American kids used to get highly contagious diseases — the kind with unsightly, itchy spots and disgusting, pus-oozing splotches. It was part of growing up, practically a rite of passage.
Those days of measles and mumps are pretty much behind us — and thank God for that. But there is a new health threat tearing through the ranks of the young, the physical symptoms of which include headaches, fatigue, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite. In some of the worst cases, children find themselves isolated from the normal day-to-day doings of the outside world; they are lost in a fog and seemingly unable to break the grip of a “fever” that has, in the parlance of the Digital Age, gone viral.
This nasty little condition is “gaming disorder,” a technologically driven addiction that was diagnosed by the World Health Organization and officially announced at the end of the school year — just in time for anxious parents to plan a summer-long intervention.
It is long been presumed that children haven’t caught fireflies or gotten poison ivy since Eisenhower was president. Improvisational playtime is a quaint concept. (Do children even climb trees anymore?) The Westchester County Parks Department recently had a campaign urging youngsters to “Go Outside and Play,” as an alternative to the sedentary practice of being left to their own devices — that is to say, their electronic devices.
Rather than communing with nature, many undoubtedly chose to stay indoors and play a video game called Fortnite — which was identified by the mental-health police as the main culprit in the gaming disorder scourge. Fortnite is played by millions.
I was unaware of this cultural phenomenon until a middle-school teacher told me how her students jabbered on and on about “Fortnite!” and how she initially thought they were referring to the archaic word fortnight. Of course this astonished her, since few adults, let alone middle-schoolers, even know the definition of “fortnight.”
Fortnite is a kind of video replication of The Hunger Games and other last-person-standing survival fantasies. It entails airdropping 100 players onto a virtual island where the object is to kill or be killed. Included are an assortment of exotic weapons and colorful costumes.
Defenders of the game say Fortnite encourages teamwork and analytical thinking. They say there is a whimsical side to it that should suppress fears that it glorifies violence.
But no one denies that Fortnite can be highly addictive — as evidenced by the infamous case of a 9-year-old British girl whose addiction was so severe that she preferred to wet herself than leave the game to take a bathroom break.
In the waning days of the 2017-18 school year, I distributed a questionnaire to 37 girls and boys, ages 11 to 13, who attended a parochial school in Lower Westchester. All but one said they played Fortnite. And I’m sure that one kid was fibbing, as he contradicted himself multiple times.
More than a few claimed they played Fortnite several hours a day, often staying up well past midnight — even on school nights. One kid said he once played it for nine straight hours, finally stopping at dawn. Another said, “I don’t go to sleep.”
When asked whether they played the game on their phones during school, the answer was an emphatic “No” from all except one subversive sixth-grader, who replied “Yes” followed by 10 exclamation points.
Three out of the 37 students surveyed used the word “addicting” in describing why they liked Fortnite. And most admitted that their parents worried about the amount of time they spent playing it. One kid said, “My mother yells at me, but she don’t [sic] understand the grind.” Another replied, “They say I should go read or study.” Still another said, “They say it’s dumb.”
Parents have reason to be concerned. But here’s at least a little bit of good news: When asked if they had to pick between Fortnite and going outside to play with friends, many of the students said they preferred the latter.
It turns out they liked basketball, too.
So is Fortnite a plague? Ask the parents of that British girl. But perhaps it’s just a phase, something to outgrow or get through, like the measles.
Not to wax too poetical, but ultimately, this too shall pass… except it will take longer than a fortnight.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email firstname.lastname@example.org