You can almost hear a collective sigh rising from America's parents: How do we get our kids back from the black hole that is "Fortnite?"
The "Hunger Games"-style, multi-player online gaming phenomenon produced by Epic Games has captured the minds and hearts of the nation's tweens and teens — almost literally. The game, which is free to play, had almost 250 million players in the spring of 2019. Fortnite made nearly $2.5 billion in 2018, largely off of micro-transactions within the game in which players can buy "skins" for their characters or new dance moves.
In fact, the game even inspired a dance craze among its young fans recognizable to any weary parent: "flossing."
"I hate it. It consumes his brain," said Indianapolis, Indiana, mom Sumer Ramsey, whose 14-year-old son spent the summer playing the game. "He talks about his character like it’s real. He spends his real money on packs of virtual crap. He gets livid when he dies, and I do a happy dance." Ramsey said she heard her son's alarm go off at 5:30 one morning, and she knew it was so he could start playing "Fortnite."
Tracey Albert of Houlton, Maine, said her 7-year-old son is mad she won't let him play "Fortnite" 24 hours a day. Albert said he has pretended to go to sleep and then sneaked out of bed and stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. secretly playing. "Some of his friends play too, so I know I’m not alone," she said. "One of his friend’s moms is a teacher. It makes me feel a little better."
The only people tired of "Fortnite," it seems, are parents. But is "Fortnite" bad for kids? Does anything good come from the hours our kids are spending glued to their screens in an effort to score the coveted Victory Royale?
"'Fortnite is what your child makes it," parenting and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa told TODAY Parents. "There are amazing opportunities for collaboration, communication, problem-solving, perseverance, and other skills that make our kids into the humans we hope they can be."
But that doesn't mean the game doesn't offer many opportunities to promote bad behavior, Gilboa warned — everything from foul language to "befriending" imposters on the internet. "Supervise your kids, especially kids under 14, while they play this game," she advised. "This is a great chance to model moderation and caution while playing something that builds important skills and is a ton of fun.”
Parents admit "Fortnite" isn't all bad. Julie Miner told TODAY Parents her son and daughter bonded while playing "Fortnite" together, "A nice change from arguing non-stop," she noted.
Miner said her 13-year-old son also talked about how the game "encourages paying attention to your environment, to many different moving pieces, and making split second decisions that you need to take responsibility for.
"He was saying, 'You make these decisions on the fly, and you deal with the consequences of them,'" said Miner, an adjunct professor of public health at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
Mandy Brasher of Stansbury Park, Utah, said that "Fortnite" actually helped her 12-year-old son stay social over the summer. "He doesn't have a phone to contact friends, so he uses the game to make plans," she told TODAY Parents. "He will play for a bit, then meet that friend at the pool. I think he is more social this summer because his friends are on it and he can talk to them and see them more often."
Even teachers see benefits to the game. Lily Read, a 10th grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that she has seen "Fortnite" act as an "equalizer" among her students.
"Some of my students who are not very social or outgoing have engaged in conversation with the more 'popular' students about the game," Read said. "And if you're good at 'Fortnite,' there is a respect given that supercedes social positioning in a way I have found very intriguing."
Knowing that "Fortnite" might be transcending the social hierarchies of high school might take the sting out of the next time you find a charge on your credit card statement and realize that you spent real money buying a virtual character a new dance move.
But probably not.
Editor's note: This story was first published on Aug. 20, 2018, and has been updated.