How Migrant Teens are Finding a Home in Fortnite

For some teenagers, Fortnite isn’t simply a video game. It’s the chance to live in a world without borders.

Brooke Jarvis
Jun 12 · 16 min read

Photographs by Cristina De Middel
Type illustrations by La Tigre

IIIt’s an island without a name, home to some of the world’s most famous geography: There are the ­Haunted Hills, with a mausoleum containing handy treasure chests, and the nearby Junk Junction, full of old cars and their useful metal. There are the Fatal Fields, with their scarecrows and freshly growing corn, Greasy Grove with its iconic ­hamburger stand, and Dusty Divot — once known as Dusty ­Depot, before it was famously slammed by that meteor.

Since they were opened to the public in September 2017, all have been explored and exploited and analyzed by tens of millions of people. On the island’s single busiest day so far, there were more than 8 million — almost five times the population of another famous island, Manhattan, and more people than visit the Grand Canyon in a whole year — tromping around different digital iterations of its hills and deserts at the very same moment.

These are the landscapes of Fortnite, the most popular video game in the world last year by all kinds of measurements. Just during May and June of 2018, a collective 2.7 billion hours of human attention were used to play it on mobile devices. In November, when the game hit 200 million registered players (it jumped by 75 million people in just five months), the technology site the Next Web announced in a headline, “Fortnite bests Russia and Japan to become world’s 8th most populated place.”

It’s interesting to think of Fortnite not just as the world’s most popular game, but as a world of its own: a digital landscape made real by the time that millions of people spend there.

To get to the relatively small island where play occurs, random groupings of 100 players — people who might be playing from just about anywhere — climb aboard a virtual bus (it is, to be precise, a flying blue school bus, carried by a hot-air balloon) that drops their avatars into the sky. Players then deploy gliders to carry them down to Dusty Divot or Lazy Lagoon or Flush Factory — parachuting, actually and symbolically, from the big, wide world out there into a smaller, shared country.

The first time I saw someone playing Fortnite (it’s relevant to note here that I’m in my 30s) was last June, in a teenager’s living room in a small farming town spread across the rolling shoulders of the volcano Popocatépetl, which juts up between Mexico City and Puebla. I was working on a story about a generation of American children who have been dislocated from the country of their birth, moving to Mexico with their undocumented and sometimes deported parents. The children found themselves grappling, in all kinds of complicated ways, with the sudden distortion of the geographies of their lives. Later that month, while reporting a different story, I watched for the first time (again, sorry, my 30s) as someone did the Floss, a worldwide phenomenon of a dance that you may have seen in end zones or on TV shows, and which was popularized in part by its availability as an in-game prize for Fortnite players. I was far from North Carolina, where Fortnite’s parent, Epic Games, is based; far from Mexico; miles and miles, in fact, from any road or town or gaming console: Both I and the Flosser were wearing rubber boots, standing on the frozen bank of a river that would float us from the Brooks Range down to the shore-fast ice of the Arctic Ocean.

The world of Fortnite began to feel large and porous, blurring into the real one in unexpected places and surprising ways. It was a little, fake place that made a big, real world feel smaller.

TTThe teenager who introduced me to the game is named Elani Morales. She was 14. It was market day, and the small town of Tetela del Volcán was crowded with people selling hanging sausages and piles of fruits and vegetables and dried chilies out of buckets. Elani was just home from school. She wore braces, a little cat-eye makeup, and partially grown-out bangs; she had changed from her school uniform shoes into a pair of red sequined slippers. She sat on the couch in her family’s cement-block house while, on the TV screen, her avatar zoomed down to an odd little island. “It’s Fortnite,” she explained.

The family built the house with money that her father made while working in ­Southern California — the place where Elani and her ­little brothers were born, where much of her extended family still lives, and where she grew up until the second grade, moving frequently as her parents followed low-wage work. For a time they shared a two-bedroom apartment with her grandfather, her immediate family squeezed into a single room. Diana, Elani’s mother, had crossed with her brother and a coyote through the Arizona desert when she was only 15 — barely older than Elani was when I met her — in search of a better life. But it was so hard to keep up with the costs of the United States, even while working constantly, that she began to wonder if she had actually found it.

