Originally written at The Millions in 2019, this piece still feels relevant in the context of "Needed Adjustments." Remember, this was a time before COVID-19 when everyone was locked inside with nothing to do but sit around on Zoom, get drunk, play video games, and buy Dogecoin, all while pretending the world might not be ending. This was before we truly realized the direction in which the global environment was headed. Now, headlines about world-record heat and oceans boiling receive the same kind of attention as whistleblowers stating in Congress that there were nonbiological bodies on the alien ships they've had since the '30s. This was a time before everything seemed to turn upside down. Concepts such as Web 3 gaming, gamefi, and the metaverse never even existed; but now, with the release of Apple's VR headset and META's Oculus, it's not a question of if adults and kids will become the characters they control from their PlayStation, Xbox, or PC, but when. As you read this piece, you may find that it makes the future seem more terrifyingly weird, exciting, and confusing.
I couldn’t tell you what time it was when I got the call from The Bosco—the San Francisco based photo service I freelanced for that mainly covered tech events scattered around the city—but I could tell you what I was doing. I was playing video games, specifically Fortnite on Playstation 4, a competitive, cross-platform battle royale game created by Epic Games with more than 250 million players and counting.
This is not an honorable story, merely a common one.
I don’t even know how I saw The Bosco’s call. Out of self-preservation, I’d left my phone face down to prevent me from instinctively doing math on how much sleep I wouldn’t be getting. I didn’t want that information, that guilt. I couldn’t do anything with it. It would only make me stop gaming. And that—late at night and lacking any desire to better myself spiritually, physically, or intellectually—was out of the question. Fortnite was all I had. What was I going to do? Read a book? No, I needed to kill. I needed to win. I needed Victory Royale.
The lights in my living room were dimmed to replicate the conditions of a cave, which heightened the sharpness and overall saturation of the digital desert, forest, and farms on which I was battling. As I worked the paddles of my PS4 controller, dodging, shooting, ducking, and weaving, I reveled in the movements of the miniature me on the 65-inch HDTV 4K TV. The character (or “skin”) I’d chosen was your typical caricature of an ancient Viking: gut juice smeared across his face; hatchet dangling from his side; braided golden yellow beard; tattoos of pagan idols; leather helmet with two giant horns jutting into the sky. I’m half Norwegian, so why not connect my Fortnite addiction to my lineage?
As the phone rang and rang, 100 different players were dropping into the arena at once. As I fumbled to pick up the call, I felt a weird sense of pride as I watched my Viking avatar’s honeysuckle hair flutter behind him like a cape. Luckily, I was able to follow my team to a safe area, where I immediately hid in a bush. I picked up my phone. My boss’s name read big and white on the screen.
Tyler, I thought, Interesting…he never calls.
“What do you want?” I said, never taking my eyes from the game. “I’m in the middle of something.”
“I got some work for you next week,” he told me. “You ever heard of TwitchCon?”
“Of course,” I said. “The videogame streaming app where hordes of nerds watch godly nerds play video games for hours on end.”
I am one of these nerds. Obviously, I’m unable to address this truth. Que sera sera.
“We’re doing a booth there in one of their tents,” he said. “There’s going to be a green screen, something called a glider they are installing, guys coming up from L.A., and all that. It’s in the Fortnite tent. You ever heard of Fortnite?”
Last year Fortnite—a game that grossed $3 billion in 2018 and boasts 200 million registered players—celebrated its first birthday. The CEO of Epic Games is now worth $7 billion. The company came out of nowhere, fusing the old paradigm of third-person shooters like Star Wars Battle Front and Grand Theft Auto with a brand-new competitive gaming mode: battle royale. So how did Fortnite suddenly become so popular?
Well, it’s addicting. I remember how sweaty and shaky my hands were after my first win, after hours and hours of grinding. I could feel the dopamine and adrenaline surging through me like a swarm of bees. I was literally buzzing. I wanted nothing more than to feel that physiological spike of victory over and over, again and again.
My story isn’t unique. The dominant demographic of players registered with Fortnite is 18- to 24-year-olds (62.7 percent), followed by 25- to 34-year-olds (22.5 percent). Unsurprisingly, people ripe for existential crises of one sort or another choose a game that gives them a specific task: kill anyone that gets in your or your team’s way.
That kind of freedom, given away for free, can’t be found in the real world.
But in the world of Fortnite, it can.
