Fortnite is a social space the way skateparks and Facebook used to be

Gather your friends.
Gather your friends.
Image: Epic Games
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Fortnite is as much of a hangout as it is a video game.

Yes, the game’s battle royale format—in which 100 players are dropped into an ever-shrinking landscape and must fight to the death—is the source of its mass appeal. And Fortnite is on track to generate $2 billion in revenue in 2018. It also has almost 80 million monthly players after just over a year. These numbers raise  Fortnite into the ranks of the world’s most popular games, like Minecraft and League of Legends, which have been around for a decade.

Now, with more than 200 million total registered players, it largely functions as a social space for young people.

As Anoop Ranganath, an engineer and co-founder of the mortgage company Eave, recently pointed out on Twitter, “Fortnite isn’t a game, it’s a place.” Ranganath’s thread stemmed from his experience playing the game with his friend’s 12-year-old son and his friends.

Playing Fortnite with these kids revealed that they weren’t that concerned about the game at all. They seemed more preoccupied with catching up or sharing the latest on pop culture. Viewing Fortnite as a substitute for a physical place, and understanding its subsequent social value, is crucial to understanding just how significant the game experience has become.

Fortnite as a virtual “third place”

In 2006, more than a decade before Fortnite appeared, a study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication already explored how massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) are “third places.” A “third place” is where people willingly spend time between home and work, or school. Using video-chat transcripts and different scenarios, Constance Steinkuehler, now a professor of informatics at the University of California-Irvine, and Dmitri Williams, now an associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California, showed how players flocked to video games like “pubs, coffee shops, and other hangouts of old” to make new friends and build social bonds.  

In 2018, Fortnite is extremely popular with teens and tweens, a place where they can socialize without parents watching. Importantly, it is extremely accessible—unlike most other mainstream video games, Fortnite is completely free and supports cross-network play on different systems. As journalist Keith Stuart points out for Medium, comparing Fortnite to a skatepark is a useful analogy: Its universe is “both a social space and a sporting venue,”  and “it’s as much about spectatorship as it is about taking part.” Players can go all in to try and be the last one standing or just hang out and watch before probably being killed—after which you can continue to watch the gameplay anyway.

Fortnite is also even more accommodating because you don’t even have to leave your homes. Kurt Dean Squire, author of Video Games and Learning, and Matthew Gaydos, a design researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, note that spending time in third places is also important for development. “These are places where kids learn to negotiate conflict, become independent, and explore what kind of person they want to be,” Squire and Gaydos wrote for Education Week.

Notably, these virtual interactions and bonds can be translated to the real world. Fan events can help turn online friendships into real-life ones, and the game is a common conversation topic among young people. Ranganath posted an image of kids at his wedding who didn’t know each other but all knew how to do the “floss dance,” a popular Fortnite emote, or character animation.

Fortnite is basically social media

The “floss dance” is just one example of Fortnite emotes, often appropriated from viral dance moves, and performed by everyday players and celebrities alike. Notably, these emotes and various skins—in-game accessories and  customization options—have to be unlocked through gameplay or bought with in-game currency obtained with real money. (Fortnite makes millions of dollars each day from  in-game purchases.) Essentially, it’s a status symbol.

Strutting around with a covetable skin is similar to uploading a cool post to social media to show all your friends. Being part of a winning squad might give the same sense of pride as being tagged in a Facebook photo with the popular kids, or having one of them post on your Facebook wall. “In other words, the way to think about Fortnite isn’t Halo, but Instagram. Not Call of Duty, but Snapchat,” Brian Feldman wrote for New York Magazine.

Fortnite has been, for the most part, a friendlier place than many social platforms (even if there will always be bad actors online). At the beginning of a game, players are randomly assigned avatars of different genders and races to make it more inclusive. It’s not just a male-oriented space, Eric Klopfer, an education professor at MIT, told Boston’s WBUR station. This makes it more welcoming, especially to female players, who have historically been marginalized and, at worst, seriously harassed, in gaming. 

Fortnite also hasn’t been plagued—yet—by all the data privacy concerns and misconduct that has tarnished the  platforms like Facebook. Fortnite remains a place to hang out without targeted ads (unless you’re watching someone play on Twitch).

Esports and entertainment will have to adapt

Fortnite’s huge success has changed the video game and entertainment industry. According to gaming research firm SuperData, because of Fortnite, the battle royale genre superseded all others by November 2017 in terms of what kinds of games people chose to watch. In May of this year alone, viewers spent 574 million hours watching people play Fortnite on streaming platforms, the most for any game that month.

Advertising dollars are pouring into gaming. While esports involving games like Overwatch or DOTA have been lucrative, Fortnite has raised the bar. Tyler Blevin, the celebrated Fortnite player known as “Ninja,” reportedly makes half a million dollars from his livestreams on Twitch alone. (Blevin was also the first gamer to grace the cover of ESPN the Magazine.) In the 2019 Fortnite World Cup, players are expected to compete for $100 million in prize money.

Fortnite gamifies entertainment and social media, which makes it the ideal place for players out to win or friends who just want to hang. As Feldman points out, it’s not just a game, it’s a lifestyle.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ranganath played with his own son, instead of his friend’s son. Ranganath does not have any children.