Fans of the game’s namesake, the 2000 Japanese dystopian film Battle Royale, will find Fortnite’s premise familiar: 100 players’ avatars parachute onto a virtual island strewn with weapons and other resources to fight to the death, while a deadly incoming storm gradually limits the region of play. The last person standing — or the last team standing, if you’re playing in duo or squad mode — wins. And from the moment you and 99 others glide into a lush, quiet valley with nothing more than a pickax in hand, or onto the roof of an abandoned hut as the sound of distant gunfire signals a skirmish underway, death is documented in fine print: a real-time roll call of epitaphs at the bottom left of the screen, listing the usernames of those eliminated from the battle island and their respective causes of death. Whether by a deft flick of an opponent’s shotgun, the encroaching storm, or self-inflicted error, death is the necessary banality that gives this game its arc and form.
But there are no dead bodies (or gore, for that matter) in Fortnite’s bright, whimsical universe. Nor are there automatic replays of your avatar’s final moments so that you might dissect your own ill-advised decisions, although you can now roll the tape if you want to. Instead, upon death, you are instantaneously transported into the viewpoint of the player who killed your avatar, and later — if you choose to keep watching, rather than exit the match — both of you will be rolled upward into the viewpoint of the player who kills your killer, and so forth; you become a part of a chain of passive, accumulative reincarnations that produces a matryoshka-like lineage of spectators.
When you step into another player's shoes and inhabit their point of view, the emotional register of the battle royale shifts from adrenalized self-preservation to voyeuristic curiosity. There is also the suggestion of communal solidarity: a number accompanying the eye-shaped icon below the rolling list of epitaphs indicates how many of your fellow virtual dead are watching the match from that same point of view along with you. By the time you’ve followed a player from one town or patch of rural farmland to the next — sprinting across back lanes, crouching behind tall grass, foraging for raw materials, and running up miles of makeshift wooden staircases as quickly as they can be laid down amid a hail of explosions — the thrill of voyeurism has mutated into a sense of identification. You begin to feel invested in the stranger who, not too long ago, did you in.
Video game spectatorship isn't a new or radical concept in the age of Twitch, Minecraft videos, and a nearly billion-dollar e-sports industry. But Fortnite’s approach feels particularly fresh in the way it incorporates spectator dynamics within the game itself. To begin with, Fortnite’s creators at Epic Games have designed a fun, ever-changing, and eminently watchable game that taps into not one, but several primal instincts — those of explorer, gatherer, hunter, and maker. Take a romp through the landscape, but leap sporadically so that a sniper can’t get a lock on you. Use a pickax — or one of its many fanciful modifications: a giant lollipop, a vuvuzela, a shark-tipped spear — to harvest wood, stone, and metal from your environment. Build multistory structures within seconds and stalk adversaries from a higher plane. If you chance upon an opponent in your wandering, find your weapon, or fashion a defensive brick wall on the fly. Or if you feel like taking a risk, offer up a heart-shaped "emote" as a sign of truce or temporary alliance.
Fortnite subverts the third-person shooter genre in its range of possibilities; the more creative you are at resolving a duel beyond the point-and-shoot mechanics inherited from the first-person multiplayer classic Counter-Strike or Fortnite’s predecessor, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the more gratifying it is for the player — and for any ride-along viewers you’ve accumulated. In my own initial foray into Fortnite, I skulked about the battle island evading contact with others, harvesting raw materials to build a modest but sturdy single-occupancy fortress. I hunkered down, thinking — naively, having eschewed walkthroughs and the most basic guides — that I would outlast other people and the storm, despite clear onscreen instructions commanding my avatar to run when lethal weather blanketed the landscape in purple.
The second time around, with 29 players remaining on the island, my avatar was taken down by a sharpshooter in a sleek hoodie and a backpack adorned with stegosaurus plates — two of the many cosmetic accoutrements that players can earn or purchase for their avatars. During this first of many post-death spectator sessions, I gawked at impossibly tall, abandoned staircases that led to nowhere; I marveled at other players’ abilities to magically conjure complicated architectures in flashes of light, then cringed as these elaborate constructions were blasted into oblivion by opponents. I learned that the act of building is a double-edged activity: It can provide protection under fire or help you quickly traverse an obstacle-riddled landscape, but it can also give away your location from afar — the hooded sharpshooter I was observing picked off two other players this way. Then, just as the sharpshooter was bounding across what seemed to be a ghost town, it was suddenly over: Both of us were whisked to the perspective of a helmeted assassin, crouched atop a nearby roof with a scoped rifle and back bling that resembled a Ghostbusters proton pack.
In many of these battle royales I was often the lone watcher; other players rarely lingered after death, choosing instead to exit the match and return to the fray in another. But once, I found myself riding along in the company of three or four others who had been downed by the same breathtakingly skillful player. I imagined each of us leaning forward into our screens from unnamed places around the world, rooting for this stranger, whose Punky Brewster–meets-anime avatar sculpted a labyrinthine fort from brick and wood while balletically sprinting, dodging bullets, and dropping unannounced on top of surprised adversaries. I don’t remember how many of us were watching by the time our erstwhile executioner secured a hard-earned victory royale, but somehow, being digitally present as it happened turned the personal disappointment of losing into what felt like a shared triumph.