With pop icons like Drake and sports stars like Richard Sherman selling copyrighted dance moves Epic uses in the game, it’s no surprise that the masses follow suit. In March 2018, Ninja, the most popular streamer of Fortnite on Twitch—recently moved to Mixer, a Seattle-based video game live-streaming platform owned by Microsoft; he makes roughly $3 million dollars per year in support of the game—played alongside Drake and Travis Scott for a crowd of millions. Like the Avengers and Harry Potter films, Fortnite draws huge crowds not only because of its content but also because of its culture. And, as with any successful online venture, there are plenty of commercial opportunities: in-game micro-transactions, battle passes, and targeted advertising pushing energy drinks, headphones, and specialty game controllers. All this (and much more) is ready to strike like some invisible eel from the coral.
So, what are the repercussions of all this innocent mayhem and electronic carnage? Lorrine Marer, a British behavioral specialist whose clients range from kids to adults, says, “This game is like heroin. Once you are hooked, it’s hard to get unhooked.” That may sound harsh, insensitive, or overly dramatic; nobody’s technically dying from playing Fortnite, but some kids are logging 10 to 12 hours per day. There have been reports of Fortnite-obsessed kids disregarding school and homework, butting heads with parents who threaten to disconnect the Internet. And for what? Another level? A new skin? Another victory?
What Fortnite does—along with a slew of other games—is tap into and exploit the universal desire for legacy, fame, and recognition. Fortnite is really a metaphor for and microcosm of Capitalist America.
Arriving at TwitchCon at the giant McEnery Convention Center in San Jose on a blindingly hot Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but assess the crowd as we walked in: the usual super fans with their hair dyed various shades of puke green, yellow, bubble-gum pink, and purple, their giant cell phones recording anything and everything. Then, there were the normal-looking 20-somethings, most likely there to, somewhat ironically, view new games while simultaneously mocking their own (and everyone else’s) nerdiness. But as I scoped out the food tents, I noticed another breed of gamer: more professional, almost athletic. Their backs were straighter, the muscles in their hands and forearms toned. Their eyes weren’t sluggish or glazed over; they had a kind of sharpness. Something told me something very serious was on the line for this group.
I would later learn that these gamers had been practicing for up to 16 hours a day for who knows how long with the hope of winning a cash prize of $1.5 million. That’s a lot of money for playing a video game. Some players had jerseys—some glittery aqua blue, others shiny obsidian—with team names like Disquiet, 100 Thieves, and Solary. As they sauntered into the Fortnite tent—many of them with an odd, awful royal bearing—they reminded me of the workers at the tech companies that litter the streets of San Francisco: dull, common, amoeba-like beings with oversized backpacks and Apple Watches, carrying themselves as if they owned the world. It was like The Revenge of the Nerds but with an extra dose of hubris.
“Hey,” the captain of our crew shouted at me. “You’re laggin’. Let’s go.”
The fruity stink of vape pens and the savory smell of overpriced food filled the air. We made our way through security—pat-downs and metal detectors, because of a shooting last year at another video game convention, were common now—and then were let loose in the Fortnite tent.
I remember gasping. The ceiling of the tent was at least 100 feet high. It felt like being in the belly of some freakishly giant blue whale, it’s ribs, muscles, and tendons all visible and illuminated. Yellow, green, and red strobe lights danced on the thick canvas above. There was a muted beat of some indecipherable EDM in the distance. The setting was hectic and random, a Technicolor playground of cheap merchandise and desperate developers trying to push their wares.
“Quiet past the players area,” one of the guards told me in an annoyed whisper.
“The what?” I asked.
He jerked his head toward a huge wall of translucent orange glass. Behind it were hundreds of computers with gaming headsets, ergonomic chairs, and NASA-grade keyboards. This was where professionals played. I saw a few of these spectral, shadowy untouchables hunched over monitors practicing. Through the barrier, I could hear the furious tip-tap tapping of their fingers.
The pro player closest to me must have been barely 16. He sat alone, save a pile of twisted Red Bull cans and his gaming set, his face six inches from the screen. His eyes, mirroring the rainbow of lights of the game, were tight and unblinking. And there, in the pearly glow of the screen, he was talking himself. One eye would suddenly bulge; a burst of giggles would follow as he landed a shot or made a kill. And when something went wrong, he’d bark at the game. He looked like he was trying to enter the world of Fortnite, tooth and nail, foot and fist.
Entering the main hall, I did a double take: a real-life school bus was in the middle of the room. Just like the one at the beginning of the game. And just like the bus in Fortnite, this one had a giant balloon attached to the roof. All around the bus, children in oxygen masks were spray-painting its doors and body. No one seemed to mind. A few people clapped, smiling dead-eyed as the mist from the paint coated their cheeks. The energy of Fortnite—that feeling of gleeful chaos you get in the middle of a firefight—was ubiquitous. It was as if the digital world of my gaming addiction had suddenly—and terrifyingly—come to life.
