Video Games: The Broadest of Churches
I started playing video games in the eighties, mainly coin-op arcade machines. By the time the nineties console boom began, I was out of school, working and therefore bought several generations of home entertainment systems. By the late nineties I moved over to the PC and subsequently got access to a wider variety of games. I came relatively late to the MMO boom, although I had played other types of multiplayer internet-based games. Thirty-five or so years later, I find myself a mature player of games (I do not identify as a gamer per se but that’s another blog post entirely) with a bunch of views, opinions and expectations shaped by the decades I’ve lived (and played) through. Simply put, my head is at a different place to those who are ten, twenty or thirty years my junior. Games have evolved, just like popular music, TV and movies. The associated culture around video games has also been subject to change. You may well think I’ve just stated the “bleedin’ obvious”, but in my experience it doesn’t hurt to re-iterate this point when addressing a new trend or craze that on first inspection seems somewhat abstract to us.
The cue for this post came from Wolfy over at Through Wolfy’s Eyes. He stumbled across a video from a young Fortnite player and then wrote about his general bemusement of the Battle Royale scene and its associated popularity with younger gamers. I broadly agree with his sentiments about this particular genre. Battle Royale games have become ubiquitous and are now the de facto style for most forms of multiplayer PVP. They are also frequently egregiously monetised. Because they are founded upon competitive play, bragging rights and bellicose self-pride are an integral part of the associated culture. Like many other game genres, this too has developed its own a lexicon of slang and associated tropes and memes. If you are not part of this “world”, it can look quite alien and bewildering. What is the appeal of Battle Royale? Why has Fortnite found such a fanbase among the under twenty-fives? Why are “kids” (like the one Wolfy references) writing songs and posting them on You Tube. However, if you take a step back and reflect less on the game and more on the culture, it does start to fall into place. Wolfy reached his own conclusion, and I would like to expand upon it further.
Fortnite Battle Royale was in the right place at the right time. PUBG initially whet competitive gamers appetite with a simple innovative new spin on PVP. Fortnite simply refined that formula further with a game that looks more appealing, colourful and dynamic. Hence it found its home with the youth audience and because of its chosen visual style, it doesn’t at first glance look problematic to the passing parental glance. The fact that the game is also accessible across multiple platform is another reason why it’s taken hold. It also has a degree of cross platform support. And let us not forget that it’s a free-to-play product, so the initial barriers to entry are low. All things considered it’s hardly a surprise that it found success with its current demographic. Developers Epic Games have subsequently ensured that the game has regular tie-ins with other franchises that match its customer base. Thus, the game has keeps growing and making money. Lots of money.
Humans are social creatures and our teenage years are a time where we seek to establish our own identities and affiliate with some social group to find a sense of belonging. Fortnite, although boasting players of all ages, has most certainly been claimed by the youth market. It is a fast and frenetic game that requires quick reflexes, both physically and mentally. Such gameplay favours the young. And like anything else that the youth market claims as it own, a bespoke culture has quickly grown around it. And that culture is by exclusionary by design. Teens want to have things that are their own. Unlike the adult world that they inhabit, here is something that they can control. They broadly remain gatekeepers to this sub-culture. Frankly they want adults to be bamboozled and sceptical of it because the last thing they want is to share it. Cast you mind back to when you were young. The quickest way to kill your interest in a band would be for one of your parents to claim to like them.
So it’s hardly surprising that videos such as the Fortnite Anthem Rap Song spring up on You Tube. Although it is obvious that the kid in the video has had a lot of assistance from others older than him, this is simply just a contemporary example of fan culture. It’s about bragging rights, cultural ownership and it’s also a clear snub to those who are not part of the “in crowd”. Far from being something alien it is in fact utterly and even re-assuredly normal. It wouldn’t be difficult to write 500 words as to why this phenomenon is just a question of “same meat, different gravy”. However, I could also write a comparable amount about why this sort of fandom can also segue way into less desirable territory. Fortnite can bring people together and offer them fun, as well as a sense of belonging. But this video reflects elements of the associated hubris that can come with competitive play. Ego, winning at all costs and smack talk are only a stone’s throw away from tribalism, bullying and prejudice. Some schools are at a loss as to how to deal with things like the “floss dancing” and insults couched in Fortnite terminology. Perhaps some are over reacting, but any popular craze can always be used as a means of exclusion and oppression. Children can also be notoriously cruel.
So, I broadly understand these new manifestations of gaming culture. Whether I like them or not is a separate issue and not really relevant. However, I don’t see them as unfathomable because they’ve happened before, and they’ll happen again. Battle Royale games are enjoying their moment in the sun, just as MMOs did and traditional FPS titles like Call of Duty. Gaming despite pushback from certain quarters, has grown from a niche market pastime to a mainstream leisure industry. It is now an extremely broad church which simply reflects the diversity of society. If I were 15 years old now, I no doubt would be playing Fortnite and being a little shit about it. But as I’m 35 years older than that, I am content to let this game pass me by, as I clearly see it’s not targeted at me. The games selling points are focused elsewhere. But paradoxically, if you analyse a fan’s rap song about Fortnite and then do the same with a two-hour documentary about the works of Ennio Morricone, that I’d really enjoy, you’ll find that they’re not that different. Although we wouldn’t want any reciprocal enjoyment of each other’s work.