My kids love Ninja.
When I told them about the shocking thing that happened at the Madden eSports tournament in Florida last month, where two gamers were shot dead, their immediate reaction was “WAS IT NINJA?”
Ninja – for the uninitiated, or those who simply don’t want to know such a thing exists – is a champion gamer, Tyler Blevins in the real world. I like Tyler Blevins. Ninja is cool.
And like most of the big gaming personalities, he keeps it pretty clean online. Clean enough – like Stampy and TDM and Jen in the Minecraft days of yore – for me to let my kids follow him.
But then, he’ll post a sweet picture of his wife, Jessica Goch:
And you don’t have to scroll down too far to see the comments, such as “Is she the dinner?” and thousands of other more vulgar ones that shouldn’t be repeated here.
Yes, they’re the more colourful ones. But of the 12,000 or so comments, 11,000 of them are echoes of that. That’s not an exaggeration.
Obviously, it’s not Ninja’s fault. But the parenting solution? Sorry kids, you can’t follow your hero who plays video games.
Please, please, please don’t try to feed me that line about how I should instead somehow talk even more with my kids and teach them to manage how they deal with being exposed to grownup things.
These aren’t grownups commenting. These are the kids.
Back in the schoolyard all the other kids are talking about what Ninja posted last night, reading the comments, and Fortnite. And the only way my kid can join in the conversation is to somehow find a way to surreptitiously catch up with Ninja, and Fortnite.
Basically, teach himself how to lie to me. And teach himself how to pretend to his friends that he plays Fortnite just like they do, when actually, he just watches the YouTubes.
I don’t blame him.
If you think for a minute that a kid needs to be strong and go their own way in the schoolyard, you’ve been an adult too long.
Did you ever deliberately choose to spend all your school years alone and not being interesting enough for anyone to talk to you?
Before you say yes, let me say no, you didn’t.
Games got good
Let’s talk about the gaming industry, where “industry” is a word that far too often gets overlooked by gaming advocates.
Name a “good” industry.
You’ll get there eventually, but I bet your first thoughts included one or more of the following:
– real estate
And maybe hospitality.
You become an industry by outputting a product that makes a lot of money, and evolve as an industry by finding ways to make that product more desirable, and therefore more valuable.
When I was a kid, and a teenager, from my Sheen to Phillips Videopac to Megadrive to 3DO days, there was no mention of a gaming “industry”.
Yeah, I played games. As the commentors on a Ninja post might say, I played a f..kton of games.
I worked in a games shop that was actually a bit radical back then and went bust in a year or two, but maybe would have made its owner a rich man if he’d held off for 15 years.
That was around the early 90s, during the Second Console Wars.
I could feel the wave I was riding building so much I even drew my own game, which still looks pretty awesome:
Obviously, there is IP on that.
Of course, it fell in a heap when CD gaming took off and forgot to add gameplay to the amazing moving pictures it was shopping around. “Eye candy”, they called it, and you know what? It was addictive.
People starting handing over cash for terrible games simply because they looked uh-mazing.
And from those really, really lifelike games, all of which turned out to look nothing at all like the cinematic intros they were sold on, game “franchises” were born.
Operation: Jungle Farkers was shelved because I sulked about CD shortcomings like poor collision detection, crappy sprite scaling and the banality of built-in “catch-up” features killing off proper gaming skills.
A proper nerd.
But then, it happened. Around the time I actually started to get paid to write about games, and phones that you could now play decent games on, and all the technology that was connecting gamers across the world, gaming became an “industry”.
At that point, I felt proud of what was happening. Right here was my validation.
I TOLD you all that games were actually awesome, I said. I KNEW I wasn’t wasting my time with Operation: Jungle Farkers.
And for an all-too brief five or so years, it was wonderful. Call of Duty, Half-Life, Fallout, Halo, Fable, Diablo, WoW, GTA, Portal. Wii Sports.
But like all industries, it has to keep finding new ways to make money. And inevitably, one of those new ways will push the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with.
Don’t lecture me
Back to the school yard, where here was a chance for us to teach our kid how to limit his intake of a Very Good Thing.
Here was a chance to help our kid understand he could face enormous peer pressure and come through the other side mostly intact, with friends. Maybe one day, that will help him when he’s tempted by other Very Good Things that could actually kill him.
It was dumb luck that we chose the Fortnite phenomenon as the testing ground, but several months later, I couldn’t be happier that it was.
Every single parent with boys is struggling with this. Every single conversation with parents of boys inevitably turns to that struggle.
They give me an anguished look. “You’re a tech journo. How do you handle it?”
And my heart sinks a little, because I know how I’m about to make them feel when I say: “I don’t let my kids play it.”
They think I’m making them sound like a bad parent. I’m not, but as a lifelong gamer, I’m actually in an incredibly privileged position as a parent.
The biggest mistake I can make as a technology journalist is to assume all the other parents have the same knowledge and experience I’ve acquired at their disposal too.
They really don’t, at all. And when I say “they”, I mean somewhere in the 8-9 out of 10 of them.
I know it’s that much because I manage my kids’ gaming time. The parents of every other kid in his class only think they do, and I know they only think they do because my kid uses my Steam account and I can see exactly when their kids – because they are his Steam friends – are online.
