At the beginning of this year I received an ominous text message from my friend and former housemate Pastor Keith Doyle over in Ohio. I’m bringing this up first and foremost to underscore the fact that what happened after said text message can be directly traced back to him – which should absolve me of at least some of the guilt I now harbor within my soul for falling victim to the current scourge of humanity: the video game known as FORTNITE Battle Royale.
If you’ve never heard of Fortnite, then I humbly suggest that you now fall to your knees and praise the Lord God Almighty for delivering you out of the hands of the devil – you are truly blessed. And may I go so far as to add that you might be wise to stop reading now lest you wish to flirt with the danger inherently encapsulated within the knowledge I’m about to share here.
If you’re unfamiliar with my writing or sense of humor, rest assured, I’m only half joking, and this really isn’t as serious as all that. In truth, I just felt like writing about this because it seems to be coming up more often in conversations as of late. I’ve been hearing more and more about peoples’ kids or grandkids playing Fortnite and I’ve seen friends who are my age posting on Facebook about their kids’ obsession with Fortnite. I also have friends who are teachers that have mentioned the kids in their classes talking about it. It is not unusual for me to hear people around my age or older puzzled, flabbergasted, or generally surmising with grimaced faces over various phenomena that the youngsters are into these days… this is, after all, part of life as they say… what is unusual, is that, having delved into the uttermost depths of one such phenomena for nearly a year, I now find myself in a unique position to educate my fellow Adulticans on this topic. And more importantly, this is all I can now do to hopefully give some meaning to the countless, nay, unholy, amount of late night hours I have spent “researching” this subject. And by research I’m referring to the knowledge and experience I’ve been able to successfully mine before stumbling into bed at midnight (on numerous occasions) after an hour or two of a video game session that mostly consisted of me failing miserably while being cussed out by 6 year olds and having my manhood called into question by 12 year olds.
When I started playing Fortnite it was just another video game, but it has since become something much larger. The last time something this huge happened in the video game industry was in 1985 with the North American release of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Obviously, many technological advancements have occurred since then, but the explosion of Fortnite popularity across the entire globe in such a relatively short amount of time has nothing to do with technological advancement – the game’s graphics actually take a few steps backward (in the example of Minecraft) and look very cartoonish rather than following the traditional trajectory of attempting to make games look as realistic as possible. What has made this game so popular to millions, across so many countries, isn’t a massive advancement in graphics or microchip speed technology, but rather a tremendous breakthrough in the psychological dimension of video games.
Now, I just want to say before going any further, that I’ve grown up with video games – they’ve been there in the background of my existence ever since I saw my parents playing Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 when I was four. I grew up watching games continually develop and progress into more mesmerizing and complex forms with each passing year. I remember politicians in the early 90s arguing over the effects of video game violence and imposing a rating system. I remember preachers on TV railing against them as abominations of a society that had lost its collective moral anchors. I’ve heard all the rhetoric. So, the last thing I want to do is call a video game evil, or tell parents that they shouldn’t let their kids play it. What I do want to do, on the other hand, is offer some insight into how this particular video game has changed the industry as a whole, and comment on why I think it’s important that parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles know why.
I need to start by backing up just a bit…
Over the last 10 years or so the video game industry has been slowly becoming something that is increasingly non-tactile and more digital. Actually, the transformation is pretty much complete for the most part. Digital gaming, if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, means you don’t have to actually own a physical copy of a game in order to play it. The same thing has been happening with movies and books as well over the past decade. You can download and watch a movie or read a book (after paying a full or sometimes discounted price) without ever touching anything but a keyboard, mouse, screen, or controller. In regards to gaming, this mainly started with the mobile app games that you can download on your smartphones. Most of these games are free or only cost a buck or two to download. The people who created and own these games don’t make much money from the initial act of you “getting” the game. They make money off allowing you to buy additional items, abilities, characters, and new levels inside the games themselves. So back in the day, you went to Wal-Mart with $50 after selling all your He-Men in Mom’s garage sale and bought one Nintendo game that you could own for the rest of your life. Nowadays, you get the game for free, but if you want to use the sword of Conan the Barbarian to defeat the Zombies on Planet Mordor, instead of using Grandma’s old broken shotgun that everyone can use for free, you “buy” the sword inside the game with REAL MONEY and then you “own” it digitally.
