Due Diligence: That time I watched a nine-year-old play Fortnite for a week

Due Diligence: That time I watched a nine-year-old play Fortnite for a week

Leigh Harrison and the kid stuff.

“Can I play Fortnite yet?” asked Gediminas, my wife’s cousin’s youngest son, on the first day of his week-long stay in my house. “No,” I replied, “it’s still updating. You can play after dinner, once the Xbox is ready.” Gedas shuffled uncomfortably on the spot and then picked up the Switch. My Switch. Docked next to the TV, begging to be played. I should have seen it coming: kids can smell games better than a shark does blood.

Earlier in the day I’d set Fortnite downloading from work. I’m a good uncle second removed (or whatever) and know all children under the age of 25 love Fortnite. Gedas would be in for a treat once I got home, I’d thought, as Uncle Leigh brought Fortnite Chapter 2 (just released at the time) to the vacation. I’d arrive a hero.

But no. I finally arrived home after a long day at work and the child is cross-legged on my sofa, undoing 100 hours of Breath of the Wild progress. No bother, I thought, as I snatched the Switch from him, ran to the bathroom and loaded my last unsullied save. Phew. Then I remembered he’s a nine-year-old boy and I’m a thirty-year-old man who likes to think he’s good with kids. The shame stung in my gut. I returned to the living room and mouthed the words “did you tell him he could play on my Switch?!” to my wife. She responded no, he had just picked it up and started playing. The thieving little bastard. My shame vanished that instant.

Updates installed, the Fortnite intro movie started playing on the TV and Gedas leapt to his feet. He looked up at me, the man of the house, full of hope. “Can I play now?” With Xbox controller in hand, arms arched at my hips, I smiled down at him like Jimmy Stewart would in one of his softer roles. “Yes, Gedas, you shall play Fortnite!” I handed him the controller, and in his excitement he dropped it. The crash echoed around the room. Four adults, a nine-year-old boy, and a baby all fell silent that instant. Gedas’s face was one of frozen terror. Would I still let him play Fortnite? I picked the controller up, handed it to him, and advised he sit down lest he hurt someone. The humor was lost on him, but Uncle Leigh was in top form.

The first match of Fortnite Chapter 2 starts straight after the cinematic, no menus or anything, so Gedas was jumping out of a bus before he’d even sat back down. After a bit of free falling he hit the parachute and landed amongst some buildings in a place called Lazy Lake. It’s a waterside development of two and three-story buildings, I think meant to resemble a tech park, explicitly some dreaded Silicon Valley “campus”. He ran about for a bit, grabbed a few guns, and then got shot to death while fumbling with the weapon switching buttons. “I’m just getting used to the Xbox controller,” he said. “I play Fortnite all the time.”

We got booted out to the main menu. I know it’s a free to play game, but I wasn’t ready for its overbearing monstrousness. Battle Pass here. Cosmetics there. Buy currency. View your progress. Here’s what you could have won. It’s a cacophony of temptations that, in my opinion, children shouldn’t be faced with. Gedas immediately, through no fault of his own, ended up on the “spend Uncle Leigh’s money to buy V-Bucks” tab. As soon as he did, he let out an audible shiver and looked at me to take him back to safety. I found it genuinely heartening that, as a proven thief, he knew when to curtail his dark impulses. Before he’d even arrived I’d added a password to the Xbox, so there was no danger of him ever spending my money, but it was nice to see that somewhere, deep down, he had a soul.

The next game he dropped at Dirty Docks. Again, he acquired weapons and did some dicking around. He really liked smashing stuff up with the pickaxe – nine-year-old, hello – and jumping onto roofs. He got especially fired-up finding new guns hidden in hard-to-reach places. “Oh my God,” he’d say, as he uncovered yet another of the auto shotguns he already carried. As the Battle Royale’s genre-defining storm approached, he seemed blissfully and conspicuously ignorant of his impending demise. It rolled in, tinting the screen with purple hues and slowly sapping his HP, and yet there was Gedas, happily twatting a concrete wall into oblivion.

He died. I never brought it up, but it was clear, despite his earlier proclamations, that this was the first time he’d played Fortnite. I got it: he wanted to look cool in front of Uncle Leigh. He was, after all, in the same room as my Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One S All-Digital Edition. A gamer till the end, me. It all made sense now. His fumbles switching weapons. His difficulty moving and aiming at the same time. The fact he didn’t actually know the rules of the game. He was new! I couldn’t forgive his earlier transgression stealing my Switch – who could? – but I now understood why he’d done it. He was just excited to play some bloody video games, maybe for the first time in his short life – and who was I to get in the way of that? Nay: it was my job, as a thirty-year-old who is good with kids, to make this the best week of games this young lad had ever experienced.

We got into a nice routine. I’d come home and he’d be on the Switch. Baba is You. Mario Odyssey. Steam World Dig. He was useless at them all – and quite justifiably. Games can be impenetrable if you haven’t played many before. Odyssey, especially so. My first Mario was All-Stars on the SNES. Move forward, jump, and maybe use a third button, occasionally, to smash a power-up. I cannot imagine how absolutely befuddling Odyssey, a game I cannot remember the myriad controls for, would be to a nine-year-old who has hardly played games before. There are like six different ways to jump if you count backflips and the awkward momentum-and-timing-based double and triple jumps. Absolute nonsense, sorry. 

So I’d come in the door and Gedas would practically throw the Switch away, so little was he getting out of the inscrutable games installed on it. “Can I play Fortnite?” And I’d hand him the controller, as if passing some sort of baton, and say “yes, my child, you can play Fortnite. Now go get ’em, champ!”

