Fortnite is not only a massive success for the gaming industry. It also raises the question of whether a video game with a range as high as Twitter does not define a new digital space. What challenges arise from this?
When a New York couple celebrated their wedding on September 2018, the present photographer captures a scene on the dance floor: four boys, just teenagers, are standing in shirts – even in suits – standing together, stretching their arms, laughing at each other at. Most of the children at the wedding, as the groom writes, Anoop Ranganath, later on, Twitter, did not even know each other. Nevertheless, they met on the dance floor because: “They all knew how to dance float.” Without knowing each other, the four danced one of the most famous dances from the video game Fortnite.
Three months later, Ranganath will log into this game and play it with a friend’s twelve-year-old son. With it: the teenager’s boyfriends, all connected via a voice chat. And while Ranganath will try to win the game, he experiences speechlessly what the boys are doing: not ambition drives them into the game, but social interaction. They show a new song and discuss it instead of concentrating. The game world is just background noise for the kids, Ranganath notes, “They hang out in Fortnite, as we used to do in cellars and backyards.” After the game, he’ll pick the dance photo from his wedding and post it on Twitter. His conclusion: “Fortnite is not a game. It’s a place. “
Millions of gamers, especially teenagers, are drawn to this virtual space every day, programmed by the US developer Epic Games. And many parents and adults, if they do not play for themselves – the question arises: Why are all just talking about Fortnite? What’s so special about the game? And what are my kids doing all day?
Fortnite hit the market in mid-2017, and in just under two years it has become an excellent game: 250 million players and over $ 2.4 billion in 2018. And even if no one knows how long this will go on, whether the next, bigger, better game will not be published soon, one thing is for sure: Fortnite has changed the gaming universe so fast and radically as hardly any other title before. And it scratches the question of how Fortnite could leave the status as a real online game and become a kind of social network.
The meteoric rise
One who has accompanied the hype right from the start is the 31-year-old Youtuber Stanislav from Halle (Westfalen). Over half a million fans follow his Channel Stanplay; his Fortnite videos are not just about the latest trends, he’s also on the lookout for storylines, analyzing the game mechanics. “Something like Fortnite, that only happens every few years. It was like a miracle; everything went hand in hand, “he says. Fortnite got around; everyone was looking at it. “And of course, the influencers also had a huge part in it,” he says.
The Youtuber Stanislav quit his job as a system admin – and now earns his money with videos to Fortnite. The game is a gift for him as Youtuber: “The ideas come by themselves,” he says. (Photo: Stanplay)
Stanislav himself owed it to Fortnite that he was able to quit his job as a system administrator and earned his money exclusively with Youtube for more than a year. Before that, he played mainly the mobile game Clash Royale, until he had the feeling that he had seen and played here before. Hardly a game manages to retain an appropriate amount of gamers for more than three to four years. With this feeling in his stomach, Stanislav remembered Fortnite. A game that had been on the market for a few months, but now a Battle Royale mode was announced. Ironically, this small – but crucial – modification should change everything.
Battle Royale was the name of the then-fresh game mode that has become popular through the Players Unknown Battleground (Pubg) game. Many players fight on an ever-smaller terrain, only the last survivor wins. But Fortnite did a different thing: While Pubg and other successful shooters resemble realistic war simulations, Fortnite kidnaps its players into its colourful world. Anyone who logs in has the feeling of being part of his own Disney movie – without any blood and released from the age of twelve. For the first time, a young target group no longer had to play their favourite shooter in secret but did it in the middle of the parental living room.
“For Youtuber, Fortnite is the Jackpot, the Holy Grail.”
For this purpose, Epic Games, the Fortnite developer, for the first time relied on a consistent multi-platform strategy: regardless of whether one plays by console, on the laptop or the smartphone, one’s friends can participate. In terms of content, the game continued to develop. It was not just about shooting enemies upside down. In Fortnite, players can use a pickaxe to smash whatever is non-terrain to collect wood, stones and metal to make impregnable forts and virtual tree houses.
