Mass killing as a form of meditation? Explaining kids' 'Fortnite' obsession
The point of the latest kids' video game craze, 'Fortnite', is to kill, kill, kill, collaborate, and kill again. Andrea Nagel tries to understand the appeal
Eyes glued to the screen. Little hands desperately clutching games controllers. Ask them what they want for lunch ...they don't hear you. Ask them if they're having fun ... they don't hear you. Tell them that we're currently under attack from fire-spitting dragons from outer space with spears for eyes ... "Wha, Ma?" comes the answer - eyes front, mouth open, chin tilted slightly upward.
What incredible drug has resulted in this zombie-like behaviour from my nine-year-old? It's Fortnite, a cross between Minecraft and the Hunger Games for Xbox that's said to be the most popular game on the planet right now.
According to the Daily Telegraph, it holds the record for the most "how to complete a level" cheats uploaded in a single month to YouTube, and recently set a record for biggest single live-gaming stream, with more than 1.1 million live viewers.
I, like many other mothers in my #franticmothers WhatsApp group, have watched my child play this game, and I just don't get it. You choose a muscular avatar and, along with 99 other players, get dropped by parachute into terrain ringed by a glowing circle that periodically shrinks, shepherding you, and everyone else, into an ever-smaller killing field.
The last one standing wins. This is all rendered in a cheerful, brightly coloured field of play and when you die, there is no blood and guts, you merely dematerialise - holographically speaking.
My son used to invite his friends for sleepovers and, for some of the time, delineated by his father and me, they would take turns playing the game. Now they won't do sleepovers anymore because that would mean having to take turns. If they synchronise the game remotely, they can all play at the same time. The mind boggles.
WATCH | The gameplay trailer for Fortnite
So what's the point? It's basic: kill or be killed. Starting off as a shadow in the far distance, your enemy gets closer and closer until you are within sniping range of each other, and if you survive the bullet, close enough for axe-to-axe combat.
If you die, you can watch another player's character take on another avatar, or you can segue into a new game and continue the killing. Kill, kill, kill in loops until it becomes meditative. It's an endless, compulsive cycle that can swallow up time.
In a world where the pressures on adults and kids alike are so great, perhaps it's the release that kids are enjoying so much - the subconscious tapping into our basest survival instincts, which we're systematically taught and encouraged to repress.
And some of the game's fans, like psychologist Emma Kenny, say that although it is just a shooting game, players develop strategic thinking, forward planning and creative approaches to combat. "It teaches a deep amount of collaboration - working together to save teammates."
According to Robin Sloan writing in the Atlantic, when negotiations between teammates, or, more unusually, strangers, are successful, they are more nervy and exciting than the game's intense shoot-outs.
In forums dedicated to Fortnite Battle Royale, some players share clips of chance alliances, and others reply glumly: "Super rare to find someone [who] won't shoot you when you emote."
Gamer Max Albert puts the success of Fortnite down to the following psychological phenomenon: "Lose by a little, win by a lot", which encourages obsessive playing. When players learn how to survive longer into the game, they are drawn in by the powerful "near miss" phenomenon.
Instead of feeling as if they've lost, players may feel as if they nearly won. I can't count how many times I've heard my kid and his friends say: "Dang it! They [the opponent] were sooooooo close to dying!"
Kids just don't get this adrenaline rush from practising cello for an hour, painting a little masterpiece or from working on their calculus skills. But we, as parents, can still dream.