It wasn’t my 11-year-old son’s obsession with Fortnite which got me worried. He’s like this with most things, just not vegetables, homework, fruit, tidying his room and remembering where he put his shinpads.
No, it was when he sat down in front of the screen for his latest, strictly-supervised hour-long session and his sisters, aged nine and six, arranged themselves at his feet like ladies of the court of an omnipotent emperor who was about to view some violent entertainment from a throne.
These are girls with their own obsessions and they include dancing, crop-tops, talking in Disney accents, singing with X-Factor melodrama and the colour which Farrow & Ball might call “Lucinda blushing at the debutante’s ball” but you and I know as pink.
And the moment which got me really concerned about Fortnite was when my youngest daughter asked the oldest: “What’s your favourite gun?”
Fortnite is sweeping the nation. Do we still say that about the latest crazes? In this case we definitely should. Kids have gone mad for the video game and parents are being driven demented as the TV gets commandeered and normal family life gets suspended. And before we go any further, I’m not saying that Fortnite is boy’s stuff and girls can’t be interested in rocket launchers with a rarity rating of “legendary”, a firing capability of 0.75 and a damage classification of 121. Don’t get all #Time’s Up on me or I’ll be forced to unleash my thermal-scoped assault rifle.
Of course I don’t have this weapon (it’s the subject of feverish chatroom speculation and not yet available). I don’t play Fortnite or didn’t until two days ago. My wife had been on at me to have a go so I could better understand the mania but out of some fanciful belief that it would all be over by the middle of next week, allied to old-fart conviction about the fads of my youth being more fun, more epoch-making and more worthy of being celebrated on one of these nostalgia-based list shows featuring celebs you don’t know, I was reluctant. Then I read the front-page headline: “Girl, 9, in rehab over Fortnite game addiction.”
The story detailed how the girl had been playing through the night, having waited until her parents had gone to bed. She would get so wrapped up in the game that she couldn’t leave the screen and ended up wetting herself. At school she would fall asleep in the classroom. The girl was now in “intensive therapy” to deal with her obsession for Fortnite. “We had no idea, when we let our daughter play, of its addictive nature or the impact it would have on her mental health,” her mother said.
I looked at my children - could they end up in this sorry state? One is scared of the dark, another can doze off during lessons without any assistance, while for the third, being top of the class dojo points-table is the raison d’etre - nevertheless I decided to take the threat seriously. “OK,” I said, “teach me.”
So that was when I was being fired out of a flying bus and spurting luminous green vapor trails while hurtling towards a small island. “It looks like the one from The Treasure of Captain Claw,” I said, referring to a favourite bedtime picture-book from when the kids were younger. Daughter No 1 threw me a look which translated as: “We’ve moved on, Dad - why don’t you?”
Fortnite is a mass online pagger and your aim, as one of 100 players at any given time, is to be the last man or woman standing. You yomp around the island searching for WMDs - weapons of mass distraction. Even after Googling hints on “How to survive in Fortnite if you’re old and slow”, I couldn’t work the handset very well and took to hiding behind a tree. My children thought this was ridiculous. “You’re not very brave, Dad,” scoffed Daughter No 2.
Now, I’m of the Superball generation - the explosive knob of vulcanised rubber the size of a plum was my obsession, aged 11. I could argue we played with it outside in the fresh air and I do, suggesting to the kids that the verdant, computer-generated Fortnite landscape should be trampled by real footsteps, but the truth is that Superballs were quite limited, once you’d boinged them off a wall a few times. Fortnite, for someone whose only previous exposure to video games was Space Invaders, is good fun. I can see the appeal, and the addictiveness, and I can’t pretend I wasn’t happy with finishing ninth out of 100, a consequence of beginner’s luck but mostly tree-hugging, before being blown to smithereens by ItsMeWhoKildU.
It wasn’t a painful death. The slayings in Fortnite aren’t bloody but completely cartoonish. In an actual cartoon like Tom and Jerry, being pancaked by a flying anvil and forced to slither around in that state seems more violent. And I for one could hardly complain about Fortnite getting kids used to guns when my junior arsenal wasn’t virtual. You were fingering triggers, even if they were toy ones, on potato guns, cap guns, water pistols, cowboy rifles, WW2 Lugers, paratrooper sten guns and replicas of the shooters with silencers that The Man from UNCLE’s Illya Kuryakin would perch of the shoulder of Napoleon Solo and casually blow away another enemy spy.
I think, too, of the gore splattered across my bubblegum cards of the American Civil War with soldiers and their horses impaled on spikes and tell myself: Fortnite’s all right, it just needs managed. Like all crazes it will pass. But it does not signify the end of childhood.
That came when the last Superball bounced off the production-line.