The Youtuber Stanislav recognized the potential immediately: He decided to jump on the Fortnite train, although no one could guess how much success Epic Games would have with it. The Fortnite videos were still badly clicked at the beginning, he says. The Youtube algorithm punished him for it; his other videos suffered as well. But then the spark jumped over, in 2018 the number of users and attention exploded in the Fortnite world. An end is not in sight; after all, the game is a continuous content generator, the Perpetuum mobile for gaming infiltrators. “For Youtuber, Fortnite is the Jackpot, the Holy Grail. The ideas for my videos come by themselves, “says Stanislav. Epic Games delivers new content every week; it only needs to check the latest updates for exciting content, look out for little Easter Eggs. The videos would then be clicked a hundred thousand times.
Four guys perform the famous “floss” dance from Fortnite at a wedding together. They did not know each other before. (Photo: Riley McLean)
Stanislav is not the only influencer who has achieved a considerable reach thanks to Fortnite. Probably the biggest profiteer in the field of influencers: Tyler Blevins, known as “Ninja”, is the most successful streamer on Twitch, with nearly fourteen million followers, earning more than half a million dollars a month. But not only this sum is remarkable; his celebrity status goes well beyond the gaming bubble. The rapper Drake, for example, appears in the stream as well as the controversial German Internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom. Mesut Özil is streaming for himself; French international Antoine Griezmann danced for a goal “Take the L” – like “Floss”, a dance from Fortnite.
Controversial, however, is how long-lived the social space created by Fortnite is. Will it last for years or even decades, to become a permanent meeting place in the virtual world, like Facebook or Twitter today? Or does the game disappear so quickly from the minds of players as the once exciting 3D simulation Second Life? This question was also discussed after the tweets of New Yorker Anoop Ranganath. Commentators stated that it was by no means a new phenomenon that teenagers were in computer games like on the football field. This has already been the case with online role-playing games like World of Warcraft.
However, one user remarked: Can it be that Fortnite accidentally achieved what the Second Life simulation tried unsuccessfully? There is a difference: at peak times, World of Warcraft had twelve million players, Second Life a million. At Fortnite, it is after less than two years, already 250 million gamers, and the trend is rapidly rising. So many users had Facebook after five years. So can a computer game be one of the world’s largest networks?
New responsibility for developers
Constance Steinkuehler has been dealing with this question long before Fortnite. The 49-year-old computer science professor researches at the University of California, Irvine, and is regarded as a pioneer when it comes to the social aspects of computer games. In 2006, she examined the online computer game Lineage for its suitability as a “third place”. In urban planning, these are called semi-public places, such as pubs, churches and libraries. Even a computer game, as Steinkuehler stated at the time, could take on the functions of the third-place for young people, comparable to a skate park or a football pitch.
Without blood and released from twelve years: Who logs in Fortnite, has the feeling of being part of his own Disney movie. Together they shoot each other over the pile – or build fortresses and virtual tree houses. (Screenshot: Epic Games)
Since 2006, a lot has happened in the games industry, she explains on the phone. She’s on her way to a congress in San Diego, she says, where she’s at a discussion about e-sports to participate in US educational institutions. If universities already grant scholarships to gamers, says Steinkuehler, then it will not only show how much money is invested in the industry. But also that games are a relevant part of the social lives of many young people. And here there are huge deficits: The developers are not yet aware of their social responsibility, she says: “I’ve become an advocate for games because I advocated that children should deal with each other,” says Steinkuehler. “But I’m not an advocate for the blank clearance of the gaming industry.”
Because games are social spaces, usually with even younger users than Facebook or Twitter, says Steinkuehler. And as everywhere, whether on the Internet or in the real world, there are also problems when people meet. She tells how one of her children received messages with explicit anti-Semitic remarks from a different profile while playing. Together they would have taken screenshots, she says, the profile reported to the game developer. “And what was the reaction? Nothing! ” She speaks in rage. Of course, the anonymity, so Fortnite players report, a breeding ground for insults, conspiracy theories and mobbing.
There are specific tools against it, says Steinkuehler: algorithms, for example, recognize the offensive players or community managers, which strengthen the social commitment of the players. “The game industry does not have the will to implement it consistently. And the community management is minimal, completely understaffed. “
It is crucial, Steinkuehler explains, how exactly games are built as social spaces. She uses the English verb “to engineer” to emphasize one thing: Just as the location and equipment of a skate park can influence the behaviour of teenagers, so is the case with computer games. The billion-dollar company Epic Games is closed to the black box of its community management, even though those responsible for Europe are in Germany, in the middle of Berlin. However, there are currently no interviews, it says only to the company.
