I’m what would be called an “older” millennial: born in 1985, not quite the social media monster that the 50 and over crowd think nor the luddite imagined by the youth. As you can guess, it’s a hard life. Don’t cry for me, however, as I have one important advantage over the younger millennials: I can remember 1999.
Many things happened in 1999, but if you were younger than the drinking age, one thing mattered the most: Columbine. Post-Columbine, the national discourse was laser-focused on why kids might go on violent killing sprees, a question that seems incredibly naive these days. And while deathless conservative ghoul Bill Kristol blamed “secular culture” for the violent rot of American children, the most popular of the early explanations for Columbine was that “murder simulators” like iD Software’s DOOM were warping the minds of young people, making the idea of hiding in corridors with a shotgun seem appealing as opposed to a nightmare. As Slate noted way back on May 2, 1999, many of the media faces familiar to us to this day chimed in with variations on this theme:
Most of the self-styled psychologists, surgeon generals, and policy experts fault a national culture that encourages youth violence and permits easy access to firearms. [George] Stephanopoulos suggests that we prevent kids from buying violent video games, while Dave Grossman (NBC's Meet the Press), a retired military officer, says that Doom and other such games are vicious wares that instruct children in the art of killing.
The focus on the trees instead of the forest aside — maybe the guns themselves are more directly to blame? — I think about what these pundits would make of our current social obsession with Battle royale titan Fortnite. In Fortnite, for those in the audience who don’t have kids or refuse to learn what their kids like, you are dropped from a goofy flying bus onto a cartoonish island with 99 other players. Your goal on the island is two-fold: to survive and to build. The survival part is also two-fold, as you have to worry about the other players who can shoot or axe or explode you to death as well as the storm encroaching on you from all sides. The storm takes what is a massive map and quickly shrinks it down so that you’re forced to face the other, deadly, players who are trying to be the last one standing.
Meanwhile, we should not forget the building part, a crucial element of the game. A holdover from when Fortnite was going to be a cooperative game revolving around fortress-building against zombie hordes, the building mechanic has been the crowning achievement of the battle royale mode. Cutting down trees, buildings, cars, rocks, and really anything in your way with a pickaxe, your avatar can amass materials and build walls, ceilings, stairs and more. Using these constructions, you can safely bide your time as the storm closes in, or create an unbreachable vantage point from which to gun down your enemies.
What this unconventional blend of gaming elements — the coordinated violence of a Call of Duty combined with the cartoonish world-building of Minecraft — produces is an army of Twitch streamers performing acrobatic, operatic maneuvers around each other, building while shooting and dodging upwards as a storm crowds in around them. It has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster, and it’s really no wonder it’s been an enormous hit. As I write this, at 2PM on a Tuesday, 220,663 people are watching Fortnite streams on Twitch; according to PC Gamer, the game reached 2 million concurrent players in January of this year and 3.4 million in February; the Fortnite Tracker website claims it charts 43,945,696 individual players who have played at one point or another.
But for a game that’s deeply popular with the pre-teen set — thanks in no small part to it being free-to-play as well as its seamless mobile port — it’s a bit strange to see the dramatization of kill-or-be-killed fantasies in bright colors and wacky costumes. Fortnite is a totally bloodless and innocent game while, somehow, being about desperate murder for survival — a game every child plays where the basic goal is to murder an entire island full of people and do funny dances.
Let me stop for a moment and say in no uncertain terms that I don’t think video games cause violence, nor do I think Fortnite is poisoning our kids. As someone asked before I wrote this piece, why spend time taking Fortnite to task for dramatizing murder for resources when there are games like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, which has all the elements of Fortnite with none of the cartoonish levity? But I don’t much care about the violence of the game itself; I care about the somewhat laissez-faire reaction to the violence by a media apparatus that has largely loosened up, compared with 1999, but still finds way to clutch its pearls during every news cycle. Fortnite’s violence, in other words, is only interesting because people are not reacting with shock. Instead, they understand it makes all the sense in the world.
The logic of scarcity asserts that there’s a finite number of things in the world that we all need to survive and thrive and only the strong can have them. This is something that we’ve basically internalized and banished to the background of our mind, only noticing it when it is expressed in surprising or blunt ways. One recent, prominent example was a tweet where Benjamin Netanyahu justified use of force against Palestinians who were fomenting against Israeli occupation of their land by invoking scarcity in specifically violent terms, and was justifiably censured widely. But we casually reiterate the same sentiments daily when we, even the leftists among us, talk about the ways massive climate change operates not as a structural imperial injustice but as a scientific tragedy. The logic of scarcity is not simply at the root of Netanyahu’s brutal proclamation, but also at the core of all of our assumptions about the future of human civilization, about birth rates, about walls on our borders, and about the need to buy land in the Pacific Northwest to avoid being boiled alive: There’s not enough for all of us, so I need to get mine.
The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) August 29, 2018
Once again, though, let’s take a step back and acknowledge that when your 13 year old nephew plays Fortnite all through Christmas Eve while muttering “thank you” at all the Amazon gift certificates he receives, he isn’t actively being a reactionary fascist or anything. No kid or streamer is thinking of Fortnite as some kind of political statement; they’re playing it because it’s fun and well made. And I would even go so far as to wager that Epic Games didn’t make Fortnite because they thought they could profit off of a pernicious logic that undergirds late capitalism. They made their battle royale hit because their fortress building game flopped and they wanted to save the IP. None of the actors here are performing some sort of deep skullduggery; this article won’t end with a revelation of Russian crisis actors or child Nazis or anything.
But that we have a legitimate cultural phenomenon based on a ritualized kill-or-be-killed game style, and no one seems overly concerned about the implications, is something that I think is worth noting. Maybe in 1999, the media would have been absolutely frothing at the battle royale’s renaissance, but the persistent terror and spectacle of 2018 casts a much larger shadow. This lack of attention, however, may ultimately be why Fortnite matters. One benefit of art, historically, has been that it’s defamiliarized the world in ways that allow us to recognize our own ingrained behaviors as ridiculous or harmful. When Bertolt Brecht claimed that art wasn’t a mirror to reality but a hammer to shape it, he meant that art and theater has the ability not just to reflect reality but to distort it as well. Fortnite isn’t about scarcity, but it could not reach its popularity in a world that wasn’t shaped by scarcity. What we recognize in Fortnite, at an almost unconscious level, is the logics of our own world reflected back on us. There’s comfort in being able to manipulate and control those logics so that we end up on top, for once.
So is the end of the story that Fortnite is conditioning us to accept the order of the world as a meat grinder that spits out all but the elite? Is this seemingly innocent murder-dance simulator teaching kids that shooting up a school is ephemeral, but hoarding the means of survival is forever? Of course not. But it’s at the core of its appeal, and as such the game can be used to show people the paranoia and fear of hoarding and land-grabbing in a clear-eyed and disturbing way. As Netanyahu showed us above, when the tenets behind the logic of scarcity are expressed in starkly Manichean terms, they aren’t as easily normalized as the idea that “there, unfortunately, isn’t enough food for everyone.” If it can make people ask questions about why a fight to be the last one standing feels so comfortable in contemporary America, or why the natural extension of a battle royale, even for kids, is to get bigger guns, then maybe Fortnite can be a hammer to shape reality too.
Fortnite might not be high art, but it does have everyone’s attention. That’s not going to produce an army of radicalized Fortnite streamers or a socialist army of teens fomenting against the logic of scarcity. But it doesn’t really need to — it just simply needs to help us get the problem in front of our faces, as opposed to the back of our mind. As Brecht would tell you, that’s what art, good or bad, high or low, has the potential to do.