Hundreds of thousands of people try to become professional video game players and 99% do not reach their goal. My mum told me that what scares her most is that other kids would see this as a reason to keep playing “like he does”, because “if he can, why can’t I?”. Of course, nearly all of them will never come close. But is this not the same for every other profession? Before we even get a job, we must go to school. Or rather, we must get into a school. Just to get into some of the top schools, it takes hours and hours of revision and practice. The hard truth is that not all of us will get into the school we want. This is the same as Fortnite. Surely, if there is a great chance that we will not be able to achieve it, we should not try.
    • The health side of it is also brought up by my mother. Yes, sitting down for many hours all the time is not healthy, but neither is sitting down in an office. 86% of Adult Americans sit down all day, every day for work. Whereas kids have to take breaks due to school (obviously).

While I am sure that some of the arguments expressed by my fourteen-year-old son might have brought a smile to your face because of the naivety implied in the response, I also feel that some of the points are worth reflecting on.

“The world is changing”. I don’t know about your children, but mine say that a lot and they might just have a point. Our children are travelling in unchartered waters technology-wise and, as parents, we often struggle to fully understand what they are experiencing as we have no past reference of our own. None of us were exposed in our childhood to the incessant bombardment of information that our children are experiencing from a very early age, nor were we part of the “right here, right now” culture that they live in. Is it all bad? Obviously not, but neither is it all good, as they would like to convince us. It is about finding the right balance together. It is about deciding what is acceptable to both parties.

In this changing world, it is also possible, as my son suggests, that a whole new category of jobs will develop and take over. Many of these ‘developing” jobs will be screen based and will involve being highly remunerated for testing games and other applications for hours on end from an early age. Many new little “Bughas” will start earning a living in this way. And while I am open to contemplating that as a real possibility, I also want to believe that in their spare time (however little it may be), these new “screenployees” will venture out into the world and interact with others face to face, be it on a football pitch or at the pub…

A second point that is worth exploring is the fact that my son recognises how sometimes screens can be used as shields by insecure children who do not feel confident enough to go out in a social environment or on a sports pitch. This makes me wonder whether we, as parents, are always doing enough to find out what is really going on in their daily lives and whether we might occasionally be guilty ourselves of letting our kids hide behind screens and video games because it appears to give them (and us) momentary peace and immediate contentment…

The other striking thing in my son’s analysis is the fact that he sees in Bugha’s achievement the culmination of all his hard work and compares it to other fields, such as academic achievements and musical ones. My first reaction was outrage: “How can one possibly compare a video game to learning a musical instrument? Surely it’s not the same!”

In order to prove my point, I went back and watched a few more interviews of both the boy and his family and I am almost upset to admit that I could not really find anything shockingly wrong about either! The boy came across as a very normal, polite boy, with a huge passion for Fortnite and the parents came across as being very balanced. They said all the right things about how school and other duties had to come first, and how there would be consequences if that was not the case… That was clearly not part of my plan! It would have been much easier if the boy and his family could just be put down as villains not to be imitated…

So where does this leave us? Does the end justify the means in this case? Did winning $3 million justify the hours spent playing and should we then let our children do the same? Have I changed my mind? No. I haven’t. I still wouldn’t want to advocate playing a video game for six to eight hours a day, whether it is a passion or not. The old-fashioned me still believes in the power of face-to-face play dates, interactive board games with friends and family, coupled with outdoors sports and trips to museums and art galleries. I do however, understand the attraction of these games for children and teenagers and do not condemn them. As I said in the beginning, the issue is not the game itself. What can become an issue is if the video game takes over, if it becomes the one and only thing in your child’s life while at home. And that is something that we, as parents, have to monitor and act on if needed.


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