What Fortnite did for my sanity and family ties
Most men in their 50s aren’t gamers. At least not the guys I know. We middle-aged people don’t even look like gamers. We’re not even close to the image one conjures up when asked to imagine a player.
Mention “gamer” instead and an image of a prepubescent with eyeballs fixed on a screen, holding a gamepad or mouse in one hand while the other clicks on a keyboard, his head adorned with headphones and a mic, surrounded by empty pop cans, potato chip packets, chocolate bars and candy wrappers.
It looks bad. He looks lazy. Of course, we now know that’s anything but lazy. For gamers, it’s a real sport, maybe even an art form. In most cases, it is positively a social environment for children. They are there to have fun. Some play for fame, influence and even money.
But it’s not me. I suck at these games. I don’t earn much. When I do, it’s a sad display of contorted dance moves meant to serve as jubilation the likes of which my wife hasn’t seen since I played beer league softball. What’s even sadder is that the only ones seeing it are my wife and 9 year old son. First they laughed. Now they look at me with pity.
So, “How did I get here?” you might ask. At 51, why did I play fortnite every day for two months? Yes, I know I don’t look like the typical player. Most people won’t think of an overweight, bald, out of shape Gen Xer with a voice as deep as Leonard Cohen going toe-to-toe with a young player halfway around the world.
Plus, whoever that little kid is, he or she usually kicks my ass.
No. I’m definitely not here for the fame or the money.
The path to my gamerdom probably doesn’t seem that unusual. However, my motivations do not correspond to those of a traditional player. It’s because I started playing to connect with my son. And, to be completely honest, I started playing because it looked like fun.
Frankly, it’s a weird environment for someone my age. I didn’t realize this during my recent foray into the game, but I’m absolutely, positively, the eccentric on fortnite. Yes, there are a lot of children in this game. A lot. It’s rated T for teens, but I feel like there are more kids my son’s age than actual “teens” playing this game. According to Dot Esports, the rating “ T” simply means that the game is suitable for players aged 13 and over, and parents of young children should take this into account when allowing them to play the game.
That’s exactly what we did as parents of an obsessive 9-year-old Fortniter. We had (and still have) long discussions with Ozzie about the game, who plays, and how to make smart choices when interacting with others in the game.
Yet therein lies a big problem for the player in his 50s. There are options to play the game with headset and microphone as you can team up with other players. Playing fortnite in teams (groups of four) is a popular option among younger players. You are supposed to communicate with these other players. Of course, they all sound like my son and not like Johnny Cash. So I can’t very well drop my deep, deep dad voice in open chat.
Sorry. I know scary when I hear it. It is a strange border that I will not cross.
When my 9 year old started playing, he was motivated by connecting with his friends. It was a way to get together after school. I hid over his shoulder, convinced some weirdo would try to befriend him. If I heard a voice like mine on the other end of the line, I would have questions. A lot of questions. So I can’t (I don’t want to) play fortnite like the others, unless they suddenly come up with a special “over 30s” league for us oldies.
Yes, I just called you “old” thirtysomethings (at least I didn’t call you “Boom…” oh too bad).
But when Ozzie performed, that didn’t happen. No foreign danger, at least not yet. I know his friends and they know dad doesn’t just watch, he plays. While I’m sure there are some weird predators out there who want to hurt kids like my son, it felt like a safe enough environment, partly because I was one of them – even if it was a bit strange when my son’s friends started sending me friend requests.
I politely declined, by the way (or maybe I ignored them; I don’t remember).
Watching with worried parent eyes as Ozzie played, I was hooked. There was an ease with which I adapted to the gameplay, which was very important for someone who doesn’t have the same fine motor skills as a 9-year-old. It’s important because I’m an old man who finds escape in a children’s game. Some people my age have other hobbies to release and unwind after a particularly stressful or busy day. Maybe it’s exercise or a good book. Maybe it’s the TV or the music. It might be a long hike through Mill Creek Park.
My stress reliever – at least right now – happens to be a game I downloaded on the Nintendo Switch (funny note: it’s actually my Nintendo Switch, a 50th birthday gift from my kids because I was always stealing their Switch to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But I digress.) It’s been good for me, for my sanity, for my bond with my son.
In fact, play fortnite had two very positive results.
First, my son feels more connected to me. My daughters are fortnite hateful. They hate everything associated with gaming and think it’s pretty hilarious that Dad is now a Fortniter. Now Ozzie has someone at home who cares. fortnite almost as much as him. It is wrapped in the tradition of fortnite, the stories that surround the game. Before my interest, he only had his friends to share these stories with. Now he has me, and I love hearing that little voice share with me his view of the world (even a virtual one).
Apparently, I’m late to the party because there are a lot of stories from past chapters and seasons that I missed. He feels like he’s teaching me important facts, even though I know those stories won’t really help me play the game.
He’s damn good at it, both play the game and in the story of fortnite traditions. He wants me to learn all the characters and their stories and repeat them to him. He questions me from time to time, and I’m proud to say that I’m beginning to understand (even if it doesn’t help me earn a Victory Crown in a solo match).
This storytelling is the best part of how he and I share the experience. We went to a YSU basketball game and he spent the entire first half talking to me about fortnite, clearly indifferent to the awesome game that was playing right in front of him. But he had my full attention, and that was more important than a few slam dunks and a YSU win.
The second outcome is a little harder to describe but just as important to my mental health.
I get excited when I win fortnite. My blood pumps a little faster when I earn a Victory Crown or level up after completing an important quest. As insignificant as that sounds (and believe me, I know how that sounds), I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
People my age tend to become more nostalgic as we get older, thinking back to fulfilling lives personally and professionally, reviewing timelines of triumphant moments, searching for images from our past that make us reminisce, smile and cry. . We do this because we want to rekindle the feelings of youth, perhaps capture the faded memories of sitting in front of a big screen TV playing Mike Tyson Punch!! on the original Nintendo or maybe Pac man on an Atari 2600 console or Pong.
It doesn’t matter what the games are, because what really matters is that playing them makes me feel like a kid again. When I play, I feel a bit immature, in a good way, even for a few minutes. When I’m playing games and the virtual world gets a little intense, I like the feelings of euphoric stress, like watching the end of a close sports match or the climax of a horror movie – a good type of stress that excites the senses.
Sure. I started playing fortnite because it was a fun and exciting way to reconnect with my childhood. Maybe even to relax a bit. But the fact that I can play to connect with my child is hands down the only victory, influence, or quest reward I’ll ever need.
— Adam Earnheard is a professor of communication at YSU, executive director of the Youngstown Press Club, and Acting Executive Director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Follow him on Twitter at @adamarn.