Fortnite, the war in Ukraine and the forbidden books

I didn’t grow up playing video games. In fact, I was rarely allowed to watch television. Saturday morning cartoons on network television were banned until the to-do list was complete and by then I was already out the door on my bike or deep in a Nancy Drew. So when my husband and I decided to buy an Xbox for our kids, I was determined to keep their level of play to just a few hours a week building Minecraft blocks. When the pandemic descended in 2020, we accepted our isolated fate and downloaded Fortnite as a necessary, albeit ironic, distraction from the COVID-induced trauma happening all around us.

Yet even with a furrowed brow and haughty disdain, curiosity got the better of me. I winced as I watched my children eagerly point and shoot, the acoustics of automatic weapons echoing and bouncing off our plaster walls like organ notes in a church. My kids and hubby bonded beautifully over this new hobby while I had the dirty job 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 the Fortnite game naturally died down. My mission to keep my two kids literate at this point came down to threatening to erase the Xbox instead of just hiding the controllers. Lily! I would plead. Over the summer vacation, I put away my tattered copy of Anne Frank’s diary in my daughter’s suitcase as she made her way to camp, fingers crossed, she would devour it on a rainy afternoon.

Luckily she read Anne Frank at camp and enjoyed it, much to his surprise. And so, it started new discussions about banned books and the controversial topics they contain, like war, race, puberty, and sex. I’ve acquired more forbidden books to keep the conversations going, but it’s kind of hard to get my kids to actually read those books…. about as difficult as asking them to put aside their electronic war games for a few minutes to watch the news about the bombings in Ukraine. When I show images of mass graves dug by the side of the road, my son tells me it makes him sad, his body moving uncomfortably. I explain that it is our duty to witness this war, the suffering of the Ukrainian people. They are mercilessly massacred by a madman; their bodies don’t magically evaporate like an eliminated avatar in Fortnite.

Do you discuss 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 from addicted Fortnite players last month? Which captures their attention the most? They see this as an incredibly successful fundraising effort, not a sign of virtue. I choose to donate to the United Nations refugee fund and encourage my children to watch the news with me, read a controversial or banned book like Maus or class act, The bluest eye, which I leave in strategic places in the house. It is my attempt to strengthen their ability to empathize with their fellow human beings, to affect their minds and open their hearts.

In fact, it’s hard to undo this rampant decision to pandemic-fueled online games that has allowed our children to socialize for the past two years. We allowed them to participate in war games, passively encouraging combat strategy and knowledge of machine gun warfare. But how do we rank when it comes to conveying a real awareness of the here and now, of the horrors of real gun violence, of our ongoing domestic struggles against racism, sexism, classism… and being about to be dragged into a Third World War in Ukraine? I think our efforts need a quick kick in the pants. We cannot outsource these conversations to schools alone; state legislatures seem unwilling to participate in this as they step up their assault on curriculum, historical fact, and what I believe to be essential literature. We have to engage our children ourselves. The effort required can be as simple as turning off the Xbox.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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