For the last few weeks, Sydney has been in the start of a two-month lockdown. With nowhere else to go, I have started playing a few video games. I’ve been particularly exploring the mass-market games I usually don’t play. Chief amongst these is Fortnite, a game that’s been called, depending on who you ask, a hellish form of addiction, or a revolutionarily new form of gaming.
Fortnite combines the fast-paced mechanics of first-person shooters with the slower, more deliberate mechanics of strategy games.
What makes the game unique however, is its evolving game world. Every few months, the game changes, with different buildings and locations appearing, creating a constant sense of newness. The game borrows liberally from pop culture, allowing players to dress up as Rick from Rick and Morty, Superman or Lebron James. These characters too, change over time.
Fortnite’s philosophy is this constant evolution. Players should never get bored, even for a moment. Instead, they should live in a world of instant gratification. Everything should be shiny all the time. This is the world according to Fortnite.
Fortnite begins with players boarding a bus that flies them to a mysterious island. They parachute off the bus, and choose where to land, immediately finding weapons and harvesting resources. These resources can be used to build defences – elaborate walls and tower structures that can prevent players from getting killed.
The game is inspired by the Japanese action-thriller film Battle Royale, released in 2000. In the film, a group of middle school students are taken to a remote island, where they fight to the death over three days. Only one student will emerge victorious. The students are given provisions, including rations, a map and a random weapon.
In Fortnite’s version, the world around the players is filled with a deadly storm. The storm shrinks the world over time. The game starts on a huge island, which ends up becoming a tiny piece of land. Anyone outside of this zone gets killed by the storm. In this way, Fortnite has an inbuilt endpoint. The game will end, regardless of how the players play. Players will die, even if no one kills them, because the environment will kill them. This creates a constant sense of urgency and movement. There is no way to have a calm and slow game of Fortnite.
In writing about modern society, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han says that we live in a world where “no one is bored” but “everything is boring”. Fortnite encapsulates this view. We are to be constantly entertained, with never a moment to pause or become bored. Boredom is the enemy of addiction. The addict, while taking their addictive substance, can become bored of the act of doing so, and yet, at the same time, they are never bored of the substance.
The game creates instant gratification in a few key ways. Firstly, when players are killed, they are instantly sent to another match. This means that the time between dying and fighting again is extremely small. In Fortnite, there is no waiting. You are always playing again. Like the infinite ads on Netflix, or the infinite video scrolls on Facebook – we live in a world where breaks, and pauses, are a thing of the past.
This is a key to addiction. Years ago, people would switch off the television during ad breaks or leave the room to go to the bathroom. Today, in Netflix and Fortnite, there is no break – there is no time to switch off the device, and as such, you can play forever.
Fortnite also prevents the boredom that comes from repetition. Every few months the game’s world changes. New locations and buildings appear on the map, and new events occur across the game space. Currently, alien ships have appeared on the island, which players can fly and control, but also get beamed up into, and transported to an alien world.
A few months ago, the centre of the map had a castle, filled with the most important items and weapons. Now, a crater stands in its place. The castle was destroyed by one of the alien ships – in a dynamic representation of how the game world evolves.
Players only must wait a few months for the game to radically change, to learn the new environment from scratch. Alongside this, are the in-game stores, that allow players to buy new characters, parachutes, and cosmetic items, that are constantly changing. This is how, to a large extent, the developers make their money.
For those who defend Fortnite, they point to the way that the game has revolutionized gaming. It has done so with the concept of events in the game world.
The most famous example was a live concert by the rapper Travis Scott. Scott appeared as a giant avatar in the game, dancing and singing across the sky, while players joined and watched. Over 27 million players participated live in the concert, creating one of the biggest virtual experiences of all time. In more recent times, the game has featured short films and other interactive content – blurring the line between the virtual world and our own.
What this means is a breakdown of the divide between gaming and other pop culture mediums. The game is attempting to push the boundaries of what is possible in a virtual environment – creating dynamic, live events, unlike anything we’ve seen before.
At the same time, these events are a further reiteration of the philosophy of newness. Every time you log in, the developers want there to be something new waiting for you. You should constantly be surprised, constantly excited. There should never be a dull moment. And you should constantly be rewarded for paying attention.
The problem is, that this is ultimately still a virtual experience. No matter how exciting, it’s a detachment from the real world.
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