My two pre-teen sons really love playing video games, just as I did at their age. And just like my parents, I feel a gnawing unease that these games may be atrophying their tender little brains.
Where once I spent hours playing Chuckie Egg on my Amstrad CPC464, my offspring dedicate as much time as they can get away with to play The Long Dark on their Xbox. Precisely as my mother once beseeched me, I in turn beseech my sons: “OK, that’s it – just one more game and then we’ll take the dog for a walk.”
Soon afterwards – alone with the dog in the park – I console myself that, if they really are chips off the old block, my offspring will soon grow out of console games. I’m not deluded enough to think that they’re going to become gripped by a sudden urge to learn Mandarin. But with any luck when they hit their teenage years, they’ll put away childish things to focus on a new, reassuringly analogue catalogue of interests: parties, dancing and, I hope, clothes. I still remember my first pair of black Levi’s 501s, my first band T-shirt (The Cure), my first pair of Dr. Martens. Sure, my kids will be into a different range of clobber but the effect will be the same. As you hit adolescence clothes help you find your tribe and grow into yourself.
So you can imagine my delight when, a couple of months ago, my elder son asked me for some funds to pay for “an outfit”. Sure! But what outfit and where from? Should we head out to the shops?
Then he revealed a startling 21st-century truth: teenage fashion has been gamified. Like 125m other people around the world, my kids are keen players of Fortnite, a game that is just over a year old. In broad-brush terms, gamers parachute onto an island where they collect weapons and raw materials to fight 99 other gamers. The last one standing wins. The graphics are cartoony – not a drop of gore – and the array of strategies used to seek victory is pretty sophisticated.
Fortnite is free to download. Yet its developer is making more than $100m in revenue every month in “micro-transactions” – including “skins”, or outfits, for your avatar. Back at Easter my son wanted to buy his character a pink onesie with bunny ears. He has since become fascinated with other garments with names such as the Ginger Bread man, the Skull trooper and the Black and Red knight. Each “skin” affords its own level of status. The coolest right now is a sleek black suit based on that worn by action protagonist John Wick, played by Keanu Reeves.
I learned all of this during long sessions of watching Fortnite. At the end of one of them, I asked my eldest if he’d be interested in heading out to buy a swanky new pair of adidas – his current pair are falling apart. Absolutely not, he replied, without turning his head from the screen. And what if the adidas, or whatever, was featured as part of a Fortnite skin? If it was a cool item in the game, would he want to buy it IRL?
Shockingly, he put down his controller for long enough to face me. “That could be pretty cool,” he said: “I’d definitely be interested in that. And I think a lot of gamers would too. Plus it would make money for the Fortnite developers: it’s a free game, you know.”
My sons are showing no sign of growing tired of their pixellated pastime quite yet. In the meantime, however, they’ve convinced me that the world’s biggest youth-tilted fashion business shouldn’t bother advertising via Instagram influencers or sports-star sponsorship deals. They should just get themselves a skin on Fortnite Island.