There are rare moments when everyone on the internet appears to be looking at, talking about, and experiencing the same thing. The Super Bowl, the World Series, the Oscars … all of these marquee events seem to grip the collective superconscious for hours, a long time in our specific cultural moment. As March 14th turned into the 15th, a new event stormed the gates of that hallowed club, with the help of a blue-haired 26-year-old from Illinois and Toronto Raptors fan Drake.
When Drake – along with fellow rapper and Kardashian-impregnator Travis Scott and Pittsburgh Steelers rookie phenom JuJu Smith-Schuster – joined video game streaming giant Ninja for a few hours of Fortnite, they did more than spotlight the rising popularity of an already popular game. They made Fortnite cool. The game of the moment became the flavor of the moment. Cultures collided and the teens noticed. They always do.
Fortnite is a massively popular shooter from Epic Games, and it has seen its popularity skyrocket since releasing a free “Battle Royale” mode back in September. Despite the game being out less than a year, it has taken over Video Game Twitter as well as Twitch, the biggest video game streaming website; Drake’s buddy Ninja is now far and away the most subscribed-to streamer on the platform. The kid is making millions.
But how did Fortnite’s rapid rise to high school popularity happen — especially at a time when gun control protests are the other hot trend?
While Fortnite has been around since July of 2017, the game’s main co-op mode, “Save The World,” failed to grab the attention of many. It was only with the release of Battle Royale in September that gamers started to pay attention to the cartoonish shooter. Clearly copying – or paying homage to – PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (which has been incredibly popular in its own right since launching its beta back in March of last year and is now universally referred to as PUBG), Fortnite’s take on the genre was as simple as it was addicting.
100 players skydive onto an island from a flying bus held up by balloons to battle it out, with only one player leaving alive. As soon as players land, they have to scavenge weapons – ranging from a slow revolver to machine guns and rocket launchers – in order to stay alive. Where Fortnite differs from PUBG is its building feature; less shooter and more Minecraft, the game lets you destroy pretty much anything in exchange for building materials, which you can use to make walls, towers, stairs, and other such contraptions.
Epic Games has played the Fortnite rollout near perfectly; whether by planning or by coincidence, the company had just released the mobile version of the game days before the Drake-assisted Twitch stream that changed everything. Not only would kids have seen some of the most popular rappers – and an exciting football player playing – but they would be able to, immediately, participate with a free mobile app that they could whip out in the lunch room. It made a game that previously needed either a console or a gaming PC to play into a populist dream; anyone with a phone could participate, and that has opened the player base up to people who don’t consider themselves gamers – a fact that has annoyed some, but is generally good for the game as a whole. It was more perfect than even the most visionary of executives could have imagined.
— Drizzy (@Drake) March 15, 2018
Shooting games are incredibly popular and have been for decades, but there’s something different about the new wave of battle royale-style games. Not only do they feel new every round (as drops and weapon locations are randomized), but they also let kids compete against more people than regular games allow. They also, when playing in Squad Mode (the 100 people are divided into squads of 4), allow kids to play cooperatively with their friends against 24 other groups of friends. Add in the mobile capability and the celebrity endorsements, and you’ve got the perfect storm for video game popularity.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore that kids are flocking to a shooting game that you can play at school while millions march around the country in support of gun control. That a child could go from playing Fortnite on their phone at lunch to marching on D.C. on the weekend is a jarring consequence of modern life. While there have been studies – so many studies – about the non-effects of violent video games on school shootings, there have also been plenty of studies that tell us what seems clear from the eye test: Violence in interactive media does desensitize kids to violence in the real world.
Does that mean that Fortnite is a net negative for kids? No, but it doesn’t make the game a positive either. By virtue of its cartoony art style and fast-paced, if imperfect, combat, Fortnite resembles reality less than PUBG or, taking a broader look at the landscape of shooting games, stalwarts like Call of Duty or Battlefield. It also provides kids with a sense of community and bonding, by virtue of its Squads mode, which promotes teamwork and even the sharing of supplies with those less fortunate than you. As a shooting game, Fortnite straddles the line between the violence ingrained in its genre and the need to be inoffensive, as demanded by its popularity.
Schools seem to see it differently, however. According to a report by Kotaku, teachers around the U.S. have problems with Fortnite; that’s not due to its content, but its addictiveness. Just like Pokémon games did before it, Fortnite is a distraction of the kind that disrupts education and motivation in school. Kids are reportedly playing in class, or arriving late because they had to finish that one last round (there’s always one more round in Fortnite). One teacher even made students put their phones in a “Fortnite / PUBG Mobile Bucket” before sitting down in class.
All that is to say that Fortnite might be best contained to the home, but it’s likely not more harmful for your kids than, say, the latest Avengers movie. Despite the perpetual panic over video games – remember that summit Trump called – there’s little reason to believe that Fortnite represents a prelude to bloodshed. In fact, it’s a social endeavor. But it’s also a distraction, both from school and from an anti-gun moment. It’s easy to believe that Fortnite is a fad and it almost certainly is, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean it won’t affect school culture.