One time, he landed at Frenzy Farm and managed to parachute right onto the roof. From there he combined his favorite aspects of playing Fortnite: smashing shit up and finding hidden guns. In every game after that, for the rest of the week, he followed the same routine. He’d land on the roof, beat his way into the attic, and then scavenge for whatever “oh my God” weapons he could find. Whenever he saw another player, which was quite often, Frenzy Farm seems like a preferred landing spot, he’d let out the adorably profane refrain of “shit, shit, shit,” which didn’t seem to bother his parents, who were always sat right there. (My wife and her family are Lithuanian, but surely “shit” is a prolific enough cuss, no?) We had a really good time down at the farm, me cheering and him swearing blue murder, even if he didn’t get very far into most matches.

On a snack run to the kitchen in between respawns, Gedas tripped over in his hurry and landed face-first on the floor. He wasn’t hurt, thankfully, but let me take over for a match while he recovered his composure. It’s been a long time since I properly played a multiplayer shooter. My last real love affair was Counter-Strike 1.5 and 1.6, but I fell off when Source wouldn’t run well on my definitely not gaming PC, back in 2004 – fifteen years ago. Fuck.

I get it, though. When you’re at one with a multiplayer shooter, when you have the time to dedicate to learning strategies and maps, there’s nothing quite like that thrill. It’s intuition and reflexes, and when you’ve mastered them you feel like you are the game. My matches of cs_assault were like a ballet. I knew every corner to check, angle to take, and sniping spot to clear out or camp. I’d jump, and dive, and headshot, and scurry for safety, and secure the hostages, and kill the last remaining Fed. And then I’d spray my custom Eazy-E tag on the wall because I was a fourteen-year-old white kid from West Yorkshire.

I’m sure at some point it’s possible to get to this point with Fortnite. But it’s such a huge, intimidating game. I was good at a handful of Counter-Strike maps. Fortnite is thirteen of those and all the space in between, with destructible buildings, random weapon drops, and a big frigging storm to deal with. I got my arse handed to me. 

I managed to get down to the last half dozen players and had secured a ridge in the middle of what the encroaching lilac hurricane would make the final battleground. Sniper rifle in hand, I set about picking off the enemy as they marched up the hill towards safety – and me. There’s a considerable drop to long-range weapons, which I admit I hadn’t expected from the kid-baiting shooter, but, as the expert gamer Gedas was looking up to, I quickly calibrated my aim and popped some heads. 

High fives were shared in the room and I felt like a proper – and proud – uncle. Three players left. I tracked some tracer fire to a copse of trees and switched to my purple three-burst rifle. Easy pickings. Pop pop pop, I went, into the tree line. A jumping avatar fired back. I dodged and returned fire. Pop pop pop, this time into thin air. The bouncing continued. Poof, went its auto shotgun – my nephew’s favourite – as I crumpled into a pile of failure. “Oh my God,” shouted Gedas, “shit!” With bowed head, I handed the controller back to the boy. Later that night I read an article about how most early games of Fortnite Chapter 2 were mainly populated by bots, implemented to make early matches of Fortnite an easy in-road for new players, to hook them on the treadmill with cheap wins. But I’d lost. Maybe against a real player, but probably against a bot. Another pang of shame sprang up in my gut. 

The more he played, the better Gedas got. As the week progressed he’d regularly get down to the last handful of players, and then inevitably whif while distracted smashing something up or failing to aim properly. But he was having fun. So much fun. He loved landing on that farm’s roof and hitting it until he fell through. He loved collecting guns and the excitement of hunting down a new chest: “oh my God! Oh my God! That’s it!” He loved the thrill of exploring and just existing in the game’s world. His cries of “shit, shit, shit!” were real and beautiful: he felt it; he lived it. His was an enjoyment of the simple experience of playing, not the overarching goals or the player-on-player competition. He wanted to win, obviously, but even in failure he had a good time. I haven’t enjoyed a game in that most base and innocent way in over a decade.

Then one day he’d finally made it down to the final two. He was fucking about trying to dismantle a building when death rolled down a hill, popping off shots from the Counter Strike mainstay Steyr AUG bullpup rifle. Absolutely terrified, he ran behind a flatbed for protection. He was at the back, and certain failure was at the front. Shots were exchanged as they danced around the truck, first on the left side, then on the right. Gedas held strong and kept his cool through the stress. “Be safe,” I advised, “take your shots and then retreat. We might actually win this.” As the enemy rounded the truck again, Gedas let off a stream of bullets from his full-auto rifle, cutting the last remaining bad guy in half, before they exploded into a shower of sparkles and guns. 

“Victory Royale!!!” screamed the nine-year-old. He was beaming. We shared a most robust high five and then he ran around the room chanting “Victory Royale! Victory Royale!”

Later, his dad came to me and asked who he’d beaten. I knew that in truth it was probably bots. The bots that had killed Gedas repeatedly, and bested me earlier in the week. But what’s the real truth? It’s that this nine-year-old lad, who has little experience with video games, had won a match of the most popular game in the world. Ninety-nine other players – real or otherwise – hadn’t managed to do that. 

And that’s what I said. Gediminas, my wife’s cousin’s youngest son, had beaten ninety-nine other players from across the world. That Victory Royale was his and his alone. He’d earned it fair and square – and had an absolute blast doing so. As he danced around the living room, shouting “Victory Royale, Victory Royale!” I couldn’t help but feel rejuvenated. Video games are amazing, but it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of that when you’ve been surrounded by them for as long as I have. But seeing Gedas’s joy reminded me why I love them so much. The adventure. The experience. The pure joy of play.

Leigh Harrison lives in London, and works in communications for a medical charity. He likes canals and rivers a great deal, and spends a lot of his time walking. He occasionally says things about videogames on the Internet, and other things on The Twitter.