Fortnite is a global phenomenon. The free-to-play first person shooter from Epic Games has just celebrated its first birthday. It’s just cracked $1 billion in revenue from in game purchases (and the growth there seems exponential, it started raking in more than $300 million a month back in May). It has 125 million players globally. It isn’t just popular to play — players in just one month spent 700 million cumulative hours — 79,908 years — watching other people play. When you ponder what else might have been done with those hours (the Great Pyramid of Giza took an estimated 131,200 years of construction time) that’s a pretty staggering commitment to a game — because it’s not even counting playing time.
I started playing Fortnite because the kids in my religion classes at school are obsessed with it — it’s all they want to talk about. One kid told me that during the last school holidays he spent $300 on the game’s in-house currency ‘V-Bucks’. Fortnite might be free to play, but once you’re in you can customise the look of your character by purchasing skins, dance moves, and assorted odds and ends that make no difference to game play — this kid told me the point of spending money is all about looking good while you play; there’s nothing more to it than that (and the in-group satisfaction that comes with caring about that sort of performed identity). The money making model is all about digital vanity; in Fortnite beauty really is skin deep and its what’s on the outside that counts.
But Fortnite is fun. It really is. It’s both simple to play and complex to master; and you come face to face with players, 100 at a time, from across the skill spectrum.
Fortnite is all about loot. The only form of the game worth playing is the Battle Royale. It’s a last-man-or-woman-standing shoot-em-up on an island filled with treasure chests containing the arsenal you need to survive and thrive (and take down the other players). When you kill another player you upgrade your stuff by switching your bad stuff for their best stuff so that by the endgame the survivors are running around armed to the teeth. There’s no respawning in a Battle Royale; when you’re done you’re done, the stakes are high (except you can of course play another one, and another one, and another one, ad infinitum).
The catch is the island shrinks minute by minute so there’s no standing still and lots of smashing and grabbing and shooting in a frenetic pace. It’s fun. It’s majorly addictive. It’s fleeting. You might amass a pretty great personal armoury by the end of a Battle Royale; you might stand victorious; but the very next round you start with nothing again — your loot evaporated… which is perhaps why people spend dollars on the more permanent but less useful character skins. They might be digital and so intangible but they don’t disappear upon death or victory… they’ll last as long as the Fortnite fad lasts.
I enjoy playing (though I am terrible; my death to kill ratio is stacked heavily towards death). I get the addictive pull of the bright lights and flashy dance moves (if you’ve seen people under 15 engaging in dance moves you don’t recognise, chances are they come from Fortnite).
But Fortnite won’t last. Kingdoms rise and fall — whether they’re political or digital. I don’t know many people still playing Pokemon Go… All those V-Bucks will be like the dollars I spent on CDs in my teens and early years of part time work… they’ll be archived somewhere (in this case digitally) — away from the moths and decay that might get into other temporary treasures, but no less fleeting. Fortnite, as fun as the party is, reminds me of the words of the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible — the ‘teacher’ searched for meaning in a world where every fun thing is ‘breath’ (sometimes translated ‘meaningless’). Where our success — like victory in a Battle Royale — just gets handed on to the winner what seems like moments later. He said:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labours
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them. — Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, 10-11
And it gets worse — the teacher explores real pleasures and wealth and finds the same thing — breath, vanity, meaningless…
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 2:10-11
How much more is this true of digital treasures — ‘skins to make you look cool’ that will last until you buy a younger, cooler, model and then will finally be shelved when the next game tops the charts.
The teacher doesn’t get super-cheery by the end of the book; he decides that life has its pleasures — of which Fortnite might be one — and that we should enjoy these moments while they last (until the next big thing) but trying to build meaning on something ‘breathy’ or fleeting or meaningless isn’t particularly wise. He realises that amassing treasure and then dying — or having them lose all their value — is ultimately pointless.
Jesus comes along as another teacher a bit later — providing an antidote to ‘fleetingness’ that is more fulfilling than the teacher’s pleasures in Ecclesiastes and the fleeting glory of a Fortnite victory or a well stocked treasure chest in-game. He also has a bit of advice to those who want to spend hundreds of dollars on ‘skins’ as digital ‘treasure’.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” — Matthew 6:19-21
This is pretty great investment advice that you might pass on to the V-Bucks obsessed kids (or adults) in your life. But where Jesus is better than Fortnite, and anything meaningless, is that building your life on him is both real wisdom and how to store up treasures in heaven.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” — Matthew 7:24-27
He lasts; his kingdom is eternal, his victory was over the meaningless that comes from life-in-the-face-of-death, and he won’t be knocked off his throne by anybody.