Fortnite Is so Much More Than a Game
Teens have always created their own spaces to experiment, socialize, and indulge idle curiosity
We’re just not going to make it this time but decide to make a run for it anyway. As we gain speed, we are laughing, because, well, here we are: an esteemed contributor to the New Yorker disguised as a bush and pushing a fortysomething novelist across an abandoned parking lot in a shopping trolley. Under heavy gunfire.
I am playing Fortnite with my friend, the journalist and author Simon Parkin. He’s at home on the south coast of England, and I’m in my basement about 200 miles west, talking to him through a headset at 1 a.m. We’re trying to work out if we can get across Retail Row, one of the many set pieces on the Fortnite map. It’s a crisscross of wide-open avenues surrounded by stores and cafés, which provide perfect sniping positions for other players. My wife comes down and asks us to be quiet. It feels like being a kid again.
Fortnite: Battle Royale is a game where 100 players land on an island, then have to fight until only one is left alive. It’s been downloaded more than 125 million times since its launch, in September 2017, and is generating $250 million per month for Epic Games, the North Carolina–based company that made it. You’ll know it from the media coverage that focuses on its “addictive” gameplay and the slew of articles warning about its “compulsion loop” and “dopamine trap.”
And while the central premise really is compelling, what the alarmist coverage often misses is that Fortnite is not really a game about shooting people. It’s a game about escape.
Through a variety of clever design decisions, Epic has constructed a true digital Third Place, a hangout where players are given a huge amount of autonomy to seek out the experiences they want. As a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it hit me a few weeks ago that Fortnite feels like a skatepark. Or if you prefer, a drag strip. Or a surfing beach. Or a roller disco. It has a central function that draws people in, but more important, it provides a safe place to hang out, experiment, and mess around. To be free.