John Wick’s Got Nothing On Me
Fortnite and the Battle Between Kids and Cringe
I first felt truly old about a week ago. In preparation for writing this essay, I decided that I should probably play Fortnite, the game this piece centers around like a poorly-drawn solar system.
I booted up the game on my Nintendo Switch — a device that I’m still not super used to — and I was immediately confused. What do all the buttons do? Who is my character? What do all these numbers mean? Why can’t I figure out how to jump??
But soon enough, I figured out how to play the classic 100 players, 1 winner mode that Fortnite is famous for, and I somehow, miraculously, got ninth place. Praise be.
That was the moment I could feel Epic Games’ colorful claws digging in and dragging me into an endless spiral of trying to regain my position at #9, perhaps even aiming for that sweet, sweet Victory Royale.
And that was also the moment that I first felt really, really old. Like, elderly old.
I would like to remind those who might not know that I’m (currently, as of the publication of this article) 21 years old and consider myself a millennial. (I won’t dive into that subject right now, but if you want to hear my thoughts on the issue, here.)
This rapid aging process that I’m starting to feel the effects of is one byproduct of the sudden fame of Fortnite, a third-person battle royale game that’s on every single possible platform. For free.
(Yes, there is a Battle Pass that you can pay for, and yes, that does get you tons of cool skins, and yes, loads of people have paid for that. But not me. I’m resolute. I will not pay real money for fun-looking costumes, even though they would look really cool and I wouldn’t look like a “default” (the Fortnite equivalent of “noob”) anymore. I won’t do it.
If that platform dominance wasn’t enough, Fortnite has quickly risen to widespread cultural awareness, with celebrities making references, professional athletes getting in trouble or celebrating with a Fortnite dance, and the Game Awards recognizing Epic Games’ achievements. Twitch has received a new mega-star in the form of Ninja, and CNET revealed that Steam has been far-surpassed by the sheer number of Fortnite players:
“In August, Fortnite broke its own record. 8.3 million people were playing Fortnite concurrently. At the exact same time. For perspective, that was more than the amount of people playing every other video game on Steam at that time.”
And what’s the deal with that? We could point to Fortnite’s colorful and friendly graphics, its easily-enticing quick-play, its kingship over the battle royale mode, but none of that would quite explain away all of this.
If there’s one massive group of people that can turn the tide on culture, it’s children. They alone can get “dance moves [to] spread, meme-like, into school playgrounds, along with their memorable names, such as ‘Floss’ and ‘Hype.’” They alone can invite the worries of parents around the world when they tread too close to becoming dangerously addicted to playing Fortnite for hours on end. They alone can strike fear into the hearts of teachers everywhere when their obsession with a game trumps their focus in class.
Gene Park put it much better than I could have ever put it myself:
“Like it or not, Fortnite is what it is because of kids, and because of that it will always be associated with them.”
Though Fortnite is marketed for players 12 and older and 62.7% of Fortnite’s players are between 18 and 24, kids are the ones that created the booming culture around it in the first place. Reports of children playing Fortnite in class are rampant, and, in my own personal experience as a camp counselor, kids talk non-stop about all things Fortnite.
It’s their tenacity that creates the feedback loop that is “kid culture” in the first place: children start to like a game and talk to their friends about it. Their parents discover their love for it and news spreads to companies, who create merchandise. Parents buy the merch for their kids, and the loop continues.
But there’s a critical piece missing from this equation: teens. Young adults, too, since I’m counting myself in this demographic.
If there’s anything teenagers love to complain about most, it’s kids. Their interests and obsessions become “cringey,” and “cringe compilations” are released that we can all laugh at. Online personalities can arise that make their living on cringe. After all that, kids eventually get into a new thing, and young adults have something else to complain about on their Tumblrs.
I say this as someone who partakes in this rather bald-faced display of mean spirit. The second I saw Fortnite was rising in popularity, I started to ignore it. I didn’t want to know about the hot new memes on the block that would become cringe fodder in a week’s time. I quickly grew tired of kids yelling “Victory Royale” across the campgrounds and dancing at one another. I even did my best to avoid watching even a snippet of gameplay as a form of strange spite against Ninja.
All of this effort, and for what? To become a jaded old lady who complains about the “youth these days”?
