Has it truly been only a few months since Fortnite, the massively popular battle royale video game, entered our lives and living rooms? In that time, the game has become a cultural phenomenon — it is, in fact, the most popular free-to-play console video game in history – and a massive scourge on society in the eyes of many parents and educators. Articles and memes about Fortnite addiction have already appeared, and it’s next to impossible to utter the word “Fortnite” in a group of parents without receiving an eye roll, exasperated sigh, or earful in return.
But while the game, on its surface, looks to be nothing more than a cooperative first-person shooter game, it’s actually encouraging the growth of four crucial 21st century competencies: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication.
More than a decade ago, the National Education Association helped establish the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. The effort was fueled by increasing recognition that the skills educators once focused on – the so-called “Three Rs” of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – were no longer sufficient. To thrive and compete in the global economy, students must also be able to collaborate and communicate. Critical thinking and creativity are essential skills as well because in a world in which nearly all knowledge is available in an instant, what matters most is one’s ability to evaluate and combine that knowledge. In time, the constellation of collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and communication became known as “the Four Cs,” and educators nationwide have devoted a lot of time and energy into figuring out how to teach them to today’s students. With mixed success.
Meanwhile, in my living room…
“Open your map and look at Tilted…Stay with me. Let’s go, boys!”
Though I can only hear half the conversation, it’s clear that my 12-year-old son is leading his squad into battle. The boys use headphones, microphones and the magic of the World Wide Web to coordinate their moves. They use the map and their past experience with the game to develop strategies, and adapt their plan in real-time:
“Help! Help! Somebody! I need shotgun ammo! The guy I killed, I know he had shotgun ammo…”
My son’s teammates respond to his mayday call. One goes to the site of the kill and “picks up” the ammo left behind by a now-deceased character, and shares it with my son. My son, in turn, is quick to help his teammates:
“I can hold five bandages. I can take your bandages and a med kit.” (Players can each carry an allotted amount of equipment. If one player has too much, he can transfer some of his load to a teammate, who can share the equipment as needed.)
At times, their conversations get heated. My son’s voice rises, and I can tell there’s conflict within the group. The team doesn’t agree on strategy, or someone has deviated from the game plan and put his teammates at risk: “Dude, no!” But even these disagreements, I think, have value. While playing together, the boys learn just how far they can push one another, and they learn how to work through frustration and disagreement. Together, they evaluate and adjust their strategy: “If we’d built the wall, we would’ve lived. Well, at least one of us would’ve lived.”
When my son plays Fortnite, he’s developing highly marketable skills. If you think that’s hyperbole, consider the fact that large companies consistently rank “collaboration” and “teamwork” as “very important” or “absolutely essential” on surveys measuring the importance of various employability skills. Already, it’s incredibly common for project teams to collaborate virtually, via headsets and video chat; people who have never met in person often work together to achieve a common goal.
And despite the many disparaging remarks people make about video game play, there’s evidence that skills developed during game play transfer to the broader world. A 2017 study published in the journal Computers and Education randomized college students to either play or not play a variety of commercial video games, including Minecraft, Borderlands 2, Laura Croft and the Guardian of Light and Gone Home, for a total of at least 14 hours over an eight-week period. Students who played the video games scored higher on measures of communication, adaptability and resourcefulness than students who did not game, and the gamers’ abilities increased beyond their baselines scores as well.
Of course, most Fortnite fanatics will play far more than 14 hours in eight weeks; that’s less than two hours per week, and it’s not unusual for a Fortnite player to put in two hours in one sitting. So yes, there’s room for improvement. Kids – just like adults – need time outside, in motion and away from screens. They need to have face-to-face conversations as well as plenty of time to sleep, think and ponder. They can’t find that in Fortnite. But Fortnite is not a waste of time.