The moral panic over Fortnite and the "purpose" of play

Just because the childhoods we view now are not exactly the same as our own doesn’t mean they are invalid.

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The recent Fortnite World Cup stirred up a lot of interesting reactions. It was great to see an increased awareness of esports and the hard work and dedication it takes to play games professionally, but amid the attention a particular narrative developed, that somehow knowing there is a potential career in the game makes it more acceptable to play. The idea that play in and of itself isn’t enough, that there needs to be some tangible benefit, either through the development of transferable skills or by going pro, is common, but it can undermine the play itself.

This tension between play as pure escapism and play as a purposeful endeavour has been argued for centuries and has contributed to boundaries between what we consider acceptable and unacceptable play. My research into historical play has uncovered many examples.

There's the Edwardian father who banned all games from the house after his own father wouldn’t stop playing Ludo. Or the concerns over the inclusion of dice in board games because of their association with gambling. There was a backlash against “morbid” toys such as models of bombed houses complete with ambulance and anti-aircraft gun being sold in Britain during the First World War.

To some, the study of play and games may sound frivolous, but discussions around Fortnite show how concerns about the morality and influence of games and play are as present today as they were a century ago. By studying a longer history of play we can see the roots of our modern understandings of what play is, and the forms it should take. Video games are the latest in a long line of moral panics that highlight societal issues, particularly pertaining to childhood being viewed as a time of training, education, and susceptibility to influences.

The benefits of video games are often framed in terms of skill development. Their potential for helping to improve reaction times or problem-solving abilities is used to justify and argue for their presence to be accepted as a valid and valuable form of play. I know I’ve definitely done this when speaking to worried parents or the ever-scrutinising media. Sometimes it’s easier to defend things on the terms presented than to query the value of the question itself. Improving problem-solving skills and reaction times is obviously a good thing, but why do we insist on validating forms of play through these narrow ideas of cognitive value? We know play is an important aspect of child development, but if every form of play is categorised as either acceptable or unacceptable because of ideas of improvement we are devaluing important experiences centred on enjoyment.

Fortnite has been used by some to demonstrate how today’s youth are not having the “correct” childhoods because they are engaging in the “wrong” forms of play. There is a lot to unpack here. These responses are often based on nostalgia surrounding the person’s own childhood: if the current culture of play does not match their own it must be negative. But just because the childhoods we view now are not exactly the same as our own doesn’t mean they are invalid. Perhaps instead of attacking an unfamiliar form of play we should instead be focusing on questions about the spaces children are allowed to inhabit, such as the public spaces in cities which have become increasingly privatised, and the dichotomy of wishing young people would go outside while also reducing the places we allow them to gather. Are these different types of play even available to all children? Can we encourage variety in activity without invalidating one form of play and the experience of those engaging with it?  Play is one aspect of a healthy lifestyle; we shouldn’t attempt to discredit one form of play in an attempt to encourage other, more socially approved, activities.

That is not to say all critiques of Fortnite and its systems are invalid. There are real issues that games need to tackle such as loot boxes, a mechanic in which players can buy a box filled with random items or customisations for the game that can often resemble gambling. Toxicity within gaming communities is an ongoing battle. The human cost and the working conditions of those creating games like Fortnite is concerning, and the pressure that success puts on developers.

But instead of simply chastising people for playing Fortnite or embracing its presence only when we feel it has some potential financial purpose, perhaps we need to question our presumption that play should be serving a purpose, that it should be improving a narrowly defined set of skills. We should remember play is valid in and of itself.

Holly Nielsn is a historian of play and a journalist specialising in video games, she tweets at @nielsen_holly.