"There are at least two kinds of games,” posits James P. Carse, former director of religious studies at NYU, in his 1986 book, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play." In Carse’s formulation, finite play is a contradiction and a self-sabotaging downer; in the pursuit of winning, “the players desire to bring play to an end for themselves.”
A battle royale is, by definition, a finite game. It mirrors the zero-sum thinking that is pervasive throughout much of real life — that only one person or party can prevail in corporate life, sports, politics, or warfare. At the same time, Fortnite’s approach to death and an afterlife of spectatorship within each battle royale touches on what Carson calls “the paradox of infinite play,” in which “players desire to continue the play in others.” There is a generosity and a certain philosophical satisfaction in conceiving of each match in Fortnite as finite play within a larger infinite game that cycles through creation and destruction, life and death, learning and execution, action and observation. There are also, of course, commercial motivations for the creators of a game that generated a revenue record of $318 million this past May to aspire to immortality: to engineer a game for infinite enjoyment, not only for as long as a player is alive in game time, but also in virtual death.
Much has been written about Fortnite being the most watched game on Twitch. In the first week of this July alone, Twitch users had cumulatively watched 3,597 years of Fortnite streams. With cameras turned toward themselves and their microphones on, gamers streaming on Twitch provide commentary as they play, respond to comments, and occasionally receive donations; their popularity — and in some cases, livelihoods — hinges not only on their expertise within the pixelated game world, but their ability to entertain in real life and create a kind of ambient intimacy. In a recent Fortnite stream on Twitch, the gamer Valkyrae, who happened to sport a Princess Leia–esque hairdo that day, simultaneously monitored the game environment and the steady barrage of text chatter on Twitch’s built-in chat. As she navigated the battle island and handily dispatched opponents, she greeted returning followers with easy familiarity and answered viewer questions about her ethnicity, how much her gaming setup cost, and how many solo matches she had won.
For the few who choose to remain in Fortnite as viewers after their own demise, there is no camera trained on the human player’s face, no performed commentary or direct insight into the player’s mind, personality, or physical appearance. There is only an avatar and a username — and these aren’t necessarily representative of the player behind them. All you have to go on is a player’s actions in the game world and the numbers on screen that track how many are still alive on the island, or watching along with you. But this paucity of information allows us to more fully project our imaginations onto the mystery of the other 99 players: their various nationalities, ethnicities, genders, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, vocations, time zones, and states of wakefulness, all brought together under the same virtual sky.
This act of imagination evokes for me the idealism of the early internet in the mid-1990s, before cameras on smartphones were ubiquitous and streaming video was feasible. Despite how relatively little information we could transmit then, flattening ourselves to fit the constraints of hypertext and chunky pixels, the people I met online as a preteen on IRC or GeoCities fansites were curious and excited to meet people from distant lands. As online identities were rendered in higher resolution and faster frames, transmitted at ever-greater speeds over vast distances, the most optimistic of us hoped for a leap in emotional connection and understanding that equaled the leap in technical progress.
I’ve often thought of the empathy box in Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a strangely compelling model for a technologically aided exchange of inner lives, especially when existing modes of expression and communication fail. The owner of an empathy box grips its handles for a direct, almost telepathic line to other people’s thoughts and feelings: “It’s an extension of your body; it’s the way you touch other humans, it’s the way you stop being alone,” the novel’s protagonist explains.
When Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — also the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s dystopian 1982 film Blade Runner — was published in 1968, television was arguably the closest technological analog to an empathy box, broadcasting news and personal narratives from perspectives not like our own. Fifty years later, even with an ecosystem of interactive games, social media apps, and VR films channeled through a proliferation of immersive screens, the jury is still out on whether we’re any closer to Dick’s vision for human connection through technology: College students of the 2010s have apparently less empathy for others than they did a few decades ago, and Americans have been trusting each other less over the past 40 years. On the other hand, while it is popularly held that echo chambers on the internet have deepened political and cultural divisions, several studies have concluded the opposite — that reports of online polarization are greatly exaggerated.
It may simply be that video games "reinforce, rather than inform, the social patterns that feel familiar and comfortable to us,” as Holly Green writes in Paste magazine. In other words, it is still easy to default to the assumption that those 99 other Fortnite players look and think like me, or hew to the stereotype of who I might expect a typical gamer to be. It is just as easy to not think about any of this at all; in-game spectatorship is only as meaningful as we are open to engaging imaginatively with it. Sometimes all we really feel like doing is reaching for the brass ring and chasing absolute victory again and again, death be damned. But every now and then, we might decide to ease into the pleasures of an infinite game, experienced vicariously — and perhaps no less joyfully — through the eyes of another. ●