Sometimes it’s fun to be a weird guy with a hand for a head

Despite the fact that I almost always get shot immediately once I land there, and my girlfriend’s absolute disregard for it because of it, I chose Tilted Towers as my favorite place. It doesn’t matter where the circle forms, it doesn’t matter which direction it pushes players, and really, it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve managed to engage two or three opponents only to get shot by someone looking at tens meters away, it seems to me that I find myself here sooner or later. Tilted Towers is like walking through an abandoned movie set representing a city block. Some aspects of the faux office buildings are designed to scale while others are shrunken, as if a designer took a real object, like a refrigerator or a bed frame, and pressed the minus button too many times. That, or everything looks just a little too big – bales of cabbage, coconuts, bullets, blue shield potion bottles – all those things floating a few feet off the ground, haloed in green light or purple or yellow, while in the background, in structures that never have windows or running water, you see other players rushing around, collecting items, destroying walls, jumping up and down down several times to get on a roof before, as always, getting merged by someone with a better stance or a better weapon.

I started playing Fortnite recently, after watching the McElroy Brothers podcast livestream the game on their YouTube channel for several weeks in a row. To my initial horror, it quickly became a facet of my daily life. I play the role of Sinister Glare, an original character with a large gray hand as a head and a single red eye. After having no real idea what Fortnite was or how pervasive it has been in culture since 2017, I now understand why it’s the most popular video game of all time. Shocking. Talking positively about massively popular things is kind of like, I don’t know, saying you like the Internet. It doesn’t matter what you think about it; it’s essential, everyone must use it, you are there, look around you. Playing a video game is not necessary to live your life. I was just trying to be concise. But Fortnite makes a big case that you could spend your whole life playing it, if you wanted to.

In the supremely general sense that it’s cyclical and filled with strangers fighting over resources in a common space, full of opportunity for someone to spend money on items that are valuable for their cultural significance as opposed to any skill-based perks, and full of historical history that no one really pays attention to, Fortnite in fact, it’s like life. One of the first things that struck me, as someone who hasn’t played an online game in at least 10 years, is how absurd the overrun Fortnite is with IP franchise (Marvel, DC, Master Chief, rick and morty, Extraterrestrial, Ariana Grande) and, much to my delight, how utterly irreverent the game is to all those dozens and dozens of coveted pop culture artifacts. By that I mean watching a Xenomorph brandish a machine gun and then an Ash tea bag of evil Dead isn’t necessarily what I envisioned given the current cult following and baffling demand for superhero movies, sequels, and spinoffs. This is perhaps the logical end point of such a cultural landscape, the reduction of iconic images and characters to mundane avatars, a widespread acceptance that these things don’t matter all that much.

Above all, I don’t care. What I learned to appreciate Fortnitewhat fascinated me at least is this: it is in no way impossible, or incorrect, to over-intellectualize one’s apprehensions about the game, the Loan player one inasmuch as Matrix as a metaverse to it all, the mind-boggling breadth of its worldwide reach, the cynicism with which various media industries have slurred over its unprecedented access to hundreds of millions of people, like remora sucking on a shark. I do not reject these criticisms. I think of them every time I see shiny new skin and consider spending money I don’t have on something I will never technically own. And even, it’s the first media entertainment I’ve engaged with in a long time that doesn’t make me feel brainwashed after using it. I leave aside the highest price. I’m talking about the crap that people use day in and day out, just to pass the time, while being mercilessly targeted by rich idiots who want more attention. Obviously, this is largely due to the fact that Fortnite is designed to be frictionless, to target the little part of your brain that says, “It’s fun!” It’s free, it’s colorful, you can’t buy your way to being good at it, none of it remotely resembles real life, and the weirder things, like musicians giving real gigs, you can easily ignore them. It works so well that all the things I just said seem like discoveries found independently when you first play, but really are the common refrain often heard about the game, even among its detractors. There is a slippery, attractive quality here that no one can quite articulate without simply describing how Fortnite works and why it’s worth your time, no harm done.

I can say that, during the darkest times of the pandemic, my relationship with diverted hobbies got skewed. No matter. People have already summed this up in chunks, the sitting still, the feeling of watching the world look at each other, the lack of connection, etc. What’s stuck with me is a curiosity about how we could all live our lives online, not because it’s all that bad, but because that’s where I keep telling myself that things move towards. Fortnite is a taste of what this life could look like, of what it already is. Five years after it was released by one of the biggest video game companies (after aping the beloved but much smaller Battle Royale format of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds), and all the thoughts written by middle-aged white fathers who mocked the downward spiral of younger generations, Fortnite has settled into a regular and ambivalent rhythm. It’s great for being what it is, a game full of ridiculous detail, dancing and cars and booted wolves you can kill for meat, while generally being great for trying to steal other mechanics popular games. There’s not a drop of blood to be found, and the game works overtime to convince you that it’s endearing, harmless, a laugh.

I was playing during “Skywalker Week” the other night, when the game made special items like lightsabers and blasters available, along with a host of star wars skins. My girlfriend was leaning next to me on the sofa, playing Fortnite on our Switch. Through my repeated harassment, I got her, our neighbors and a few colleagues to start playing for the first time or, in some cases, to resume. I kept thinking about how often I heard about the fear of video games growing up, what they would do to my attention span, how they encouraged a disconnect from reality , an entire generation lost in the sofa and a screen, unable to socialize or communicate their most intimate feelings. I kept trying to examine my relationship to these negative ideas, whether or not I internalized some of them, whether they were true or not, if only in a more diffuse, less direct way. . I thought about staying up late with my GameCube, then my PS2, then a shitty laptop, hanging out, a hallmark of any childhood. Absurdly, I wondered if I was a better or worse person because of all of this.

I came dry. Yes and no. This kind of navel-gazing is not necessarily useless, but also, sometimes, we can have a little fun. The truth about video games is the truth about most mass media: they are the products of rampant capitalism and the thankless labor of thousands of artists and developers, adored by ardent fans, despised by stubborn pessimists, the subject of an unhealthy obsession and scholarly, cultural investigations of objects made idiosyncratically unique, regardless of their humble or radical origins. It seems useless to try to peer into possible futures in order to understand what games look like Fortnite Where second life Where Counter-Strike Where League of Legends omen for society. Inflection points happen all the time. And, as I keep pointing out, those things are already there. Their legitimacy is not granted by their prestige or their cunning or whatever, although these aspects exist, but by the fact that they are where people choose to be. All this will seem obvious, or stupid, to the most experienced. It is more than, rather than a narrow and simple insularity, Fortnite grants me a broad, complicated, sometimes overtly social view of the outside, and that’s something I didn’t expect. It’s not really like in life, but at this point it’s a weird and hilarious part of me, as dumb and as nuanced as being shot in the head by a random 13-year-old boy at the other end of the world.