There are those well-meaning adults out there who say we should accept Fortnite for being something the kids around us are interested in, including one teacher in his guide to the mega-game:
“How can you survive Fortnite? Embrace it. We owe it to our kids to embrace what they care about.”
Another professor agreed with the same sentiment:
“‘We can’t ignore the play that is happening outside of school, because that’s their real world.’”
I’m not going to disagree with them. Growing up, it felt so validating when an adult — or especially an older kid — showed any interest in something I liked. I was a big reader, so anytime someone asked me what I was reading and then paid attention to the answer, I was overjoyed. I felt like I was being heard.
Then again, I’m also coming from a place of liking kids. I spend most of my summers working with them at camps or other activities and I find them fascinating and fun to be around in equal measure.
But what’s at play here that intrigues me most is the crossover between these two very close generations of kids and teens.
If you’ve read one of my previous essays, you’ll know how I feel about the generational blend between millennials and Gen Z. For those who didn’t (c’mon, folks, all I ask is fifteen minutes of your time to look at my words!), I believe that the gap between generations is rapidly closing and blurring as technology — particularly in video games — is more rapidly developed.
With that in mind, why are the two attitudes toward Fortnite so drastically different? On the one hand, you have kids obsessively playing a game on their phones and fighting over who got how many Victory Royales. On the other, you’ve got teens watching endless amounts of cringe compilations and poking fun at Fortnite’s extensive popularity through “ironic” memes.
But that’s where things get tricky — the irony. When does a joke stop becoming ironic and start becoming unironic? When does a game stop becoming an object of ridicule and start becoming, well, fun?
I attempted to answer those questions for myself by playing Fortnite without any prior knowledge of the gameplay. Yes, I knew the memes; yes, I knew the culture surrounding it and its popularity with mainstream media. But I had no idea how to actually play.
I also probably have what CNET has referred to as “cultural elitism” when it comes to games:
“We’re from a generation where broad single player games made by hundreds of people represent the ‘true’ video game experience.”
I’m an only child, so I grew up playing primarily single-player games: Super Mario Bros., Pokémon Red, Nintendogs, Portal. Even games that were co-op, like Halo 3 and my much-beloved Swords and Serpents, were “couch co-op,” in that I only ever played with my Dad.
MMORPGs never held any appeal to me, as they sounded much too complicated on top of the amount of social interaction I would have to do online. For other gamers, this is a huge draw, but for me, I just wanted to stay home and play games with people I knew.
Fortnite was thus a risk. I was gambling almost twenty years’ worth of video game experience on a wildly-popular, kid culture MMORPG that involved playing against 99 other people on a huge map.
But strangely enough, I found myself having… fun?
Once I figured out how guns worked and how to build, I started to explore a bit more. I learned that the storm can and will kill you if you stay in it too long and that the world of Fortnite is rich with tiny structures and bigger towns. Other players can sneak up on you or be snuck up on, and there’s a certain kind of thrill in finding someone else on the map.
I somehow got ninth place on my first try, and my trigger instinct was to find a new match and try it again. As of now, the highest I’ve ever gotten was eighth, so the Victory Royale still eludes me.
The thing that I’m only now starting to notice, though, is that I did have a lot of fun playing Fortnite. I’d probably have more fun if I played with people I knew, yes, but the base game alone was a positive experience.
Of course, my positive feelings about Fortnite — ironic or not — couldn’t last. Immediately I was afraid that I would get “addicted” to Fortnite like, supposedly, every other gamer on earth.
Video game addiction isn’t a new problem, but Fortnite certainly hasn’t helped the conversation surrounding it. A behavior specialist named Lorrine Marer declared that Fortnite “is like heroin”: “‘Once you are hooked, it’s hard to get unhooked.’”
The same article claims that “200 petitions cited Fortnite and other video games this year as the reason for the break-up of marriages.”
The key phrase to me here is “other video games.” Fortnite is not alone in its addicting ways, but because it’s the biggest name right now, it’s getting a huge target painted on its rather large back.
This isn’t to say that video game addiction doesn’t exist, though. The American Psychiatric Association has defined “internet gaming disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), so that lends credence to the notion of addiction. Summer rehabilitation camps like reSTART and Reset Summer Camp have been cropping up, though they certainly aren’t cheap.
