A Child In Walmart Helped Me Understand The Obsession—And Monetization—Of The Average Fortnite Gamer
More often than not when I wake up these days I feel old. My back aches as if I have been doing anything to solicit the singe of pain that gravitates around the base of my spine; the alcohol I was once able to toss back in unruly amounts now creates a cloud inside of my brain that inhibits me from producing a single useful thought other than a thirst for water and electrolytes. I can’t drive at night without glasses. And aside from physical ailments, I keep every cent of change in a jar above my bed.
However, with all of these dwindling issues in mind, I have never felt more old, more removed from knowing how the world around me works, more emasculated, than when an eight-year-old stared me down in the aisle of Walmart and proceeded to lash out in a spastic array of movements that is the Fortnite “floss” dance.
Picture this. You turn down an aisle—let’s say it’s the chips aisle where rows of bulbous multi-colored bags narrow down upon you—and there in the middle is a skinny white child approximately age eight. He’s wearing a yellow shirt that’s too big and shorts that are too big and black leather basketball shoes that are absurdly oversized. You and this child just happen to lock eyes for a second as you continue to search for whatever desired flavor of chips that you’ve been wanting since yesterday. But when your gaze catches a glimpse of this child again, you realize that he is staring at you, almost through you with a pair of beady eyes. A deranged smile forms across his lips that are outlined by a red juice stain as he begins to creep forward. You expect him to look away even as you inch closer but he doesn’t budge. His frame is that of a gunslinger in a classic western, calm yet determined, simply ready for whatever happens next.
Suddenly, you freeze. Your ability to move has been thwarted and there’s nothing you can do no matter how hard you try and tell your brain to move. Your legs are stiff as cement. For a moment the rattle of buggies clanging behind you fades and the bags of chips all vanish. The child’s mother sees none of this. She reads the scroll of nutrition facts against a bag of Ruffles until she too disappears.
Without hesitation, and with a look of pure elation, the child then proceeds to floss like nobody else is watching. His arms hinge back and forth across his body as he juts his hips out to perfectly execute the dance move. It’s painful to watch, and more confusing than anything, this intense gyration of body movements. This child viciously continues to floss, the pendulum of his arms and hips only gaining speed. His gap-toothed maw opens and emits a maniacal laugh. You’re caught in the trance of watching something so horrifically demeaning.
In the end you don’t buy any chips. You don’t buy anything. You turn and head back towards the front doors. You walk through the parking lot and sit in your car, wallowing in silence as you attempt to come to terms with what just happened.
This all happened to me and since this incident occurred I haven’t returned to Walmart. I fear that some mild form of trauma will unearth itself if I go back inside the superstore that always carries the drifting scent of Subway. I’m worried that I’ll see this kid in the form of an apparition, flossing at me until I run out.
The reason this particular incident stuck with me was that it caught me off guard. Kids are weird and they often have no filter whatsoever, but I haven’t seen one display such audacity before, and whether this stems from the parenting isn’t what I’m perplexed by either. This whole incident brought the topic of children’s relationship to video game culture into my mind, especially in connection to media consumption and exposure to real-life situations. And even as this may seem like an old man yelling at a cloud moment, one generation struggling to comprehend another, I promise that it’s not. I’m interested in how this new generation has grown up in such a media-based world, embedded within the gaming industry that’s been commercialized to vacuum in money without regard for children’s and teenager’s mental health, that it may be creating a toxic environment on a platform that is meant for entertainment and not seriousness. To be clear I don’t blame Fortnite for this. I do blame Fortnite for making the dances popular and thrusting them into the home of anyone that has a child aged seven through fourteen. That I will do. But video games and the influential communities alike, kids seem to be more hooked than ever, and I’m determined to examine whether this massive influx of video game entertainment and media consumption is the byproduct of companies attempting to profit off of mental pliability of kids, or simply something they take way too seriously when they’re bored and there’s nothing else to do.
I learned a lot through random people I talked to on Xbox Live when I first got a hold of a console and spent countless hours with my face less than a foot away from the screen. As bad as that sentence sounds, I promise there were never any predatory instances. My parents raised me not to talk to strangers or accept their offers when they say that in exchange for my Mom’s credit card information they can get me max prestige. I often remember arguments between players and learning words that I had never heard used in certain contexts before. A majority of my summer days were spent hunched over playing video games with my friends. I have countless stories, some of which should never be repeated.
