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Stanford experts provide guidance for how parents and teachers can navigate the Fortnite craze

May 14, 2018
By Julia James
Man playing video games. Photo by Adobe Stock
Parents and teachers can navigate the Fortnite craze by setting limits but also being involved, Stanford experts say. (Photo: F8studio/Adobe Stock)
The latest video-game trend can provide some new ways to engage children but don’t be afraid of setting age-appropriate limits, experts say.

Much has been written about Fortnite: Battle Royale. The multiplayer shooter game has more than 45 million participants and, thanks to a mobile version, is proving to be a major classroom and home distraction. How should parents and teachers approach it? We asked Stanford experts in education and communication to offer their insights from research and their own experiences working with teachers and families.

And while Fortnite may be the current craze, these tips should, generally, help when the next diversion comes along.

Games can support robust learning practices

Kids who play Fortnite and other similar games willingly engage in a complicated activity for long periods of time. They practice teamwork, collaboration, strategic thinking, spatial understanding and imagination—and when they lose, they’re highly motivated to try again for a better result.

But there’s more to gaming than just “tapping buttons within a single virtual world,” says Antero Garcia, an assistant professor in Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE). Many players also engage in a wrap-around culture that encourages the sharing of strategy articles, YouTube videos, a kind of fan fiction and more. 

They are also highly addictive, and have been shown to reduce empathy

Needless to say, we’ve come a long way from early version video games. Designers “know a lot more about the cognitive structures that shape how people play and get addicted to gaming, and you can see those things in a game like Fortnite,” Garcia says.

They’ve also become much smarter about extracting different kinds of capital—whether that’s personal information, through the linking of social media profiles, or money, through the purchasing of virtual currency.

And while Fortnite is more cartoonish than other first-person shooter games, it shares the same essential structures. Those haven’t been shown to make kids more violent in real life, but there’s good evidence they do reduce empathy.

Recent research has also suggested that kids are having a harder time reading faces and understanding emotional cues, thanks to digital immersion.

That mix of good and bad can be frustrating

Twenty-five years of research have confirmed that, with games, “you are what you eat,” says Byron Reeves, professor of communication and by courtesy education —and Fortnite has both healthy and unhealthy ingredients.

As a parent or teacher, you certainly have the option of saying, ‘That’s trash; don’t touch it,’” says Reeves. “But you might be throwing out a little good with the bad.”

Instead, he and his colleagues recommend a few alternative approaches.

Make classwork more engaging

One consensus recommendation for teachers: take some of the stuff kids like about Fortnite, and build that into your own lessons.

“The working with others, the collaboration—particularly at the middle school and high school level – that’s what kids crave,” says GSE senior lecturer Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success. “The more you can plan interactive lessons, the better.”

Consider stricter rules on phones, to keep Fortnite out of your classroom …

Self-regulation is not a strong point for teenagers—our prefrontal cortexes are not fully formed until we’re in our late 20’s—and phones are hard to resist. (Research has shown they’re a distraction even when they’re simply lying on a desk, face-down.)

Ask students to keep phones in their backpacks, Pope recommends, or build them intentionally into the design of a lesson. In either case, don’t just stand at the front of the classroom; walk around.

… or open it up as an avenue of inquiry

Garcia sees rich learning potential in active engagement.

“If you have a lot of kids who are playing Fortnite, then that seems like a real opportunity to think about the kinds of connections you can make,” Garcia says. “Turn it into an intellectual enterprise.”

Have students articulate why the game is important to them. How is it relevant to what they’re working on in school? What kinds of things do they think they’re learning or not learning from it? What assumptions, what kinds of ideology and ethos are built into the game? What are the representations of men and women? Who voices the characters and do those racialize them in any kind of way?

“Co-constructing the argument with students—that could be some powerful learning they probably aren’t getting around other types of products,” Garcia says.

Strive for balance

At home, Reeves, Pope and Garcia all support the same classic advice: everything in moderation. Let kids be kids, and unwind from structured activities; promote physical activity, and face-to-face friendship and interaction; protect their sleep; and set clear, age-appropriate screen-time rules.

And don’t worry if you feel like you’re behind the curve.

“It’s never too late,” Pope says. “You have a young person living in your home. It’s absolutely okay to say, ‘Hey, I just read this research; we’re going to make some changes.’”

Additional resources

Byron Reeves talks about task-switching and online distractions on the GSE podcast, "School's In," on Stanford Radio/Sirius XM

Antero Garcia talks about the use of technology in the classroom on the GSE podcast, "School's In," on Stanford Radio/Sirius XM