Finally, after more than a decade in the U.S., Diana decided to take Elani, then 8, and her two younger brothers, Jose and Jaiden, to Tetela, her hometown in Mexico. (It was also the children’s father’s hometown: Jose Luis and Diana met in California, at a party for people from Tetela.) It was a difficult decision, but Diana hoped she was making the best choice she could. “We didn’t want to work all the time,” she told me. “We didn’t want to live in just one room.” In Tetela, she continued, “there are fewer opportunities, but more time for family.”

Just like that, the children joined a new generation: an estimated 600,000 American-­born kids of undocumented parents who have recently found themselves trying to make a new life in a country that is not their own, often in a language that they don’t read or write. Some children moved because their parents were deported; others because their families went back for a visit or to help a relative and got stuck south of a more militarized border; others because life in the United States had grown too difficult for their families — sometimes as a result of intentional policies forcing some immigrants to practice what politicians called “self ­deportation.” Once in Mexico, educational researchers have found, the children often struggle to adapt to their new, dislocated lives. Though they are American citizens, they sometimes feel as though they have been kicked out of their own country.

Elani, excited about flying in a plane, was not aware that she was making a transition that would affect the rest of her life. “I really didn’t know that we were going to stay, stay, stay, stay in Mexico,” she told me. Even her parents weren’t sure: The idea was to see whether their American children, who barely spoke Spanish — “My Spanish was like, hola,” Elani explained — would be able to adapt to a new place, a new culture. Jose Luis stayed behind to continue earning money.

In some ways, the transition went well: The kids learned Spanish quickly, Elani began making all 9s and 10s (As and A-pluses) in school, the boys got really into their soccer team. But for Elani, things remained difficult in subtle ways. She felt exposed when she walked around town: as though she stuck out, as though she were different, as though everyone was watching her, judging her. Her interests rarely seemed to match with those of the kids at school — especially other local girls, who often end up married and having children of their own by the time they’re in their early teens. She struggled to make friends with whom she really connected. School, which often felt like a review of what she’d already learned in the United States, bored her. And neither of the languages she now spoke felt truly her own. There were always words she couldn’t seem to find. In Spanish, to compensate for her otherness, she embraced the local slang as much as she could: “I talk more like a Mexican than a Mexican!” She missed English so much she practiced it with her cat.

An estimated 600,000 American-born kids of undocumented parents have recently found themselves trying to make a life in a country that is not their own.

As time passed, Elani’s parents began to have some regrets about their decision to return. They were particularly worried that they had cut their bright daughter off from the life she could have lived in the United States.

Elani started to spend more and more time on the internet. She described her days: “Go to school. Memes. Go to school. Memes.” (Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term, described a meme as “the basic unit of cultural transmission or imitation” — everything from ideas and jokes to fashion styles, living pieces of culture that grow and evolve as people interact with them. To Elani, the word mostly means the little image and video jokes that circulate around the internet. “They don’t live for more than a week,” she explained.) She especially liked looking at memes in English, particularly those that pulled on the language and culture of popular games that attracted international audiences. Her parents bought an Xbox for her little brothers, and though few girls in town were interested in them, Elani found herself hooked, first on Gears of War and then on Fortnite, which, because it was linked to the web, she might play against people from just about anywhere. She started joining a series of meme-sharing Facebook groups, where she became online friends with people from around the world. Soon her schoolmates in Tetela were asking what was up — why, when Elani posted, did she get hundreds of likes and comments? Who were all these people? The answer was: teenagers from far away, with whom she could talk about things — anything — beyond the town.

“My best friend is from El Salvador,” Elani told me, but she had friends from all over. She most liked to ask them questions about their national slang, the details of their lives, the particularities of their cultures. She became prolific in another new language, the strange and shifting slang of online jokes and traditions. (For example, she explained, a comment that says “zong plox” translates as “song please,” but what it actually means is that people will post pictures of themselves holding a piece of paper with your name written on it.) At school a teacher found out about Elani’s unusual international network and set a specific assignment: Find out what Sabritas (the chips Americans know as Lays Classic Potato Chips) are called around the world. Elani understood it all seemed a bit strange. “My parents are like, ‘Why do you talk with people that you’ve never met, that you don’t know who they are?’”