And yet, I have never heard a game be discussed across multiple different media platforms than Fortnite. And I have never seen so many debates about time spent playing video games since Fortnite’s explosion onto the gaming scene. There are articles abound analyzing the connections between children’s mental health and their obsession with the video game. Whether a kid throws a temper tantrum when he loses or only finds solace as he finally achieves victory, parents find anger in their kid’s dedication to win at the battle royale genre. They are perplexed by the fact that all the money they make from mowing lawns or from their allowance is only spent on new skins or anything remotely related to the game. To some parents, it seems they fear that the days of their kids being gone from the house have ended, and a virtual age has been ushered in.
My nine-year-old nephew plays the game like a maniac. Whether it’s on a console or on his phone, his developing brain and tiny eyes are locked in as he screams at his teammates to revive him. When he opens presents on Christmas or his birthday, he’s more excited to get V-Bucks (Fortnite’s in-game currency) than any other type of gift. And when he’s not playing, he’s watching other people play. And when he’s not spending money on the game, he’s gifting money to the other people he’s watching play.
It’s clear Fortnite, and other similar styled games like Call of Duty Warzone, have a stranglehold on the youth, but is it really that big of a deal that they have such an obsession? Maybe their minds are being altered by the countless hours and days spent in front of the screen. However, are they truly the ones to blame for becoming enthralled with a simple game that has been marketed towards them?
To answer these questions, I must once again take a look back at myself and my friends, my generation that grew up with the first major wave of Call of Duty’s massive multiplayer phenomenon. I would say that we were fixated on playing the game, logging hours with our friends, and set on being the best players in our lobby while often forgetting that this was supposed to be a way of passing the time. And yes, as teenagers often do, especially men still trying to control their emotions with a tendency to react when things don’t go their way by slamming controllers or driving our growing fists through drywall, we took it way too seriously in hindsight. But I don’t remember ever carrying this love for some virtual game over into the real world. There were never instances where I would find myself out with my family or in a supermarket, acting like characters from these games, bringing the violence out from beyond the screen.
Even with this, I fear this generational argument isn’t adequate for one simple reason. The development of in-game technology and expansive growth within the gaming industry has brought forward ways to market games to a much younger audience than when my friends and I started out. Companies have found a way to commercialize games that are labeled as free in order to lure in players with the option to play without financial commitment, ultimately knowing that fear of being left behind or not having the same type of content as their friends or favorite streamers—their idols—will drive them to charge their parent’s credit card without a second thought. These marketing strategies target the constant urge for competition, free of charge, until a player is hooked in and must continue to spend and play at risk of losing satisfaction.
Previous generations of gamers weren’t being baited into these monetary traps as much as we were being hooked in through the abhorrent amounts of violence that further capitalistic ideals and feed a nation obsessed with war. Players were vehicles to push an agenda, versus now being seen as opportunities for further capital gain amidst a disregard for the mental fortitude of the players who may be too young to understand the reason they’re playing.
With many of these same game franchises still being out on the market, it’s not the violence that is drawing them in, and it’s not those dances that have plagued classrooms across the world either. Video game culture has become industrialized to the point where these games aren’t truly seen as something to pass the time anymore, they’re seen through the mindset of a potential career path if those who dare to play are successful enough. And honestly, that sucks. Regardless if a player is eight or fourteen, they shouldn’t be focused on spending the hours of their day grinding towards what they see as their career. They should be having fun; making mistakes. They should be what kids and teenagers are meant to be: idiots attempting to understand societal norms while constantly failing to see where they have gone wrong. And perhaps that’s why there seems to be so much carry-over between the Fortnite world and the real world. There has been so much added pressure to perform versus actual enjoyment that they aren’t able to disassociate what is real and what isn’t at times. It’s about dollar signs and what innovative ways these development companies could potentially pursue to keep a stranglehold on the wallets and minds of their players
So maybe that fateful day when I walked down the aisle of Walmart and locked eyes with a kid so obsessed with Fortnite, the synapses in his brain firing in every sort of direction, controlling his bodily functions to floss like there was no one else in that store, it wasn’t that he wanted to alpha me the way he did, he was simply a product of what the gaming industry has created. A mindless creature obsessed with something that isn’t real, who will only continue to feed the industry that has corrupted a platform meant for entertainment until he has become burnt out of something that could give them actual enjoyment.
Perhaps the dance was a cry for help. A repeating set of stiffened movements asking if there was anyway gaming and the culture created by these companies could ever become fun again.