Why 'Fortnite' Has A Strangely Positive Influence On Kids
Imagine a dystopian future in which all teenagers are lured into a single violent virtual realm where they battle to the death over and over for the amusement of others. Now imagine this cruel, international spectacle seems to ... make everyone nicer in the real world?
Fortnite Battle Royale has grown to an astounding 125 million players, being watched by many millions of others on thousands of streams at any given moment. As a teacher of tweens, I watched my kids get recruited into this game's colorful, festive war zone, and decided I had to find out what it was all about. What I found left me more optimistic about both games and teenagers.
All At Once, Everyone Was Talking About It. And Dancing
I could feel the change in January of this year, when Fortnite really started to take hold (everyone abbreviates it to that, for all of the old people out there who don't understand why they're suddenly hearing that word 250 times a day).
Some background: I have always been adamant on the decriminalization of cell phones in school, which is a tremendously unpopular opinion in my profession. Maybe it's because I'm young enough to remember texting on my flip phone under my desk, or that I'm tech-savvy enough to see the benefits of teaching screenagers that a smartphone is more than just a bullying machine. Besides, when you tell a teenager not to do a thing, they will get great satisfaction out of doing it anyway (and additional satisfaction from not getting caught). I fought the phone battle for several years as an English teacher, and what do you know, I'm a computer teacher now -- Google-certified, sponsored by tech companies, attending software release parties, the whole nine yards.
Early in the year, the energy shift became palpable. I started noticing kids actually talking to each other. Boys and girls I'd barely heard speak were connecting and clamoring together to watch streams of other people playing a game. "Could it be?" the grown-ups asked, a hopeful glint in their eyes, "Is Logan Paul finally over?" It turns out Logan Paul, Tyler Oakley, and PewDiePie were replaced with Fortnite videos. It's almost as if it's finally cool to be Player 2, waiting your turn to play Luigi, except you're enjoying watching Mario so much that you're happy to sacrifice your turn.
Not only were the teens suddenly obsessing over playing/watching this one game, but they also spontaneously had dozens of new dance moves, and would execute them perfectly for their Snapchat stories. If you're in a public place and see a gaggle of tweens practicing their choreography, odds are they aren't rehearsing for the school play. Dancing is actually one of the cornerstones in this teens-vs-teens Hunger Games simulator. (Would it have killed Katniss to dance a little bit? Probably.) Fortnite dances are even popping up in World Cup soccer, videos of police officers, and professional boxing.
Refusing to transition from "hip young teacher" to "cranky old purveyor of busy-work packets," I had to learn more, because not only had my students become disinterested in coding video games in my class, but the only thing they seemed to care about was this fork knife thing. So I started playing.
It's Surprisingly Friendly For A Battle Royale
Shooting games have been popular longer than any of these kids have been alive. But what separates Fortnite from Call Of Duty and the other massively popular first-person shooters is also the reason I like it. (Note: I haven't enjoyed a shooter since GoldenEye.) It's a colorful, joyous affair with no blood or gore, and lots of dancing. So much dancing. Players all come equipped with "emotes," which allow them to dance whenever they achieve a victory, or pretty much whenever they feel like it. It's ushered in a magical era in which you can do the Carlton in front of your classmates and look like the coolest kid in school.
In Fortnite, you don't actually "die" -- when you're eliminated, you're just teleported out of the map. At that point, your screen is automatically flipped to the person who eliminated you so that you can watch. You're now empathizing with your killer until he/she is eliminated, and then it changes to the player who eliminated them, etc. Elimination grants the opportunity to learn how to be better by watching how your opponent strategizes for the remainder of their game.
Also, you can't talk shit to opponents with your headset -- you can only communicate with members of your squad, if you have one. (You're playing with 99 other people. Some game modes are you versus everybody, others let you team up with a small squad, or do a game of 50 on 50.) I tried the headset thing once, and ended up helping a high school senior write his valedictorian speech, and even slip in a Fortnite reference. (I just muted everyone after that. The game makes it easy to do.)
Games are constantly accused of bringing out the worst in people -- the abuse and slurs in communication, the brutality and sexism in the games themselves. Maybe you've had a bad experience on Fortnite -- I'm not pretending to speak for everyone -- but what I saw was creativity, cooperation, and so, so much dancing.
It Was A Breath Of Fresh Air In A Nightmarish Year
We needed something like Fortnite this year. We've seen the horrifying influx of school shootings around the country, and of course the new president, which many bullies interpreted as an open invitation to ostracize and torture their nonwhite peers. Where last year we had fidget spinners, bottle flipping, the Mannequin Challenge, and dozens of other online trends, the main observable trend early in this school year was how all of the bullies seemed to be changing their online classroom emoticons to pictures of our president, then following it up with obscene racist outbursts. This was the year in which I had to do impromptu lectures on why kids were no longer permitted to use Pepe the Frog memes in their projects.
