Even as I tried to dispassionately evaluate the gameplay (the violence, I concluded, was acceptably cartoonish), I felt a vestigial itch. At age 52, I’m already getting junk mail from the AARP. But I’m also part of the first generation raised on video games; at my daughter’s age, I had an Intellivision in my living room and a stockpile of loose quarters for the arcade. As an adult, I revisited video games at key junctures: Metal Gear Solid, Grand Theft Auto, Halo. But when my daughter arrived, my free time evaporated in a manic fugue of playdates, pediatrician visits, and the competitive adulting of Brooklyn parenthood. Now, under the guise of fatherly supervision, I again had a controller in hand.
After a few days in Solo mode, we graduated to Duos. This required playing together in split screen, which turned out to be too much of a strain on my eyes and attention. And so I bought a Nintendo Switch—ostensibly as a reward for Sylvie’s stellar academic performance, but also because I wanted the Xbox all to myself.
Once we were on our way to becoming a reasonably competent pair, the door opened to squads. Before I even really knew what was happening, I was being drafted onto teams with her friends.
“Who’s Cubic Racer?” some kid would squeak, seeing my randomly assigned user name on the screen.
“Uh,” my daughter would reply, “my dad.”
A moment’s pause, and then: “Oh. Cool.”
I had been given a strange window into the lives of these fifth-graders—their language, gossip, social dynamics, personalities. (Apart from Sylvie, I’ll refer to them all by pseudonyms.) There was dependable Aidan, who always had your back; bossy Owen, constantly clamoring to be given the best weapons; quirky Henry, who liked to “emote” and “meme” as much as battle. They were boisterous and filled with braggadocio but almost heartbreakingly innocent. On the rare occasions when someone swore, you could virtually feel the nervous titter ripple through the ether.
I also discovered that I was sometimes privy to the lives of their parents. Through voice chat, which picks up the ambient rustle of the house, I heard it all—the endless negotiations for more playing time, the clatter of dishes, adults talking grimly about something in that day’s New York Times. One kid, on weekend mornings, always sounded as though he was in a crowded room, which at first I chalked up to hypersocial parents. It turned out he was playing at the gym while they worked out.
At times I felt like a field biologist, scribbling notes on my subjects from the safety of a hide. At other times I felt like, well, a weirdo. When the father of Jean-Luc, a kid in the French immersion program at my daughter’s public school, asked him who he was playing with, I could almost see the raised eyebrow on the other end when he replied “le père de Sylvie.” This was shaky ground.
But the lack of parents was, in a sense, a curious disconnect. In The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, the researcher Jordan Shapiro notes that parents are active participants in most areas of our kids’ lives: We correct their table manners, arbitrate their sibling squabbles, supervise their homework. “But when they’re playing Fortnite,” he writes, “we leave them to their own devices.”
Even as the first video game generation hits middle age, the idea of adult participation is still seen as vaguely disreputable, or simply beyond the cohort’s abilities. On places like Reddit, there are anxious queries: “Is it weird to play Fortnite in your mid-30s?” In one YouTube video, a group of “senior citizens” (one guy didn’t look much older than I am) are handed controllers and asked to play Fortnite for the first time, with particularly plodding results. Without even knowing it, I’d already been parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Adam Driver plays a hapless Gen X dad with sensible glasses and a business shirt (user name “Williammctavish1972”) who joins Fortnite in hopes of finding “a fun bonding activity” with his 11-year-old son. “Let’s get a Fortnite!” he declares.