Amos and I were walking out of the gym after basketball practice last weekend when he saw a friend inside the lobby. He bolted to the window, rapped on the glass, and began performing a very particular dance. He put one hand—fingers in the shape of an L—to his forehead; his legs jutted back and forth like a dancing bear on a pendulum.
Puzzled, I watched. Then I pulled out my phone. “Siri, show me a dance with an L.”
“Whenever you feel me vibrating, that's me doing the jitterbug,” answered Siri, as robotically unhelpful as ever. It was, of course, YouTube that provided the answer: “It's ‘Take the L,’ from Fortnite.”
“But he doesn't play Fortnite,” I mumbled in protest. If Siri had eyes she would have rolled them, and shot a knowing look at YouTube.
Although 250 million people play Fortnite, most of them tweens, I thought my family was like Brad Pitt's in World War Z, standing behind the mighty walls of Jerusalem as the zombie hordes scratched and clawed at the sandstone walls below. Apparently, the zombies were over the wall.
A few months earlier, my wife and I had spent an anguished night exploring and debating the game. The kids made their pleas. Amos, the 8-year-old, explained that “the daily challenges reeeeally make you want to play it.” The kids at school are always talking about them, he said, and if you don't know what they are, you're not just not in on the joke—you're a fraud. Ed, our oldest (these aren't their real names), said he wanted to play because increasingly that was all that was happening at other kids' houses. One recent afternoon, he said, two kids who had the game on their phones played each other, ignoring another who didn't have Fortnite—or a phone.
We were saddened by our youngest's desperation, and pained by our oldest's isolation. But Fortnite is bad. Right? First-person shooter games and dancing on corpses you just shot: Bad, aren't they? I'm not a milquetoast. I've played Call of Duty; I know why people play shooters. Mowing down Axis powers or training a plasma rifle on the Flood in Halo is cathartic; and that heart-in-throat intensity. Yet alone in our bedroom at night, my wife and I worry that practicing killing—nay, celebrating killing—makes you, if not reptilian, at least desensitized and less humane. We are still trying to shield our children from the horror of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. And I can't bear the thought of my youngest—who as a 3-year-old broke my heart pretending to be a puppy, shaking his tush and saying, “I'm wagging my tail for you!”—now asking me if a thermal-scoped assault rifle would kill more people than a minigun. It's too grotesque a metamorphosis.
So we chose to specifically and explicitly ban the game. And we spent subsequent days in strong armlock. You have to be together on this, because Fortnite is everywhere. It is in the back seat during carpool (if also explicitly banned there). It is in the victory dances during basketball. Even when they're not playing, they're talking about it.
So, no to Fortnite, anywhere. Even as we understand that we are our grandparents tut-tutting Elvis' pelvic swivel. We bear our children's burning hatred, for that is our job. Then, one day not long ago, my wife overheard them talking. About Fortnite. In a profoundly inside way. We had to face it. Our children were playing Fortnite.
I was raised on Long Island by German immigrant parents who were unlikely hippies. My father had been conscripted into the German Army during World War II at age 16, and in one fight he was hit by a volley of bullets. One round pierced his forearm, leaving a quarter-sized hole between the radial and ulnar bones. Another hit him in the ankle. The leg got badly infected. Field staff told him they'd have to amputate if it didn't get better soon. The day before they were scheduled to amputate, he convinced a medic to intervene—by holding him down as he bit into a belt and draining the pus out of his leg with knitting needles heated in a fireplace. The one time I was allowed to ask about the war, he told me that he got the medic to help by giving him cigarettes and a chocolate bar. Decades later, the spot where the bullet had entered was a patch of gnarly flesh. He rarely took off his socks, even in the summer. He hated war. He hated guns more. And still I played Call of Duty.
Growing up in the 1970s and '80s, I suffered the cultural privations of a child of immigrants. My father's incomprehension of American football and baseball was matched only by my mother's love for ballet and Bach. The TV was tuned permanently to PBS. My mother sent me to parochial school with untradable lunches of Bavarian cold cuts, made of what looked like bovine spinal cords. I didn't even know what an inning was until I was 11. I am still not clear on a touchback (for years I assumed it was when NFL players patted each other on the ass).
I vowed that my children would play American sports and have access to Cheetos. They wouldn't suffer the indignity that I can still feel of having to publicly admit in first grade that, in fact, I had no idea what Eight Is Enough was. I don't want my children to sit alone in lunchrooms. But I also don't want kids who are inured to gun violence or who play games that glorify it. I found myself mired in doubt, trying to figure out how we align our values when they conflict.
So we reopened the Fortnite conversation. Amos just loves the game. He's sorry, he can't help it. (“The skins, Dad! The skins are so cool!”) Ed thinks the dances are dumb, and he thinks it's boring to talk about incessantly, but he has a point when he says to me, plaintively and exasperatedly, “What am I supposed to do when they all play it? Leave?” And it's not as if I can force them to come to our house and play Gran Turismo Sport. (Though if you haven't laid down a thick patch of rubber burning out a snarling Porsche 911 GT3 RS, you have missed one of life's unalloyed joys.)
About a week after the L dance was decoded, and 72 hours after the carpool surveillance, my wife and I convened the Fortnite security council again. Sitting in bed, we agreed: It was time to go full chickenshit. We'd adopt a “Don't ask, don't tell” stance. As long as our children appear to honor our no-Fortnite rule at home, we'll agree to pretend they also do so abroad. And for our first time as parents—likely the first of many, but who knew it would come this soon?—we understood that the choice wasn't really ours the whole time.
Claude Brodesser-Akner (@ClaudeBrodesser) lives in New Jersey. He's written for Variety, New York magazine, and NPR.
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