I’ll toss in at least one paradoxical, unanticipated benefit of this socializing, at least in my house: My son now demands to see far more of his friends in real life. All that socializing via headset has whetted his appetite for embodied interaction. (Perhaps he’s an outlier. But Williams says the same thing has happened to him.) Sometimes those play dates don’t even involve Fortnite. But when they do, they’re far more social than meets the eye. The kids aren’t just plugged into their devices, but to one another — barking orders, exchanging intel, passing joysticks, cracking jokes.
“There’s just this nonstop talk,” said Clive Thompson, author of the excellent new “Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.” “It’s like two people who are watching a sporting event together. Except they’re the athletes.” The classic mistake that adults make, Thompson adds, is that they focus entirely on the screen when they see children huddled around iPads and Switches, Xboxes and PlayStations. “What they don’t focus on,” he says, “is what’s happening inside the room.”
A terrific article on Axios last Christmas articulated something I’d had a hard time putting words to: Fortnite is its own social network. It’s Facebook for a new generation of adults — and tweens, like my son.
In a cage match between Facebook and Fortnite, I’ll choose Fortnite, thanks, where people actually talk to one another in real time.
Are there unlovely, habit-forming aspects to the game? Yes. When I reached Owen Williams by phone, he said the game was devilishly good at lulling players into believing they’re closer to winning each time than they probably are. Psychologists call this the “near miss effect,” which incentivizes players to keep playing. And every two weeks, there are subtle shifts in how the game is played (with new weapons added, for instance, or taken away), a seductive trick.
But the world my son is entering is already a blinking bazaar of distractions, engineered to hot-wire our attention. Instagram, Twitter, group texts, email, Gchat — all of them can turn us into compulsives if we’re not careful; all require self-regulation. Whenever adults fret about their children’s inability to control themselves, I think of the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s observation that perhaps it’s because adults identify so very well with this loss of control: We’re the ones who are alcoholics, gamblers, serial killers. Not kids. “Excessive behavior,” he wrote in “On Balance,” “is not so much something we grow out of as something we grow into.”
Excessive gaming is just one more thing to guard against if you’ve got a teenager, along with alcohol and drug use. The problem existed long before Fortnite darkened our consoles.