What makes Fortnite so addictive?

Fortnite surpassed 40 million users recently. What's the appeal?

It shouldn’t be surprising that over 40 million people are playing Fortnite, an Epic Games production in which 98 percent of humans disappear and the final 2 percent are left to fend off zombies-like creatures. The game is so popular that Epic announced it will be putting $100 million into eSports player pools over the next year. Even watching people play Fortnite has become a full-time occupation: 

People across the world have spent more than 5,000 years watching Fortnite streams on a video game streaming service called Twitch over the past two weeks alone.

That information is provided by an article on NBA players addicted to Fortnite. Some get hooked recovering from an injury while others log in hours before and after games. To some, game time is a distraction from Fortnite binges. Parallels between playing on a professional team and an online team are telling. As Orlando Magic shooting guard Terrence Ross says,

One hundred people on a map, survival game—find your supplies, weapons, materials. And basically after that, it's every man for himself.

Yet when playing in team or duo mode, collaboration matters. Communities form around games in the same manner as sports teams. While it might seem odd that people watch others play video games, consider mukbang: thousands of Koreans pay to watch other people eat. The biggest mukbang stars net $10,000 a month alongside lucrative sponsorship deals. 

Why is Fortnite so addictive?

As with most every video game, those dopamine hits for small accomplishments are riveting. Problem-solving is an important skill set we innately attempt to hone, which games like Fortnite fulfill. Feeling a part of a larger mission, in this case destroying zombie creatures, offers a sense of purpose. True, that purpose might not be saving a democracy, but in a less violent world, it fulfills a certain yearning.

In his book, A Terrible Love of War, the late psychologist James Hillman writes that war is a “mythical happening.” Veterans have a hard time reintegrating into society due to many reasons, but two are prominent: the brotherhood (and increasingly, sisterhood) one is part of, and the shared sense of meaning soldiers feel when engaged in mortal combat. The rules of battle and those of society are often at odds—a tension painfully explored in the Netflix movie, Mudbound, for one.

While we are warring less with one another these days, it is still a prominent fact of daily life, with increasing global tensions potentially throwing us in the other direction soon. As Hillman notes, in 5,600 years of recorded history there have been 14,600 wars. This does not include the daily violence that people around the world face. Yet Hillman offers caution in normalizing it:

To declare war “normal” does not eliminate the pathologies of behavior, the enormities of devastation, the unbearable pain suffered in bodies and souls. Nor does the idea that war is normal justify it.

War was a way of life for a long time. Still is, in certain regards. Homo sapiens warred against the half-dozen other homo genera before decimating them. They also waged war against other animals, enslaving billions in a process that continues to this day. Physical combat was a regular part of life until it wasn’t, at least not so much. In War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, the journalist Christopher Hedges writes,

The accepted principles of humanity, the archaic code of the warrior, became quaint and obsolete. The technological and depersonalized levels of organized killing begun in World War I have defined warfare ever since.

Returning to Mudbound, Pappy might only have killed one man in his life, but he looked that man in his eyes while doing so. This gave him the moral authority (or so he believes) to criticize his son, Jamie, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, for thinking that the hundreds of soldiers he killed from miles up in the air irrelevant. Today, with drones controlled from continents away, the entire process of war has become like…a video game.

If the choice is between actually killing others and virtually doing so, the latter is a far better option. The distance between confronting a flesh and blood human and an avatar is vast; beyond hand-eye coordination, the virtual world poorly prepares you for real-world aggression. Yet having a sense of purpose is infinitely better psychologically than not having one, even if that purpose is invented—and really, on a macro level, what sense of purpose is not in some way invented?

While video games are sometimes criticized for inciting real-world violence, a popular claim by NRA supporters whenever school shootings occur, the opposite is true. Epic is pumping so much money into Fortnite because it is the game of the moment, but someday soon gamers will grow bored and seek new adventures, the history of human mythology playing out on a screen. Perhaps the vehicle is not as relevant as the feelings it instills in the participant. If this addiction is enhancing one’s experience of life, so be it. It’s better than the alternative.


Stay in touch with Derek on Facebook and Twitter.

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