Next to the bus were barrels oozing some sort of neon-green goo and plastic palm trees, their leaves brittle and lime-green. At the base of the bus were various bottles: ceramic healing and shield potions. Near that was a bunch of kids—decked out in Fortnite shirts—waving colorful flags. And smack-dab in the middle of this strange excuse for a put-put course was a giant Durr Burger. If you haven’t seen Fortnite’s Durr Burger, it’s a giant hamburger with googly eyes, a giant pink tongue, and an olive stabbed into the top of his head. I stared directly into its dead eyes, transfixed by its wanton stupidity. All of it begged the simple question: Who puts an olive on a hamburger?
The coup de gras was a vast lawn of fake grass littered with rainbow-colored beanbags with a view of the giant IMAX screen. This is where the masses could view the digital Fortnite battles. And the area was already packed with hungry spectators lying about. For anyone unable to score a beanbag, there were rows of metal bleachers covered in peanuts and popcorn and surrounded by plastic fencing and security guards. I was trying to meditate on this terrible battleground when a short kid with electric blueberry hair tugged at my shirt.
“Hey,” he barked. “Are you excited for the competition?”
“The what?” I pulled his clammy hand off me.
“The Fortnite fight, stupid!” he said, spitting on my pants.
“Sure,” I lied. The game I’d been so addicted to and lost countless hours to was finally showing me its true colors. I was nothing but dejected. “Ecstatic.”
“I don’t know what that word means.” He stuck his tongue out at me, ruffled his blueberry hair, and sprinted into the crowd. I was about to shout something at him—something elderly sounding—but he was gone.
Just as we were about to open the photo booth, a giant explosion echoed across the fake lawn.
“What the hell was that?” shrieked a man dressed as a Viking
I was about to answer when a seven-foot, silver-headed Donkey DJ emerged from a cloud of smoke. The creature had jutting ears, cavernous nostrils, and a massive head no doubt forged from some alien material. I had no words of comfort or explanation for the Viking—alone for myself. As EDM roared louder, Donkey DJ galloped to a bank of turntables, slapped its hooves down on the records, and started spinning. The crowd was still in shock. Everyone slowly rose from their beanbag chairs, awkwardly bopped their shoulders, and swiveled their hips indifferently.
“For today’s main event,” Donkey DJ shouted, “We’ve got a Fortnite competition with a prize of $1.5 million.”
Jesus, I thought. This goddamn donkey can talk.
My awful musings were interrupted as the Fortnite tournament kicked off in earnest. The announcers were clean-cut, business casual, narrating every single play, every last shot. When a player’s avatar died, the crowd roared with delight, like Romans watching a gladiator being torn to ribbons. In the face of all that atavistic shouting and madness, I saw clearly how my pleasure, my need for victory, and my addiction to Fortnite were a product of and fuel for the horrors of late-stage capitalism.
As I tried to make sense of this realization, the crowd began to turn. Their malaise, as the matches grew more intense, morphed into violence. Donkey DJ pumped out song after song of trance music, switching the track every 30 seconds. Everywhere was a mass of churning bodies. Everyone was hopped up on sugar and caffeine. And they were starting to lose control.
Three or four spectators climbed onto the stage and interrupted the play-by-play broadcast. Some kid crawled on top of Donkey DJ. People surged closer to the screen, almost hypnotized as if trying to enter the game. Security was called. It wasn’t enough. A 12-year-old ripped one of the beanbags to shreds, sending tiny white balls flying in all directions. And then it dawned on me: This is what these people wanted, maybe even needed, all along—a true escape. They came to TwitchCon to get as close to Fortnite as possible. To enter the game. But what would happen when they couldn’t? What then?
Later, with Fortnite’s spell forever broken, I spotted the kid I’d seen before, the one with the luminescent blueberry hair. He was fussing at the exit, refusing to leave. His parents called to him. I watched him stomp his feet, grip the door, anger evolving into rage as his parents tried to drag him from the building. But he clung to the doorframe, and his parents eventually gave up and walked away in defeat. In that instant, the kid had to make a choice. His gaze shifted from the real world outside—one filled with family, friends, and actual sunlight— to the Fortnite tent.
I watched him as he shifted his little conflicted body around. He saw the beanbags piled up and packed away. He saw his favorite Fortnite players hanging their heads in defeat. He saw the chasm between the game world and the real world for perhaps the first time in his young life. And in the face of this harsh reality, his eyes grew wide with what I could only hope was some epiphany. Then, he seemed to relax. His tensed muscles relaxed. His manic vibe calmed. Was the dreamer finally waking from his dream?
I don’t know. And I never will know. But, at that moment, I felt a ripple of hope as the blue-haired kid turned around, faced the door, and chose to step back into the world.
Originally published in The Millions