Euan McColm: Dad jumps the shark to get down with the kids in lockdown

‘GET him, Dad. Kill him!”

Sunday, 21st June 2020, 7:37 am

Video gaming has proved to be a godsend for young and old during the virus lockdown. Picture: Frazer Harrison/Getty

We’re standing outside a glass-fronted building in a cul-de-sac and the girl’s spotted a potential victim.

“Use your pick axe,” shouts the boy. “Smash him.”

He doesn’t see me coming. I run in behind him and start swinging. Before he can loose a shot in my direction, he’s down, crawling away. There’s no place for mercy; another thwack of the axe and it’s all over. My victim vanishes and his possessions spill out on to the ground.

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We gather up guns and bandages and the girl leads us back to the helicopter. The storm is gathering and we’re heading for higher ground, where our sniper rifles will allow us to pick off opponents at our leisure.

We’re coming in to land when they strike. The members of another squad are hiding in bushes and their firepower quickly overwhelms us. We place fourth.

Lockdown has changed most of our lives in significant ways. For me, enforced separation from my kids, a girl of 12 and her 10-year-old brother who live on the opposite side of the country, has been the hard part. Our routine – my dinners with them in Glasgow on Tuesdays and their trips to Edinburgh at weekends – came to an abrupt halt three months ago.

Phone calls and FaceTime messaging helped. That we could hear and see each other each day made separation a little easier.

But kids are kids and being asked to describe in detail, each evening, the events of yet another day of home schooling has limited appeal. What’s more, with their access to devices restricted to strictly set hours, every minute they were FaceTiming me was another minute they’d miss gaming.

And so, a month ago, at the boy’s request, I switched on the Xbox that had lain dormant in the front room since lockdown began and became one of the 250 million people worldwide who play the online game Fortnite.

Should you be unfamiliar with Fortnite, it’s a survival game, inspired by the Japanese novel-turned-movie Battle Royale, in which teenagers are forced into a kill-or-be-killed battle on a remote island. So, good wholesome family fun.

In the three years since its launch, the game has generated billions of dollars for developers Epic Games.

It comes free, which is just the way I like it, and then players – should they wish – can buy new skins to customise their characters; in recent battles, I’ve destroyed cat-people, man-sized bananas and the film character John Wick.

I’m happy (or tight) enough to stick with the default characters that come with the free download but some 70 per cent of those who play do end up shelling out. Revenues from in-game purchases were just shy of £2 billion last year.

Epic Games, a 29-year-old firm, is now a major player in the entertainment industry, with investment from Disney and other key companies in its sector. Epic, which started in the home of founder Tim Sweeney’s parents is now worth some $17bn. Sweeney’s personal worth is said to be a mere $10bn.

But it is not just the company behind the game that has cashed in. Fortnite has created highly-paid careers for some players. World Champion Kyle Giersdorf was just 16 when he won £2.4 million in the Fortnite World Cup in New York last year.

Where there’s big money to be made, the likelihood of skullduggery grows greater. Giersdorf revelled that, during another competition, his house was raided by armed men after a bogus report. Some Fortnite players will go to the most extraordinary lengths to thwart the competition.

We’re a long way from those heights. My technique, if it may be described as such, is to keep running and jumping while the boy and girl deal with any immediate danger. If there is no escape and I am forced to engage in battle, I mash the buttons frantically, usually scoring those hits I do by chance rather than design.

You don’t want to embarrass the kids, though, do you? For this reason, in recent days, I’ve been sneaking in solo games throughout the day.

The random selection of opponents for each game means, occasionally, that even a ham-fisted novice like me can do encouragingly well. On Thursday I scored a second place. On Friday, I got a 100th, killed first in a game I was sure I was going to win.

But the solo games are just practice for the main events, those squad games when the girl, the boy and I work side by side to defeat all comers. With our phones on loudspeaker, I follow shrieked instructions to pick up that gun or run to this house. The girl keeps watch while the boy passes me bandages and shield potions.

Occasionally – very occasionally – I get lucky. I spot a competitor from behind and I take them down with a volley of shotgun blasts or a sniper shot to the head. I hear the wonder in the kids’ voices – “Dad got him!” – and act like it’s no big deal. Their stepmother laughs at my attempts at nonchalance. She knows I’m winging it.

Inevitably, the game has its critics. It’s violent (if cartoonishly so) and the potential to spend money is undoubtedly there. But every generation says the youth is in the process of being corrupted by whatever media it is they consume and experience tells us this is never so.

After a live event that saw servers overload last week, a new season of Fortnite has begun. The island is fractured and huge sharks patrol newly created waterways. There are new weapons to find, new places to explore, and new challenges to unlock.

It takes 36 hours for the subsequent game update to download. Finally, we can play again.

We drop to a clutch of houses in the hills and begin the search for equipment. Instantly, I’m ambushed and overwhelmed by a shotgun-wielding assailant.

The girl runs to me and she revives me.

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