I've played a lot of Fortnite this year, and I was struggling to understand why I liked the game so much. It's fun to play, but usually I get bored of multiplayer because I'm being constantly killed, can't keep up with the hardcore players or it just gets stale. Fortnite is different, because it's not even about the game at all: it's a place we're all going together.
Not only is Fortnite the new hangout spot, replacing the mall, Starbucks or just loitering in the city, it's become the coveted 'third place' for millions of people around the world. I only realized this resonated with me so much when I saw this Twitter thread over the past week:
It's not that they're that good... they're not. It's that for them, the game is background noise. Fortnite isn't a game, it's a place.
— Anoop Ranganath (@anoopr) December 10, 2018
I've probably played Fortnite at least four days a week since I got hooked earlier this year, when a friend taught me how to play. That's the problem with Fortnite: it's incredibly difficult for new players to learn, with most people trying it once on their own and figuring it's too difficult for them — myself included.
Fortnite is enormous and perplexing at first because you can do whatever you want: you jump out of a flying bus soaring over a vast map, land wherever you want (with your team or without, that's up to you), pushed into the thrust of desperately gathering weapons, materials and other items before someone with a gun finds you.
The virality of Fortnite, however, is something else: if a friend shows you the ropes you're hooked immediately. I've seen this repeatedly with my own circle, who I'm probably responsible for hooking on the game and see online constantly after initially saying they didn't like it. It ripples out from a group of friends, down the chain as they show their friends, over and over.
Now we have a bunch of Telegram groups, Discord chat rooms and Slack teams for different groups of friends from around the world, where someone will say "@fortnite where we dropping" and a bunch of us log on. I probably have ten different Telegram groups, primarily for people that play together a lot.
We get on to play, but we're really just hanging out. Fortnite has built-in voice chat so it's seamless to just jump on voice, talk about the day, life, whatever is going on, without even really realizing it. We're playing the game together, dropping from the Battle Bus every ten minutes to start a new round, but what keeps us there is that we're all spending time together.
I've probably spent more time talking to my friends on the other side of the world in Fortnite's voice chat than I have calling them in the last four years since I moved overseas. Even for friends that live close, in the same city, we catch up far more often through the game, popping on for a quick few rounds and talking about what's new at the same time.
The calls probably sound like madness from the outside.
One minute I'll be talking about my day, some coding problem, or something else, then it's interrupted by me screaming "WATCH OUT FOR THE SNIPER AT 250" and everyone scrambling to stay alive. Then, a minute later, we're all dead and waiting for the next round in the lobby, so it's calm real-world discussion again, littered with remarks about a new skin or dance someone unlocked.
I was doing all of this without even realizing it: jumping on every day, messaging the group, then talking, dropping, and playing on repeat for hours. I thought it was about the game, but in reality it was about who was online and having fun while talking. I'm from a generation who will do anything to avoid talking on the phone, but I don't even think twice about it in Fortnite.
Why is all of this happening with this game, and not something like Second Life which was a world-builder simulation you could customize to your heart's content? Well, Fortnite is much more interesting as a place to be, first of all.
But, what makes it unique is that it's the great equalizer: it's entirely free for anyone to play, on any device on the planet. I play with my friends on Xbox, PS4, iOS, Android, PC, Nintendo Switch... and for the first time in two decades that's actually possible! Usually you're relegated to gaming with your same-platform pals, which is just a handful, but I can play with anyone on the planet, without them needing to spend money on a console or computer to jump in.
Fortnite being free is also incredibly understated: it doesn't matter how rich or poor you are, you can jump in. Sure, there's paid upsells like dances (emotes), exclusive skins and other virtual stuff, but you don't have to buy that stuff if you can't. Most of us just buy the seasonal 'Battle Pass' which allows levelling up to unlock new collectibles, rather than paying for each one.
The icing on the cake is Fortnite's ever-changing world. The map layout, places you can go to, weapons and other items change all the time, morphing every two weeks and forcing us to learn the ropes all over again — changing, constantly, just like the real world. It drags you back in without even realizing it because you're curious what's changed, and you're hanging out again.
Fortnite's own mechanisms overflow into the real world, as well. People try to learn the quirky dances from the game, and it's a signal you're in the club, just like making Seinfeld references was during the TV age. Everything in-game is automatically recorded, infinitely replayable after it's over, shareable by default when something incredible happens.
We share our videos with funny moments, weird techniques or impressive games when we're offline, and post memes from places like Reddit, where others are doing exactly the same so we can laugh, discuss or learn from the pro players. I don't think I'm any good, but I enjoy playing, dying and starting over and over because the game is just a side-note.
I'm in my mid-twenties, so there's probably even more going on that I just am not even a part of, but I know that I'm part of something bigger than myself where we all have something in common — the game — that maybe it doesn't matter if you're 13 or 27, we all understand the memes, and we're all experiencing the same unfolding mystery.
In a world where social media has become toxic, exhausting and unsafe, many of us have wondered aloud where the next social network will be. Are groups going private, to Telegram, or some new service? I think we all missed it: Fortnite is the new social network, and it's transcending into a substitute for the real world, a place you go and talk to friends, but do something at the same time.
Lots of ink has been spilled about whether or not Fortnite is addictive, bad for kids or whatever else, but few are telling the stories of how much better it feels to participate in a connected experience that isn't just arguing with internet trolls all day. I can mute anyone I want and focus on talking with my friends, connecting with them more often than ever before, and a free game pulled it off.
Why do we hate kids playing Fortnite so much, but spending hours on the phone when I was a teenager was totally fine? There's something about video games that makes us demonize them for 'wasting' time, but it's no different than wasting time messing around doing anything else as a kid. I loved this podcast with Shopify's CEO talking about how he thinks about games as good for his own career, and I think it's time to reconsider our biases when we look at video games.
Whether we like it or not, Fortnite is the new hangout. The new living room, or the better 'third place.' It's like going to church, or the mall, except there's an entire universe to mess around in together, and it doesn't matter where in the world you are.