Rachel is a middle school teacher in Chicago. Earlier this month, her students were restless, and she was looking for a way to focus their attention. Then, an idea: she knew the entire class was into Fortnite, the sandbox shooter from Epic Games that’s been sweeping its way through the culture the past few months, and decided to use the game in her favor. Having played Fortnite herself, she could speak their language, and made a proposal: if everyone finished their work without a single interruption, they’d hold a big discussion about Fortnite.
“You could hear a pin drop in that room,” she told me recently.
6th grade teacher Sean Irwin wasn’t as lucky. When his students got off task, he’d hear Fortnite murmurs. As part of a project to get kids thinking about careers, many listed “pro gamer” and “Twitch streamer” as legitimate possibilities. He eventually banned Fortnite talk.
(A number of people who spoke to me for this story requested only to use their first names, either as a matter of privacy or because they were not an authorized school spokesperson.)
It’s hard to tell when something moves from popular to cultural phenomenon, but it seems similar to the Ernest Hemingway quote about going bankrupt: “gradually, and then suddenly.” I knew Fortnite was officially big when my wife’s younger sister, who’s not into games, asked me if I could explain this “Fortnite” thing and why all her guy friends were playing it. How long Fortnite remains the talk of the playground is impossible to know, but the students, teachers, and parents I’ve talked to the past week said they haven’t seen something grip the children around them since Minecraft (and to a lesser extent, Five Nights at Freddy’s).
High school sophomore Bob Pentuic was like a lot of people, including yours truly: he played Fortnite when it came out, when it was being pitched as a co-op tower defense game, and fell off it immediately. But at the start of 2018, all his friends started playing. (This is right around the time Fortnite received an important console update, doubling performance.) Kids who have never picked up a controller at Bob’s school are playing Fortnite because, well—it’s what everyone else is doing. You needed to play Fortnite to remain relevant in school.
“Watching Fortnite ‘go mobile’ has allowed it to become almost invasive,” he said. “As I write this out, a table of four of my classmates are playing together on their phones.”
It’s also become part of the social fabric, one metric by which peers are judged.
“They link their wins to their social status a bit,” said Australian high school teacher Steve Lowe. “The cool kids are not necessarily the best Fortnite players, but they all know who the best ones are. Doesn't matter how old they are, they talk about kids they wouldn't know from a bar of soap by their wins.”
A number of teachers echoed this, observing how some of the biggest introverts are also some of the best Fortnite players in their class, and their expertise has transformed them into bonafide extroverts because everyone’s coming to them looking for advice on how to play.
“One of my shy new kids has become a walking strategy guide for the other kids,” said 5th grade Maryland teacher Nathaniel Dubya. “He loves it.”
Nathaniel knew something was up when he noticed more and more kids hanging out with a student he’d often associated with being “smart but low-self esteem and very quiet.” All of a sudden, people hung on his every word during recess and he was suddenly gaining friends.
“Turns out he is really good at Fortnite and was organizing games after school,” he said. “It was cool to see him gradually fill that leadership roll and watch how it carried over into the classroom. He’s way more involved in book discussions and puts his hand up way more often in general.”
But maybe we already have the best metric to know whether Fortnite is a phenomenon, and it has nothing to do with Twitch concurrents or YouTube views. It’s awkward prom invitations.
The student being proposed to said yes, I’m told.
Young women aren’t just being pulled into Fortnite by way of prom invitations they’ll joke about 10 years from now, either. The primary demographic of shooters tends tend to be young men and boys, but phenomenons operate differently, and Fortnite is crossing traditional gender lines. I heard from plenty of parents and teachers who said their daughters were into it, and in some cases, Fortnite became the first time they’d bonded over a shared interest in games.
Taylor Kaar, for example, teaches at an all girls school in Ohio, where Fortnite is the topic of conversation, both in terms of their own experiences playing the game and, unsurprisingly, wider complaints about how the game has utterly taken over the lives of every single boy they know. Of the 50 or so students Kaar interacts with regularly, 10 said they’d tried Fortnite at least once, while another six were playing regularly. But all 50 girls knew about the game.
“They all had stories of being ignored at parties or just hanging out cause people were playing,” said Kaar. “This isn't a fad that they deal with tangentially, this has intruded into the very center of their lives.”
One student said it’s made the guys she regularly interacts with “less social.” Another said her boyfriend was pressured by friends to bail on a Valentine’s Day dinner so they could all play. Many more admitted to becoming familiar with the game—basic rules, strategy, popular memes—so they could participate in the daily conversations their guy friends were having.
“One of my shy new kids has become a walking strategy guide for the other kids. [Now] He’s way more involved in book discussions and puts his hand up way more often in general."
But this collective obsession over Fortnite is a mixed bag, depending on who you talk to. One high school teacher has a student who they say is outright addicted—playing it, watching other people play it—and their grades have sharply declined. Based on what the student’s said, it appears they boot up the game the moment they’ve left school until they pass out sometime in the middle of the night. The teacher speculated a lack of structure at home has exacerbated the issue.
Another teacher I spoke to had a similar situation, but in this case, choose to invoke Fortnite as a reward for good school work. Audrey teaches Algebra to freshmen students in Oregon who were flagged in middle school as students who might have trouble getting to graduation. They’re underperforming in math, and Audrey’s there to help. These students tend to be matched together in the same class, and so the group ends up spending a lot of time with one another. They become a family.
“One of the students in the class had been dealing with some home-life situation changes,” said Audrey. “I'm talking complete inability to be awake, not really by choice but by need.”
