An image from Fortnite featuring a soldier with a rocket launcher.
Photo: Epic Games

If you’re the parent of a teen who’s into gaming, odds are good you’ve heard a lot about Fortnite lately. In the past six months, the video game has become a pop culture phenomenon, drawing comparisons to Minecraft and Pokemon Go as it swiftly amassed a wildly devoted audience of 45 million players.

The game regularly tops the charts at Twitch, a popular website where players livestream their battles. One recent session featuring the rapper Drake and a streamer named Tyler “Ninja” Blevins drew a record-setting audience of almost 630,000 viewers to the Amazon-owned platform.

In a March interview, Andre Drummond of the NBA's Detroit Pistons said the game had “taken over” his life. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins of the Minnesota Timberwolves have been known to play at all hours of the night. And Josh Hart of the L.A. Lakers even has Fortnite sneakers.

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But with the game's immense popularity has come controversy. Teachers across the country have complained that students are not only talking incessantly about Fortnite but also playing it on mobile devices in class, prompting some districts to block it from their WiFi networks.

“It's every day—almost every class,” says Nick Shann, a middle school teacher on Long Island in New York.

Then there’s the dollars and cents cost of the obsession. You can download and play Fortnite free, but players are encouraged to make in-game purchases with real-world money. And, for parents, those purchases can be surprisingly expensive.

Still, the game has its defenders—despite its violent content. A number of video game and parenting experts say it can be a good experience for teens, one that builds teamwork and social connections.

“A lot of people say you shouldn’t allow your children to play shooter games," says Columbus, Ohio, parent Nicole Zupich, whose nearly 9-year-old son is a Fortnite fan. "But it’s given us opportunities to talk about gun violence and stuff like that. It’s been a good vehicle for that.”

If you're concerned about letting your child join the Fornite fan club, here are a few things you should know about the game.

How Is Fortnite Played?

The game is available on PCs, Macs, PS4, and Xbox One. There's also a mobile app for iPhones. (An Android version is on the way.)

Emblematic of a new wave of games known as "battle royale," Fortnite blends elements of several genres, including shooting, survival, and exploration.

At the start, 100 players are dropped into a single level, known as a “map.” They compete alone and in groups of two or four. They can build a squad using recruits from an in-game friends list or have the game fill out the team with random people. Players then fan across the map, finding weapons and other items to help them survive, eliminating opponents along the way.

The last player or team standing wins.

How Much Does Fortnite Cost?

Fortnite is what’s known as a “free to play” game, which means there’s no upfront cost to download it. Instead, the publisher, Epic Games, makes money by selling virtual items, such as costumes (known as skins), equipment, and funny dance moves, for use in the game. And those items—often presented in limited-time offers—can quickly add up in cost.

One recent skin—a hooded, purple cloak called Raven—went for 2,000 in-game "V-Bucks," which cost about $20. Further complicating matters, V-Bucks are sold only in $10, $25, $60, and $100 increments.

To help manage your child's expectations, you may want to talk about creating a Fortnite “budget,” perhaps tied to the completion of household chores or achievement of good grades.

If you'd prefer to restrict purchases altogether, you can use the parental controls on PS4, Xbox One, and iOS phones to block them. On a PC or Mac computer, though, there’s no easy way to do that once you've attached a credit card number or PayPal account to the player’s account.

And, in case your child tries to claim otherwise, you should know that any costume or equipment purchased in-game is merely cosmetic. It doesn’t offer any gameplay advantage (besides looking spiffy).

Is Fortnite Violent?

Fortnite is rated “T for Teen” by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the video game industry equivalent to the Motion Picture Association of America. That falls below Mature (17+) and Adults Only (18+).

“There’s a difference between Fortnite and Call of Duty,” Zupich says. Players use guns and other weapons to attack their opponents, but the action doesn’t feature the vivid blood and gore you see in, say, Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat.

Foes essentially fall down or evaporate when killed.

More to the point, the game requires ingenuity and collaboration from successful teams. To survive, players build barricades, towers, booby traps, and ramps using materials salvaged during their travels. They must keep moving to avoid a mysterious storm that saps their strength and forces combatants together.

According to Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida who has extensively studied video game violence, the content in Fortnite is unlikely to harm your child. “There’s no evidence that violent video games are more impactful than other forms of media," he says, pointing to the bloodshed in Shakespeare's plays and the Bible.

While research has not established a clear link between video game play and violent crime, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have both argued that it does contribute to aggressive thoughts and behavior.  

The bottom line, says Ferguson, is parents should reserve the right to decide for themselves what sort of content is appropriate for their children.

And for what it's worth, there's no rule that says you can't play Fortnite alongside your child. You know, to see firsthand what it's really like. Some experts view video games as a bonding opportunity—a modern-day version of playing catch.

Does Fortnite Expose Kids to Strangers?

If your child plays alone, he or she won't be able to communicate with other players. But if kids play in a group, then yes, they can chat with members of their team using a microphone or headset.

This real-time discussion is an integral part of the game, allowing team members to develop and execute communal strategies. For Denise DeRosa, founder of Cyber Sensible, a firm that helps parents make informed decisions about children's online activities, this is one of the reasons she approves of her child playing Fortnite.

“I like that players are able to talk with their friends,” DeRosa says. “They have to work together in order to be one of the last ones standing, so they’re helping each other.”

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint, though, considering that the voice chat does have the potential to expose a child to strangers.

Sedgrid Lewis, host of the Digital Parent Podcast, pointed to a recent story in a British tabloid, in which a man allegedly attempted to solicit inappropriate photos from a child on Fortnite. The child had inadvertently added the man to his team after mistaking the man's user name for one belonging to a friend.

Parents concerned about in-game interactions can disable voice chat altogether, Lewis suggests, by going into Fortnite’s settings menu.

At the very least, it's important for you to have a conversation with your kids about talking to strangers. You can also set ground rules that confine them to voice chats with friends they know in real life.

How Much Fortnite Is Too Much?

Because Fortnite is a game of elimination, there’s no set time limit for a single round. Play can span anywhere from a few minutes to roughly 20 minutes, depending on the skill level of the players involved.

But given the social nature of the game, children often hop from one match to the next the moment a character dies, continuing on for round after round. And if left unsupervised, they can play for hours at a stretch.

So parents should watch for signs of excessive screen time in a child's behavior. That includes slipping grades, missing sleep, and spending less time socializing with friends. As Stetson University's Ferguson told Consumer Reports for an earlier story on screen addiction, teens may sometimes express that they wish they played less but feel like they can’t stop.

In that case, parents can help by imposing restrictions.

“Every family has to establish rules that work for them,” says Cyber Sensible's DeRosa. “I let my kids play after school as long as they’re getting their homework done. If we start to see a decline in grades or exercising, then we have to pull back.”

Parents may also want to set up different rules for different days, in much the same way their own parents once governed TV time. You may find that giving your children more freedom to play Fortnite on the weekend marks a good compromise, for example.

For more tips on how to limit screen time, check out this CR story from 2017.