Fourteen-year-old Charlie Thibault and his big sister, Lydia, love to ski together. Sometimes they’ll kick a soccer ball around in the yard. Inside the house, however, they’re usually engaged in separate activities.
They were, that is, until “Fortnite.” Some months ago Charlie began playing the wildly popular multiplayer survival game on a laptop. Soon Lydia, a high school freshman at Phillips Exeter Academy, was sneaking peeks over his shoulder. Now she’s playing, too, on her own laptop.
They often play together, as a duo. They compete in the game’s online Battle Royale mode, which features up to 100 players vying to be the last one standing.
“That’s one of my favorite things, when they’re both playing together,” says Noula Thibault, the siblings’ mother. “It’s awesome.”
Since the Battle Royale version of “Fortnite” was released as a free download last September, the game has taken the current school-age generation by Storm. (Players, forgive a dad a lame pun.) Combining the survivalist instincts of zombie-apocalypse stories – in this case precipitated by a worldwide storm – with the speedy structure-building techniques of “Minecraft,” “Fortnite” does something parents may find hard to understand: It brings people together in a shared, albeit virtual, community.
As of early April, an estimated 150 million people were playing “Fortnite” worldwide, on personal devices or consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation. Players will often watch games they’re not involved in, streaming the action on platforms such as Twitch.tv, which is owned by Amazon. Those live streams have made marketable stars of accomplished players such as Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, a 26-year-old from Illinois who recently hosted a live-in-person event in Las Vegas.
Though the Battle Royale version of the game is free, North Carolina-based developer Epic Games makes money from the sale of in-game accessories, such as character “skins,” or costumes, and distinctive celebratory dances. According to the research firm SuperData, Epic took in an estimated $126 million in revenue in the month of February alone.
The game has attracted many young people who were previously obsessed with creative “sandbox” games like “Minecraft” and first-person shooters such as “Halo. “But it has also proved inviting even for players who weren’t already committed gamers.
Other than a brief family fling with the Nintendo Wii, when they bowled against each other, Charlie Thibault was one kid who never really got hooked on any video games before “Fortnite.”
“One of the reasons ‘Fortnite’ is so great is that I can go on after I finish my homework and invite my friends and play with them, especially friends I haven’t seen in a while,” he says. “For me, ‘Fortnite’ is popular because it’s good, but it’s good because it’s popular.”
That’s about the size of it, agrees Joshua Dyck. A professor and co-director of the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion, he conducted (with his colleague Francis Talty and the Washington Post) a study of the popularity of e-sports – the world of online gaming.
According to the study, released in March, competitive gaming now claims as many fans among Americans ages 14-21 as does professional football. The survey suggests that seventy-three percent in that age group have either played or watched video games online in the past 12 months.
“For us, that’s a huge number,” says Dyck.
Dyck, who is 38, has watched his own niece and nephews spend hours on vacation streaming game play online.
“That behavior is so ingrained among young kids,” he says. “It’s not something I think a lot of adults understand at all. It’s so far afield for them, that you’d sit around and watch someone else play a video game.”
But that’s one of the most telling parts of the poll, he says. “People are doing this with other people. It’s not the video gamer playing by himself in the basement. That old stereotype is gone. They’re meeting people, and they’re actually creating community.”
Another factor that has likely helped some parents come to terms with the “Fortnite” phenomenon is the fact that “kills” are not depicted with the realistic gore of some other games. When a sniper takes down an adversary, the victim simply disappears with a poof.
“ ‘Fortnite’ has a more comical, cartoon art direction, very vibrant and colorful,” says Rey Diaz, who streams as “Reyzr” out of the Mixer NYC Studio at Microsoft’s Fifth Avenue flagship store in Manhattan. Mixer is the company’s gaming platform to compete with Twitch and other streaming services.
Other battle royale-style games, such as PlayerUnknown’s “Battlegrounds,” or PUBG — a similar game that preceded “Fortnite” — “are pretty shaded and gloomy,” says Diaz. By contrast, he believes, “Fortnite” welcomes a wider range of players.
Diaz also notes that there’s “no need to spend too much money on this game. I spent $10 on a skin because it looked great. That’s it. I found more enjoyment receiving a ‘legendary’ skin when I leveled up and did enough achievements.”
“Fortnite”’s addictive nature has created one major problem in particular, as many parents will attest: that dreaded reply when gamers get called to the dinner table or told it’s almost bedtime.
“Just a minute!”
Thibault, who teaches kindergarten, says kids in her current class — especially those with older siblings — are already well aware of “Fortnite.” One boy, she recalls, wanted to write the name of the game in his journal, so she helped him. But she spelled the second syllable n-i-g-h-t. Another kindergartner promptly corrected her.
“A savvy little six-year-old,” she says.