That leads me to wonder: what about the kids with parents that can’t afford those expenses? Are those kids still considered “addicted,” or is that just the only form of entertainment they have?
Even though I grew up on video games, they were never “new.” I played NES games that were almost twenty years old by the time I got my hands on them and spent my weekends playing Pokémon on a GameBoy I got at a tag sale for a dollar. If I was addicted to games, I just simply couldn’t afford to be.
This isn’t to say video game addiction isn’t real or isn’t a problem for a lot of kids and adults. I don’t intend to invalidate the experiences of those who have had issues with their relationship to technology or to games. It simply bears asking: who does video game addiction affect?
Either way, the associations with video games as “addictive” have only grown with Fortnite’s takeover. It probably doesn’t help that it’s an MMORPG with heavy social elements:
“Gaming communities have social elements beyond physical interaction and have come to a stage where online and offline spaces can be seen as ‘merged’ rather than separate.”
It’s that same social dependency that was evident in nostalgia-based culture: kids can become addicted to the game, yes, but they can also become addicted to the people. Who needs to talk to others in person when you can do it through a video game?
But yet again, the question must be asked: who does the game addiction epidemic affect? It does affect a small percentage — about 3% of gamers — but the issue has been over-inflated time and again by worried parents and eager media. Teens haven’t helped either with their ridicule of all things kid-related, so when do these kids catch a break? When can they actually enjoy Fortnite without it being disenfranchised by adults and older peers?
Children are so often put down because they’re still developing and growing. They’re still figuring out who they are, and that takes time and trying new things — like video games.
But we can’t allow them those options because anything might be a danger to that same development. I know that I would want any of my potential kids to experience the best of life, and that means avoiding becoming the cringey Fortnite player or the addicted youth.
In a sense, by putting down Fortnite, we’re revealing more about ourselves than the kid culture we’re trying to dismantle — unintentionally or not.
And Fornite was by no means the first to cause this sort of reaction. Angry Birds received its fair share of attention from kids and adults alike, growing to the point where merch and even a movie were created. Pokémon Go captured the hearts of practically all generations — particularly those pesky millennials — for a few sweet summer months in 2016.
In terms of PC gaming, Roblox has been around seemingly forever (actually since 2005, but that was forever ago as far as I’m concerned). Club Penguin was the best MMORPG ever created — wait, hold up. I’m showing my bias a bit too much here.
Either way, kid culture isn’t new. Fortnite is just the latest craze, taking Minecraft’s top spot in children’s attention spans.
And there’s another question. How long will all of this — the culture, the feedback loop, our own misguided attempts to protect kids from themselves… How long will it all last?
It’s largely dependent on those questions of generations. Demographics really are everything, and if a game manages to captivate multiple generations — regardless of whether they’re blurring together or not — then it has staying power.
Maybe games that actually enable those generations to blur are the ones with the truest staying power. Minecraft is the greatest example of that: it’s managed to stick around since 2011 and stay wildly popular for all those years. Kids are the primary audience, yes, but Minecraft YouTubers are still a thing and college students are still creating new servers. That last note is from personal experience — I know a pretty large number of people on my campus that avidly play Minecraft, some on a daily basis.
But Fortnite? That’s the tricky part. The only fans I know personally are young teens and two fellow college students.
And there’s that misplaced fear of being a passionate fan acting up again — the ones we impose on the children around us without realizing. That we’ll be made fun of, that we’ll be broken, that we’ll be rejected by the people we long to impress.
Cringe culture is itself a protective measure against ourselves. We redirect our attention to these new kids because we want to forget that we were those kids. There just might not have been documented footage of our cringey childhoods like there is now.
We didn’t have a Fortnite, but kids now do. And we owe it to them — and to our past selves — to help them navigate it. To embrace it, even.
Maybe someday kids won’t be constantly flossing. Maybe someday my YouTube recommendations will filter out all of the Fortnite cringe compilations. Maybe, someday, I’ll delete Fortnite from my Switch.
But for now, I’m feeling old, and I’m feeling like learning something new to make young me proud. I’ll leave you here — I’ve got a Victory Royale to score.