World of Warcraft pioneered this idea many years ago, but at that time you still had to buy a physical copy of the game as well. This is the type of game that Fortnite is, and even though it’s not the first game to do this, it is by far the most successful at it. Owning Fortnite is free, it is available on every major gaming console, mobile device, and PC. All you have to do is download it, and you can play the same exact game that everyone else is playing. You never have to spend a single dime to do this. This is very important for parents to understand, so I’ll say it again: Your kid can play the same game that every other person in the world is playing, without any disadvantage to gameplay, and with the same abilities and skills required of every other player.
If this is the case, how did the creators of Fortnite gross $318 million in the month of May alone?
The answer: V-Bucks. V-Bucks (virtual bucks) are the currency used within the game, and you can earn miniscule amounts of this “money” by completing certain tasks in the game. But in order to get enough virtual bucks to actually buy anything significant, you have to spend REAL bucks. I’m no mathematician by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll make this simple – 1,000 V-Bucks costs $9.99 USD. So, let’s say your kid, or grandkid, niece or nephew, talks you into entering your credit card number into the game and getting them some V-Bucks to spend… no big deal. They can then use the virtual currency to make their character have different outfits, costumes, masks, backpacks, etc. It doesn’t give them any advantage in the game – they just get to choose how they want their character to look. They call these various aesthetic choices “Skins.” These Skins cost different amounts, and there are several ways to get them, but they all cost money. The most desired Skins are typically around 2,000 V-Bucks, which is $20 dollars. Terms such as common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary are used to denote how much a skin is worth.
But the real genius of the Fortnite creators (Epic Games) is that they consistently update the game, and the amount of Skins available on a weekly basis, with major updates occurring every few months. They call these major changes to the game “Seasons.” When I began playing Fortnite at the beginning of this year it was in Season 2, and now it is in Season 6 already, with Season 7 scheduled for the Holidays. What this means from a business perspective is that there is an increasingly endless amount of “digital products” available to buy.
In simple terms, it’s like buying the same FREE video game over and over again – you don’t have to buy it at all – but if you want to be cool, you’ll buy it as many times as you can. I personally don’t pay for it, but this is the way that the game inherently teaches kids to think, and subsequently bug the hell out of their parents.
There’s nothing too terribly shady going on here – it’s not hidden, and it’s not tricking anyone. Most kids are smart enough to understand it. In fact, one of the reasons I’m writing this review is that most kids probably understand it way better than most adults.
Just in case you’re having trouble, allow me to explain it like this: Let’s say you walk into a fast food joint, walk up to the counter, and they give you a cheeseburger, large fries, and a large coke – for free. Everyone else in the place has the same exact thing. No one can ever get anything different, no one can ever get more than ayone else, no one can ever get less… HOWEVER, if you choose, you can pay $20 to have the same exact cheeseburger wrapped in a different color paper, the same exact number of fries put into a different color of fry box, and the same large coke poured into a different color cup with a fancy design on it. You might be reading this thinking, hmmm… that can’t be right, or hmmm… that sounds ridiculous, or hmmm… who would pay $20 for the same food to be put in different colored containers, that’ll never work. Well, it’s true. It’s happening. This is the Fortnite business model. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent every month so video game characters can be dressed in new outfits.
Never before in the history of humanity have people been able to make so much money from selling thin air in such an honest manner, without tricking or deceiving anyone. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions yet, but my own opinion is that this is a psychological phenomenon we’re witnessing on a scale that’s never been seen – and it indicates a significant, collectively driven departure from reality. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all to be honest. I just see what’s happening.
With all that said, I’ll make a few comments on the actual gameplay itself. There’s not much to it actually – you drop onto an island with 99 other players (you can play a solo game where it’s everyone for themselves, or you can play as part of a two-person or four-person team), and then you just run around really fast, build things and shoot people… and dance. You win the game by being the last person (or team) alive at the end. The island itself is extremely large, but the playable area slowly shrinks down which forces all the players into a smaller and smaller area – this makes a typical game last around 15-20 minutes. If you get killed in the game, you’re done. You have to go back into the “game lobby” and then queue up a completely new match to try again. The sudden death aspect of the game provides a pretty significant adrenaline rush. I noticed it the first time I played it. The brain sensation feels a lot like gambling (I don’t gamble, but I’ve visited a few casinos before, and I’ve played my fair share of Texas hold ‘em in the past). You definitely get some kind of dopamine spike from playing the game, and encountering other players that are trying to kill you. Take that for what you will. My own personal opinion on this matter is that it has the effect of making the game highly addictive in the same way that gambling can be addictive. And I should mention as well that you are always playing against real people. There are no computer players in this game. Behind every “Skin” is an actual human being sitting in front of a TV screen, computer monitor, or smartphone – some of them with tiny black dogs named Jazz looking at them like they are insane.
