No sacred cows

Video games like Fortnite are fun — so they must be bad

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

It was only a matter of time. The headteacher of a primary school in Ilfracombe in Devon has banned ‘Flossing’, the dance craze linked to the video game Fortnite, on the grounds that it’s being used to ‘intimidate’ other children. ‘Fortnite is about mass killing of other human beings and being rewarded by a dance of celebration if you are successful,’ she told the Telegraph.

This is the latest example of the moral panic surrounding Fortnite, a video game in which up to 100 players compete against each other, either individually or in ‘squads’, to see who can be the last man standing. So far this year, the National Crime Agency has warned that it is putting children at risk from online paedophiles, Matt Hancock has condemned it for ‘damaging’ children’s lives and the Daily Mail ran a story about it under the following headline: ‘Girl, nine, is in rehab after becoming so addicted to Fortnite video game she “wet herself to continue playing and hit her father in the face when he tried to take
away her Xbox’’.’

The panic shows no signs of subsiding. Fortnite was released by a US company called Epic Games last July, but only took off when Epic released a free-to-play version called Battle Royale. It now has 40 million players worldwide and that number looks set to grow, thanks in part to the World Cup. Dele Alli, the Tottenham midfielder now in the England team, busted out a Fortnite dance when he scored England’s second goal against Sweden last Saturday — in this case ‘Feed The Pony’ rather than ‘Flossing’. When Antoine Griezmann scored the opening goal for France against Argentina he celebrated by making an ‘L’ shape with his thumb and forefinger, grabbing his crotch and hopping from one foot to the other, a Fortnite dance known as ‘Take The L’. Expect to see similar celebrations at Sunday’s final.

There are other aspects of the game that could prove equally problematic once the mainstream media cottons on to them. My 13-year-old son — who’s been known to spend 12 hours a day playing it — sometimes chooses a female avatar, which could conceivably be objected to by trans exclusionary radical feminists, although there are no lavatories or changing rooms in the Fortnite ‘sandbox’ so I can’t see how he’d take advantage of this to enter any female-only spaces. Then again, the fact that gender reassignment is achievable at the click of a button might be singled out by conservative evangelicals as a reason to ban the game. More controversially, you can choose an African–American avatar and, to amp things up even further, the avatars are referred to within the game as ‘skins’. In effect, tens of millions of ‘privileged’ white males, mainly in Britain and America, are ‘blacking up’ on a daily basis to prepare themselves for mortal combat. I’m not sure whether that falls under the heading of ‘cultural appropriation’ or ‘racial profiling’, but it must be some kind of sin in the eyes of the identitarian left. David Lammy take note. This could be an even better vehicle for self–promotion than complaining about nonexistent racial bias in Oxford admissions.

Or maybe not. Critics of games like Fortnite imagine that the brains of adolescents and young adults are profoundly affected by exposure to ‘inappropriate’ content, whether violence or pornography, but there isn’t much evidence for that. The most important personality traits are between 40 and 60 per cent heritable and insofar as the environment has an effect on people’s behaviour it is generally in ways which aren’t obvious. A study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2009 found that people are less likely to commit violent crime after being exposed to violent media content, not more. Using data from America’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, the researchers discovered that on weekends when violent blockbusters are released, the number of violent crimes falls. They hypothesised that the reason for this is because people with violent dispositions cannot get up to mischief — or not much, anyway — while sitting in cinemas, and are less likely to engage in violent activities afterwards because they haven’t consumed alcohol. The researchers concluded: ‘Our estimate suggests that in the short run, violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend.’

So all power to the Fortnite fad. It has brought a lot of harmless pleasure to millions and will continue to do so.

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