The student’s sleep deprivation was so severe that when students were given a five-minute break between classes, he would sleep. Audrey wasn’t having any success keeping him awake. After a few months of frustration, the kid perked up during a lesson where the students vocally propose solutions to problems they’re having. His proposal was simple: if he promised to pass math this semester, she would agree to play Fortnite with him after class.
Audrey decided to one up the offer. If the student could stay awake every day, not only would she play Fortnite with him, but the class could do it together, once their final exam was over.
“We turned this deal into a big spectacle, a few students recorded it on Snapchat for proof, and we shook hands in front of our class,” she said. “In all honesty, I did not think he'd make it, but I figured if we could get a few days of him being awake, that'd be great for him.”
It worked—sort of. Though the student wasn’t able to stay awake the whole semester, there were a few weeks where he was more attentive, and his test scores shot up. During that time, other students tried to rally behind him, doing whatever they could to keep him awake.
“Although it wasn't the result we were looking for in our handshake deal,” she said, “it was still two more weeks of learning that he has now than he had before, so I'm still calling it a win.”
It’s also lead to teachers having an opportunity to bond with their students by giving them a common language. Talking Fortnite, the teacher is no longer an uninformed authority figure.
“We’ve developed a whole slew of classroom analogies,” said middle school teacher Kelly Hart. “Med kit/chug jug: you need some help on your homework or aren’t doing your best. Solo: gotta work on your own. Pick axe: pencil. It’s insane how many of my students understand. Even the girls who don’t play know about it and will be like, ‘Dude you need to solo right now.’”
“These kids would have been used to incredulous teachers who wouldn’t be able to answer, or would respond in a tone deaf, out of touch way,” said substitute high school teacher Joshua Erhardt. “When I said that I had, and demonstrated knowledge of it and talked about it like they did, they were surprised and immediately grilled me on how many wins, what kind, where I played, etc. It's been very helpful in establishing a relationship with the students, which in turn makes it easier for them to respect me when I ask things of them.”
“If you’ll excuse me,” said high school teacher Matthew Prather, who wrote me while four students were playing Fortnite when homework was supposed to be happening, “I think the squad in my classroom just claimed a Victory Royale and I need to go ask for building tips.”
Fortnite embedding itself into the fabric of everyday school children comes at a time when the discussion around them has been draped in tragedy and anger. On February 14, 17 students were gunned down in a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The country’s most recent encounter with mass violence has teachers and parents on edge about what it means for a game with guns to be so prevalent in the minds of kids.
Fortnite is cartoonish and over-the-top, especially compared to the brutal, realistic, and deeply violent PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which served as the primary influence for Fortnite’s breakout Battle Royale Mode. But Fortnite is still a game that involves players running around with guns—assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles—and it’s a point that hasn’t been lost on parents like Keith Krepcho, whose nine-year-old just started playing Fortnite.
Keith’s son is “very sensitive to violence,” and when Keith would be playing Battlegrounds, his son would call upstairs and ask his father to stop playing before he’d enter the room. Keith figured Fortnite would fall into a similar category, but when his son’s 11-year-old cousin and seven-year-old sister got into the game, his son decided to give the game a real try.
“He came running to me,” said Keith, “and declared that he had headshot someone who dropped a legendary assault rifle and then picked it up and ‘killed everyone.’”
It unnerved him.
“I know that they [my kids] love the cartoony look and jokey feel of the world,” he continued, “but I can't shake that Fortnite is a headfake toward children and adults who are concerned about the games their children play. Splatoon committed fully to the idea of an all-ages shooter. The violence is bloodless and cartoony and they avoid use of gun culture terminology. Fortnite embraces and all-ages look, but then still uses real-life weaponry.”
It’s impossible to know whether Epic Games would have changed its approach to Fortnite’s weaponry had they known it would have taken off with kids, but if there ever was a moment to change that, it probably would have been with the mobile version, and it didn’t happen.
“I know that they [my kids] love the cartoony look and jokey feel of the world, but I can't shake that Fortnite is a headfake toward children and adults who are concerned about the games their children play."
Unsurprisingly, even when kids aren’t playing Fortnite, they’re thinking about Fortnite. Arizona elementary teacher Steven watched as his 4th graders transformed the playground into a Fortnite match. Some kids dropped into battle, others commented in real-time (a la Twitch). In the middle of the battle, however, some kids began using their “guns” inappropriately, including turning around and firing into the “audience.” Steve put a stop to pretend Fortnite.
This all happened just days after the events at Parkland.
“In retrospect it was unclear whether or not these students were aware of it,” said Steve. “Not that I necessarily expect 4th graders to be. I didn't have it in me to unpack a school shooting to kids who I'm not sure had the context, but we have established rules for improv play. One of those rules is no excessive violence.”
By nature of being a phenomenon, by being everywhere, it makes sense for some of the consequences to be unexpected and messy. And it means you end up getting stories like the the one I’m about to tell you, perhaps the most unexpected byproduct of Fortnite fever.
High school teacher Josh Hart told me Fortnite gave him a way to have his students engage with literature. Fortnite Gatsby, a student re-imagining of The Great Gatsby, became a tale of Tom and Daisy living in Snobby Shores, a notable location in Fortnite’s Battle Royale map, while Gatsby watches as 100 new “dreamers” are brought to his island by bus. And in this version, the green light Gatsby is entranced by becomes Fortnite’s ever-encroaching storm.
“The failure of the American dream was represented by the fact that only 1 of those 100 actually made it,” they said.
You know, that’s pretty good.
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