Elani, who dreamed of becoming a psychologist, wondered as well. “I’m pretty interested in how humans think, what they feel,” she told me. She tried to analyze her own motivations. She liked the jokes, sure, but she also liked that online and in games she got to be anonymous: No one was staring at her or wondering why she was different. Also valuable was the feeling that she was keeping up, not just with English but with slang and jokes and a huge, ever-changing global conversation. She liked the feeling that she knew what was happening in a world bigger and more expansive and more dynamic than her current one — a place from which she felt excluded, and to which she hoped to someday return.

IIIt’s hard to say how Fortnite became the cultural juggernaut that it is. The game’s elements are not unique: a third-person shooter Battle Royale, a fight to be the last player standing; supplies and healing potions and desirable guns to be discovered and used; defensive fortifications to be built; an impending storm that slowly herds all the players closer and closer together. Perhaps it’s notable that the deaths are cartoonish, that you can always start again in a brand-new cohort, and that you don’t win by killing, but by surviving.

Another theory revolves around what Fortnite calls, in a nod to TV, “seasons”: The game moves through distinct epochs of a dynamic world that is changing as you explore it. There was the medieval season, and the space-themed one; lately, the world is changing in what seems like a more cohesive narrative arc, with strange new events teasing the next ones, although it’s hard to say where any of them are eventually heading. Shooting stars presaged a meteor shower that destroyed parts of the map (alas, poor Dusty Depot); a countdown heralded the launch of a rocket, which knocked cracks into the sky. The cracks released interdimensional objects from other time periods into the world, which eventually resolved into a glowing purple cube, which players named Kevin, which then exploded into a cloud of butterflies. In late February, a new season arrived that transformed Lazy Links into Lazy Lagoon (complete with pirate ship) and introduced an active volcano with vents that can launch players into the sky.

It’s all quite strange and hard to follow or explain unless you’re actually present, playing the game often enough to be on the island when the next big event happens — and, crucially, the game is always going, moving forward whether you’re there to see it or not. It’s an origin story, a mythology shared by millions, a unique culture of its own — and the options are to keep up or be left out. As the game grows more popular, the popularity becomes its own draw.

There seems to be a lot of appeal in a game that’s creating its own new history, shared and lived by those in the know — who are not just players, but watchers, enough of them that the most popular players can make a fortune just by live streaming their sessions to the world. “It’s created a kind of global arcade,” Jamin Warren, the editor of Kill Screen, told the New Yorker: “Instead of a few kids looking over the shoulder of the hotshot older brother or whatever, down at the mall, you have millions of people watching.” In January, in an update to shareholders, Netflix included a surprising sentence about where it sees its business most threatened: “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.”

Virtual worlds can have profoundly negative consequences — from researchers’ concerns about the way living online affects our empathy and the depth of our real-life relationships to online harassment to the role that internet “communities” can play in fostering the kind of horrific white nationalist extremism that exploded in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year. They can also be a lifeline for people who feel isolated and alone. Crystle Martin, a researcher who has studied the way young people, including those from rural places, relate to gaming, says she’s seen games, and the forums that grow up around them, offer kids feelings of belonging and competence, as low-risk opportunities to practice how to present themselves in the world, that they were unable to access in their daily lives. Gaming also allows them to feel like they can transcend, at least in one way, their physical location: “For some youth,” she said, “it gives them a sense of feeling worldly — that they have the chance to understand and be connected to larger structures outside their own community.”

So what does it mean when an imaginary island can become the world’s eighth most populated place? For one thing, that our debate about the role virtual worlds play in our lives is just beginning.

MMMy next visit to Elani was in January. It had been a difficult time. The ­family was waiting through the long, stressful, income-free period between harvests. Elani’s parents were fighting. There had been days when there wasn’t enough to eat, when her parents were away working and Elani, as the big sister, gave what there was to her little brothers. There was no extra money to renew the Xbox Fortnite subscription, which had run out, so Elani had only been playing on the few rare occasions when she went to the cyber café in town. Six months before she’d been teaching herself the ukulele, but now she had stopped; instead, she said, she just watched more memes, which now felt a bit more like distracting herself than reaching out to the wider world. Elani had also decided that while becoming a psychologist was a nice idea, working as a bank teller was a more practical dream.

“If I keep her here, it’s like cutting off her wings.”

