Fortnite, the war in Ukraine and the banned books

Fortnite, the war in Ukraine and the banned books

I didn’t grow up playing video games. In fact, I was rarely allowed to watch television. Saturday morning cartoons on network TV were off limits until the to-do list was complete, and by that time I was either out the door on my bike or in a Nancy Drew. So when my husband and I decided to buy an Xbox for our kids, he was determined to keep their gaming level down to just a few hours a week to build Minecraft blocks. When the pandemic hit in 2020, we accepted our isolated fate and downloaded Fortnite as a necessary, if ironic, distraction from the COVID-induced trauma going on around us.

Yet even with the scowl and haughty disdain, curiosity got the best of me. I winced as I watched my children eagerly aim and fire, the acoustics of automatic weapons reverberating and bouncing off our plaster walls like organ notes in a church. My kids and husband bonded wonderfully with this new hobby while I had the dirty work of balancing ridiculous amounts of screen time with brisk walks and board games.

Eventually our kids went back to school in the spring of 2021 and Fortnite play naturally slowed down. My mission to keep both of my children literate at the time had come down to threatening to destroy the Xbox instead of simply hiding the controllers. Read! would beg. Over the summer holidays, I put away my tattered copy of Ana Frank’s diary in my daughter’s suitcase as she headed to camp, fingers crossed she’d devour it on a rainy afternoon.

Fortunately, she read Anna Frank at camp and enjoyed it, much to his surprise. And so this started new discussions about banned books and the controversial topics in them, like war, race, puberty, and sex. I bought more banned books to keep the conversation going, but getting my kids to actually read these books is hard enough…almost as hard as asking them to put down their electronic war games for a few minutes to watch the news about the actual bombing on Ukraine. When I point to images of mass graves dug up by the roadside, my son tells me that he makes him sad, that his body moves uncomfortably. I explain that it is our duty to witness this war, the suffering of the Ukrainian people. They are being slaughtered mercilessly by a madman; their bodies don’t magically evaporate like a deleted avatar in Fortnite.

Are you discussing the war at school, I ask? Yes, they say, of course! But I wonder, how does a unit learning about the Holocaust compare to the $144 million raised for Ukraine by Fortnite addicted gamers last month? Which one catches your attention the most? They see this as an incredibly successful fundraising effort, not a sign of virtue. I choose to donate to the UN refugee fund and encourage my children to watch the news with me, read a controversial or banned book like Maus either class act, the bluest eye, which I leave in strategic places in the house. This is my attempt to develop your capacity for empathy in your fellow human beings, to affect their minds and open their hearts.

It’s actually a tough job to undo this pandemic-fueled online gaming frenzy that kept our kids socialized for the past few years. We have allowed them to participate in war games, passively encouraging battle strategy and knowledge of machine gun warfare. But how do we rank when it comes to imparting real awareness of the here and now, of the horrors of real gun violence, our ongoing domestic struggles against racism, sexism, classism… and being on the verge of being dragged into a World War III in the Ukraine? I think our efforts need a quick kick in the pants. We cannot outsource these conversations just to schools; State legislatures don’t seem to want to be in on this as they escalate their assault on the curriculum, historical facts, and what I believe to be essential literature. We must involve our children ourselves. The effort required can be as simple as turning off the Xbox.

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