The generation question
One thing, as the US-American Steinkuehler says, distinguishes a digital skate park-like Fortnite in principle from the real one: “The noise, the volume, the conflict, all this now takes place in the living room of the parents.” For teenagers today, they are much more structured than they are in their childhood, she says, because of their parents’ fears they have less freedom in the real world than they used to. The consequence: Parents could see the world in which their children move. A world that can provide emotions such as joy, sadness, anger. But parents could not understand them.
At 49 years old, the Swiss Beat Richert, lecturer in media literacy, is likely to be a parent to many teenagers under the general suspicion. He’s not a video player himself, he says, but he’s interested in the gaming world as the father of a teenage son. When the topic of Fortnite popped up in the nursery and the media, Richert let his son explain the game. It’s too easy, Richert notes, just taking the teenagers in charge. Because often there are also problems on the other side of the nursery door: “The parent generation often does not understand the hypes of their children and then often reacts pejoratively, trying to regulate or prohibit game use,” he explains.
“The parent generation often does not understand the hypes of their children and then often reacts pejoratively.”
So Richert wrote for the Swiss Tages-Anzeiger an open letter in the name of Generation Fortnite: “Dad, that’s why I play Fortnite!” It is a whimsical argumentation help that should help, if the parents turn off again without notice the wireless router or in the middle of a game, demand that the dishwasher be cleared. The letter was approved by Richert’s son and nephew, 15 and 17 years old, both Fortnite gamblers. The letter mentions ten values that are promoted through playings, such as social responsibility and strategic thinking, or empathy and solidarity. These are values from a Boy Scout primer, and the parallel is not accidental: “We must not forget: these are the teenagers who live in this game too. This is their important key to social interaction “, says Richerts. “That’s why we should at least take a few steps in the shoes of the younger generation.” Even if the children are embarrassed when the grey-mottled father suddenly performs the same dance as football world champion Antoine Griezmann.
Two hundred fifty million players have registered with Fortnite within two years. Facebook, the world’s largest social network, took just five years to complete. (Screenshot: Epic Games)
However, this role model function of parents says Richert, is a double-edged sword. This can be seen above all in the classic conflict topic between the generations – the screen time. Children quickly find it unfair to be able to meet their friends at Fortnite for only thirty minutes a day, while parents hang on their smartphones until midnight.
On the other extreme, when parents do not regulate their children at all, Richert observes when he attends school classes to give workshops on media literacy. He often starts with a simple exercise. It should show the students that the direct communication can be learned face to face and also again unlearned: The students should face each other in pairs, look deeply into the eyes of their counterparts and describe in detail the eye colours: Is that a bright blue, Does a bit of green mix in the brown?
Many of them, Richert noted, felt uncomfortable looking at each other in the eye. They turned away, embarrassed to look at someone for so long. In the subsequent discussions, Richert explains that most students have a good feeling that they are sitting in front of monitors for too long and only communicate digitally. But they often lack self-discipline: “They expect rules from their parents, they want help from the outside,” says Richert.
The fact is that the children and teenagers who are looking for their place in the digital are getting younger and younger. They use networks where their parents are not present or avoid them on the established platforms: Snapchat is still successful because the content you produce only reaches a select group of people. For teenagers, it is common practice to have several Instagram accounts – an official one that parents can drop by, and then others for different circles of friends and interests. Recent years have shown that the younger generation can be a crucial factor in making social networks top dogs within a few years. This is what happened with the video platform Tiktok, and so it is with Fortnite.
The only question left is whether the most successful game of all time can stay on the market – or will soon be replaced by the next mega-title. The Youtuber Stanislav still sees no challenger on the horizon, the company Epic Games had made with the production of content on the assembly line, that the game has become a central place in the lives of many gamers and influencers: “As a player you are spoiled, because swift changes a lot, always new content is added. Other developers can not just keep up with it. “Computer science professor Steinkuehler sees the similar. There is much to suggest that the Battle Royale shooter will retain its Unicorn status shortly. But even the niches that can fill other games, she is sure, are getting bigger: “There is tremendous diversity in the market right now.” More importantly, we are in the golden age of gaming, says Steinkuehler, in which games had a social relevance like never before: “I do not know how long will stop. But if it were up to me, hopefully forever. “