— Elani’s mother, Diana

One day after school, Elani and her brother Jose lay on the couch, cracking up while scrolling through memes on Elani’s phone. She showed some of them to me later. One was a picture of a lake, labeled “depression,” held back by a dam, labeled “stupid f*cking memes.” Another showed two trains — one labeled “my need for attention” and the other “my desire to isolate myself” — colliding. Another was a video of a man filming himself and then noticing a mugger approaching behind him on the screen. “Security here in Tetela isn’t that good,” said Elani. “It makes me laugh.”

While the kids giggled, Diana took a break from cooking dinner to sit with me at the table. Lately, she’d been thinking that Elani should return to California. She could speak English again. She could live with her grandmother, who was still in the United States; she had worked there as a maid and nanny, raising another family’s children, for the past 18 years. Elani could go to a good public school, and because of her citizenship it wouldn’t be expensive like the preparatory school in Mexico. It would be difficult to get the paperwork in order, since Elani’s ­passport had expired and three trips to Mexico City had failed to produce a new one. (“We didn’t know all the implications of having an American-citizen child in Mexico,” Diana lamented.) Most of all it would also be painful to be separated, and Diana feared that Elani, now the same age she was when she first crossed, would face the discrimination and struggles to survive that she had: “Will what happened to me happen to her?” But the alternative was starting to feel worse.

Diana began to cry. In Tetela, she said, there wasn’t much to do that didn’t involve working in the fields. “Elani doesn’t want to stay in a little town,” she said. “She wants to go out and learn, have the possibility of leaving, of seeing new things, of having other opportunities that many people here don’t have.”

“If I keep her here,” she said, “it’s like cutting off her wings.”

Eric Bybee, a professor at Brigham Young University’s David O. McKay School of Education, who introduced me to Elani, has been researching the way she and other American children navigate their new lives in Mexico. He’s particularly interested in the question of how their isolation from the country of their birth affects how they think about their own identity and where they belong in the world: Are they American? Mexican? Something else? He noted that while the children often made efforts to blend in with their classmates, to hide their American origins, in other ways they seemed to live in fear of losing their connections to those origins. Their sense of belonging, he and his co-researchers wrote, was built upon “an overriding sense of uncertainty and precarity.” It’s hard to live in a family with a border running down the middle of it.

Diana finished cooking, Jose Luis arrived home from the fields in rubber boots, and the family sat down to dinner. There was a house rule — no phones at the table — and the conversation flowed effortlessly from stories about school to neighborhood gossip. For a moment, with the afternoon light streaming in, the outside world seemed to disappear as the whole family collapsed into a fit of giggles.

FFFive minutes before the school day ended, the roar of voices from Elani’s school began to echo off the walls of the 16th-century Dominican monastery across the street. The sound built until the students were released, exploding past the gates with their uniform sweaters and bright backpacks and pent-up laughter. Elani, a flower tucked behind each ear, lingered at the front gate, waiting for some friends. Together, they walked to the town library to work on a project.

Afterward, Elani, her brother Jose, and her friend Gabriél walked to a cyber café near the school. Most of the screens were occupied, mostly with kids playing Fortnite, and Elani was the only girl. As the game began, she opened her glider, aiming for a forested section of the map. “Oh my gosh, there’s a lot of people going to the same place!” she said nervously. She landed and began stashing supplies, but before long she was pinned down in a shack. Under her breath, she sang in Spanish: “I don’t know what I’m doing!” Soon the screen flashed, “eliminado por ­Jenkins178” — another player had taken her out. It was back to the glider.

Elani and the boys loaded game after game, laughing and calling across the room.

“Elani, here’s a shield potion!”

“Careful, careful!”

“I’m recharging, wait for me!”

Sometimes they played as a team, sometimes against each other. Again and again, they jumped from the bus, landing together in a new land far below.

I thought of something Elani had said a few days before when I’d asked her about the role video games played in her complicated life. She said that she had tried out a virtual-reality set — goggles, rings that go around your hands and feet — at a friend’s house, and it made her imagine the amazing ways that technology might be used once it improved.

“You are actually in the video game, doing what you’re doing in real life,” she said excitedly. “It’s more real, more physical, you feel that you are actually in the game!” But with all that technology, she didn’t imagine flying, or fighting, or anything involving meteors or pirate ships. Instead, the adventure she imagined was a virtual campfire.

“You could sit there with other strangers that you don’t know,” she said. “You could talk about whatever.”


About the author: Brooke Jarvis is a writer who lives in Seattle.

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

Brooke Jarvis

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Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.