But then came Fortnite.
It was suddenly the only thing all of the kids were talking about -- black, white, nerds, jocks, bullies, even the baby MAGA lovers couldn't get enough of this game. In an effort to ride its coattails, I made a new video game to motivate my young programmers. I called it Fork Knife.
It Gave Me A Unique -- And Effective -- Way To Connect
Fork Knife had little to do with Fortnite by design, but the object of the game was to defeat 100 random enemies before getting to the end. To my surprise, they loved it (so much so that I bought a domain so they could find it more easily). I introduced the game with feigned ignorance of Fortnite, and they immediately took to it ... and more importantly, they were interested in coding their own games again too.
I continued to play Fortnite (and got my first Victory Royale!) to get a feel for the map and gameplay, hoping to incorporate it into subsequent lessons. I admit, I was instantly hooked (it got so bad one night that my boyfriend threatened to turn off my WiFi). I never played with the kids from my class, because it seemed like an ethical fine line (something seems off about a teacher gleefully pumping virtual bullets into a student's avatar). Whenever they asked me to play, I would divert the question by flipping open my programming app to show them a new pixelated Battle Bus I made, or an exciting new coding function. One morning, my class raced into my room after the first bell, all holding up screenshots on their phones. Fork Knife actually showed up in Retail Row, an area within the Fornite map.
After a great impromptu lesson on parallel thinking and intellectual property (I was obviously not the first person to think of that utensil pun), the kids were still unconvinced. Now they thought I actually hacked Fortnite, or that we had a reason to sue Epic Games for a billion-trillion V-Bucks. The result: My kids were more interested in computer science than ever.
Also, it had been months since I'd had to help a kid with a cyberbully or a real-life bully. Weeks went by without hearing about any drama on Instagram. Weeks turned into months, and I realized they finally found a reason to stay off their Finstas. United in the virtual world of Fortnite, they were actually cyberbullying each other less. In previous years, I'd help dozens of kids when they were bullied, but they were now all playing together.
Within Fortnite Are A Whole Lot Of Practical Life Lessons
From what I can see, before Fortnite became ubiquitous among teens, the bullies got their power through physical intimidation/violence, verbal persecution, quoting our president, and online harassment. Overnight, it seems like Fortnite shifted the power balance. Suddenly the "popular" kids actually needed the nerdy gamers on their squads if they wanted to achieve a Victory Royale.
Also, the game itself is structured to be as inclusive as possible. It's not only available on just about any gaming machine (including mobile iOS devices), but it's also free to play. It's not perfect -- I realize not every kid has internet access, and that the game is full of additional skins, battle stuff, and emotes that can be purchased with real money if wealthier students don't feel like putting in the time. Still, that's amazingly egalitarian compared to how teenage cliques normally work. Here, anyone can join the party that all of the popular kids are talking about. By using their smartphones, the same tools that were formerly weapons of harassment, everyone finally had a place to play together, sharing the same slang, in-jokes, and status symbols.
The general framework of the game also teaches kids that if they can't play as a team and learn to share, their squad will never win. They internalize the lesson that teachers struggle to imprint through endless group projects and role-playing exercises. (To be fair, how can we expect our students to take life advice from adults preaching that they'll need Algebra to be successful?) A game in which everyone is frantically shooting each other somehow became a productive, safe space for learning.
Also, Fortnite's Battle Royale format means there's only one winner. That means if you're good at it, it's only because you endured a long, sad string of defeats and near-misses. (As one student said to a peer, "I use to be trash, but now I'm a savage.") Please note that this is also how you get good at something in the real world. It's no wonder that some colleges are actually starting to offer scholarships for talented Fortnite gamers.
Fortnite isn't going to save the world (probably), and this isn't intended to be one giant advertisement for the game (it's not like they need it). The real lesson here is that if parents and educators actually listen to kids and take the time to get in tune with what's important to them, two things might happen. The kids will notice, and we'll be pleasantly surprised by what we find out about them. If you want to make life better for young people, stop being dismissive or afraid of whatever they're into, and start paying attention.
Fortnite friends, you can show love for Vicky V the next time you spend your V-Bucks! Type in Vicki's gamer tag, PickleVic86 in the "Support a Creator" tab in the item shop and she will literally feel your virtual accolades. Follow Vicki Veritas on Twitter. Please send all fan mail to email@example.com.
Still, please don't let this prevent your kids from learning, we dunno, math?
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