When I play Fortnite, I typically play as part of a random team. This means that I don’t typically know the people who are on my team from one game to the next. My friend Keith abandoned the game many months ago… a much wiser man than I. But I do have a headset which allows me to talk to other players, and I’ve met people playing the game from all over the place. There’s plenty of older people, and lots of college students, but most of them have been younger kids. My most memorable experience along these lines was the day I was thrown onto a team with three very young British lads. The youngest one sounded like he was four or five. Their leader was probably closer to 9 or 10 and he greatly enjoyed calling me a “bloody yank” and bossing me around and shouting military commands at me like he was Winston Churchill. At any rate, I just mention this so that parents out there are aware of the fact that your kids could be interacting with absolutely anyone. That’s just something to keep in mind.
Fortnite definitely has its own language as well, and I’ve defined a few of the terms already, but I’ll provide a list below of the ones that I think will be most helpful for people to know. Aside from that, I’ll just re-iterate that this Fortnite craze is pretty significant for younger generations. In my estimation, we haven’t yet seen its full magnitude, and the ability to buy additional merchandise like toys and clothes is only just beginning. But make no mistake, for kids these days, this is every bit as crazy as the Summer of 1977 when Star Wars first landed on planet Earth. Fads come and go more quickly these days I think, but this one’s a juggernaut – it’s breaking through all cultural and socio-economic barriers, and kids and young adults are flocking to it by the millions. Fortnite has everything from professional players that compete in high stakes tournaments, to people broadcasting live video of their games, to entire YouTube channels devoted to commentary on gameplay. There are parents that even hire coaches to teach their kids how to play and win. Last month the top Fortnite player in the world – Tyler Blevins a.k.a. Ninja – was the first video gamer to ever be featured on the cover of ESPN Magazine.
I hope this helps any adults out there who feel left in the dust. At the end of the day, it’s only a video game—and this too shall pass.
Seasons = Term used to define major changes to the game and game map that occur about every two to three months.
Battle Pass = This is a purchasable reward system that allows players to unlock various skins and other items by completing certain tasks within the game. It typically costs about $10 and expires at the end of every season. Which means you have to buy it again at the start of a new season.
V-Bucks = Virtual Bucks. You pay $9.99 USD in real world currency for a thousand of them.
Skins = Term used for the clothing and general way a player’s in-game character looks. Most of the money that is spent on Fortnite is spent on skins. Kids collect skins the way us older people once collected trading cards.
Default Skins = Skins that are free and used by anyone who refuses to pay actual money to play Fortnite.
Streamers = These are people who connect their gaming monitors or consoles to internet sites (like YouTube or Twitch) so people can watch them play. This allows them to generate revenue based on the number of people watching them. Streamers with massive numbers of viewers can make millions of dollars from allowing advertisers to monetize their channels.
Noobs = This term is not confined to the Fortnite community, but it refers to people who are just beginning to play the game and have no idea what’s going on. It is typically used by many young Fortnite gamers as a derogatory term accompanied by some kind of expletive. Sometimes used in conjunction with the term “Default Skin” to bolster the intended insult.
Squeakers = Refers to very young males that play Fortnite while constantly talking and bragging about their accomplishments, singing rap songs, and generally trying to annoy anyone else that can hear them. When I get put into a game with one or more Squeakers I just back out of the match and restart into a different lobby. They do not understand things like logic, reason, or common courtesy, there are legions of them, and they will be running the country one day. Lord, have mercy on us.
Pros = Typically refers to people who make money by playing Fortnite, but most younger gamers use the term for anyone who has a discontinued Skin from an early Season that they will never be able to own.
GG = Means “Good Game,” and is a common way to bid a fond farewell to teammates when the game is over.
Harry Pottering = This is a term used in-game (usually with accompanying expletive) to inform your teammates that you have accidently trapped yourself underneath a ramp which is vaguely reminiscent of the way Harry Potter was forced to live underneath the Dursley’s staircase.
1v1 = One player versus one other player, when no one else is around, or no one else is left alive, and the entire game is on the line.
Mats = Materials. Refers to material resources in the form of Wood, Brick, or Metal that are collected from the gaming environment and used to build things.
Loot = This is a blanket term used to refer to guns, ammo, materials, armor, bandages, med kits, and other items that must be scavenged from the gaming environment, discovered in hidden treasure chests, or taken from fallen players. When a player dies in the game, all their “loot” is dropped onto the ground for other players to collect.