I hope they only think they do, because the reality is fairly shocking. And that’s just their Steam time.
The reason I’m writing this now is because Fortnite has pushed it all over the line and I’m tired of defending it. I need to grit my teeth, and tell myself that Fortnite really is pokies for kids.
And gaming advocates need to stop defending it with exactly the same knee-jerk fervour that current affairs shows and the Daily Mail employ in scaring the bejesus out of all the parents.
Everything sucks when you’re a kid
Despite the italics, the “every single parent” claim is not an exaggerration. They are grieving. It is ruining their family life, and many of them have wonderful family lives that involve bike riding, shack culture, weekend sport, overseas holidays.
Privileged lives. Yet they are fighting with their children to get them into it.
The game tech journo’s knee-jerk standpoint right now is “Well, yeah but it’s up to the parent to not just let their kids play Fortnite all day.”
That’s exactly where all the pain is, cereal box psychologists.
If parents gave their kids unfettered access to Fortnite, there’d be no problem at all. Life would be sweet, and full of Adult Time and huge glasses of excellent red wine.
The problem is not kids playing Fortnite – it’s hardly Carmageddon – it’s telling them it’s time to go abseiling.
“I don’t want to go abseiling. Abseiling sucks.”
“Your two hours is up.”
“TWO HOURS SUCKS. ALL THE OTHER KIDS GET THREE HOURS.”
“Okay, you can have three hours. I’m packing the car, and we’re out of here in another hour.”
One hour, and one minute passes. You know what happens next, and that includes you, gamer journos.
“Dad, I just need to finish (insert any save point/mission/flag excuse here)…”
“Okay, that’s it. I’m turning it off in 5… 4… 3…”
“NO NO NO NO NO NO NO I’ll lose EVERYTHI- NOOOOOOOOO!”
You’ve controlled the screen time. Congratulations. Your day with your family from here on in is ruined.
Tomorrow will be too, when you wake up late on a Sunday and find them in the loungeroom, quiet as mice, where they may have been playing Fortnite since 4am for all you know.
“Right, you’ve already been playing, so you’ve got an hour left.”
“NO! WE ONLY JUST GOT ON!”
Day Two of your weekend ruined.
I’ve had studies come through my inbox on the benefits and harms of gaming for well over a decade now, and yes, I read them all.
They might be right, but they all mean nothing, because there are enough for the For side to filter out all the ones that support the For said, and enough for the Against side to do exactly the same.
Gaming journalists are every bit as guilty of doing that as A Current Affair and the Daily Mail.
The only reality is reality.
Fortnite causes heartache, aggression, and ruination in families like no other game before it.
Some parents are psychologists. Some are gaming journalists. Some don’t work and can manage and be with their kids 24/7.
Everyone else isn’t and can’t, and just because of that, their opinions get casually tossed out the door under the banner of belonging to Parents Who Don’t Spend Enough Time with their Kids.
It succeeds in that not because it’s a technically superior game, or has an engaging plot. It succeeds because of small pings.
Those pings are micro-congratulations for level-ups, achievements, new equipment – “keep going, 11-year-old brain, your next reward is just around the corner, and the next corner, and the next corner”.
The next Fortnite will only be more successful if it can successfully evolve those addictive elements. And the Fortnite after that, and the one after that.
And at some stage, its defenders will have to put up their hands and say “You know what? There actually might be something kids find addictive about these games.”
And just like you wouldn’t let your kids play the pokies with their pocket money – because their brains aren’t developed enough to be able to ignore the small victories and see the bigger loss – you might start to limit your kids’ access to certain types of games.
So this isn’t an op-ed from someone saying Fortnite should be banned, or Fortnite isn’t a great game. It shouldn’t, and it is.
It’s just not suitable for kids. And maybe “deliberately addictive gameplay” has now evolved to the point where it should should be considered a classification issue along with violence and sexual content.
It’s pretty simple. We say you can’t play them, until you’re old enough to play them.
You can’t play them until your brains are conditioned enough to know what’s bad for you. Until your brain knows how to spot a trap.
Because once again, we’ve taken a nice thing and made it so perhaps at least some of us shouldn’t have that nice thing.
This is incredibly hard for a lifelong gamer to say.
Don’t write in
So here come the caveats. All of the above is absolutely a case of a few bad games spoiling the barrel.
If anything, that should make it easier for industry defenders to stop and say to parents okay, we’re on your side here. Mainly, because if they let games like Fortnite define the industry, the industry will forever be tarred while they do.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of video games for your kids to play that don’t cause problems in households.
Fortnite isn’t one of them. And honestly, if you can’t see that and feel compelled to defend it, you’re deliberately not looking.
Feel free to defend, but I’m not listening. It’s not enough to say if you and your kids can’t handle Fortnite, don’t let your kids play Fortnite. The age restriction (12+) says we can, and because we’re human, we want our kids to look forward to going to school.
There comes a time when you have to stop and think “OK, those are actual parent tears”.
That’s because I love the gaming industry, and I want it to show that it cares about me too, and I want it to be a well-regarded industry.
When I talk with the other parents about games, I want that conversation to be – once again – a conversation about how much fun we had as a family.
Because if the games aren’t fun for everyone any more, maybe we need to stop calling them “games”.
*This is an opinion column.
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