A war is being waged in our homes and schools. Absolutely Education takes on gaming phenomenon, Fortnite

Dinner party conversations have shifted to a new topic in recent months. Property and schools are out the window and replaced with something much more pressing amongst 21st century parents – Fortnite. It seems the survival game which has attracted around 125 million players across the world, has captured the attention of most youngsters (mainly boys), much to the exasperation of parents and teachers.

With three sons, our parenting has been tested to its limit and at times irrational in a desperate attempt to break the Fortnite craze. We have hidden controllers in the attic and my husband even took the console with him in his briefcase on an overseas business trip. It seems the firm ‘no’ and subsequent threats don’t make a jot of difference to the boys’ desire to play the game. And we aren’t alone. One friend described how he arrived home to find his son on his knees pleading for his mother to return the confiscated controller. “Next year, he’s going to a holiday camp so we don’t have to battle with him.” Despite thinking we are fairly sensible parents who have embraced parenting well up to this point, it appears Fortnite is presenting some of us with one of the biggest parenting challenges of our time.

Schools, both boarding and day, are also wrestling with gaming culture. Some teachers believe there is a link between gaming addiction and mental health and that it has a detrimental effect on pupils’ learning. Others have even gone so far as to tell parents to ban the game at home. A few heads believe gaming leads to aggressive behaviour as children act out violent scenes from Fortnite. One school banned ‘flossing’ on the grounds that the dance moves were intimidating others in the playground. Parents of those children who don’t have Fortnite complain to schools that their children are being excluded, with one prep school going so far as to ban Fortnite chat at lunchtime. 

We all accept that Fortnite is addictive. The game designers understand cognitive structures and they aim to hook the player. As parents, we can either continue the parenting battle or try to understand it better, educate ourselves over Fortnite’s potential advantages and perhaps refine our parenting approach towards it. After all, not all gaming children are destined for addiction, although some may display a touch of cold turkey when they’re forced to end a game mid-battle.  But there is a difference between casual play and unhealthy obsession. 

Alicia Drummond, a therapist who works with over 100 schools offering pastoral consultancy, explains that because of its addictive nature, Fortnite fires up the reward system in the brain releasing stress hormones in the player’s quest for survival. “Teenagers aren’t wired to think about long-term outcome. Revision or homework don’t satisfy their needs, but the instant thrill of gaming does.”  The key thing she says is, “to get the stress hormones out of the system after the game has ended and to rebalance the nervous system, so that the sympathetic (fight and flight) and para sympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems are balanced.”  She believes that education around gaming is crucial and schools should be involved at prep and senior schools. “Screens are great and children will spend up to three quarters of their time on them but, like a plate of food, it needs to be balanced with exercise, hobbies and conversing with one another face-to-face.”  She does point out that Fortnite is not such a bad game if played in moderation as it’s cartoon-like in appearance and with each game being 20 minutes, it can be easily stopped. 

Fortnite is also sociable, bringing together friends across schools and year groups. One mother of a boy at a leading boarding school, says Fortnite has helped her son to integrate with his peers. “When he started playing Fortnite, he made friends, and now enjoys school.”  Alicia Drummond agrees that Fortnite does benefit those who lack confidence socially, providing they also exercise social skills face-to-face. A London parent, with two sons at day school, also likes the social element of Fortnite limiting play to an hour a night after homework.  

A parent of a 13-year-old boy at boarding school, Harrow, praises its technology policy in limiting gaming. The device restrictions are rigorous which prevents boys from gaming and pupils only have access to mobile phones for half an hour each evening. “I feel empowered as a parent that someone is doing this on my behalf. When my son was at a day school, I would hide the controllers when I was at work. He has now learnt to self-regulate. She adds, “Harrow have formed a super link between parent and child and the housemaster is an important parent-figure in my son’s life.”

One headteacher believes all schools must have a stance on gaming and work with and support parents. “Forcing gaming underground and not allowing children to play or talk about it is ludicrous. Offer workshops to parents and educate pupils on self-regulation, particularly ahead of them joining senior schools,” he says.

After much analysis and battling with Fortnite, I am beginning to understand it a little better. It’s encouraging that researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education conclude the game encourages teamwork, collaborations, strategic thinking, spatial understanding and imagination. But without doubt, what our boys love most about it is its social element. “We just like playing with our friends,” they say. As a result, I’ve decided to stop demonising Fortnite and put an end to the endless arguments with our children, because whether we like it or not, it is here to stay. It’s not the technology but the use of it that is the challenge and that responsibility lies with us parents, endorsed by schools, to teach children how to self-regulate, to enjoy a rich variety of activities and perhaps even acknowledge that it might have a positive impact on our children’s education.