When a titan-sized Travis Scott avatar landed in Fortnite between the first few bars of “Sicko Mode,” the quake sent players flying across the map like individual popcorns. Twelve million people were watching Scott perform; after the shock, many went sprinting back towards him. Looking up from an ant’s point of view, players saw Scott rapping and head-banging against a sky red with shooting stars. It was the perfect visual metaphor for the first few seconds of a headlining Coachella concert.
Over the course of five concerts that started last Thursday, publisher Epic Games gave 27 million socially isolated players something more than a visual metaphor, though, and something they desperately missed: an event space. Pushing aside the marketing orgy that is Travis Scott x Fortnite, a celebrity was performing a concert, people were literally there together, and it was all part of an event in some broad notion of space. Ontologically, the “digital” distinction may not mean much at all at a time when electronic signals are the primary means of connection. Weeks into quarantine, the general public better recognizes the legitimacy of digital communion, but gamers have known it for decades.
Fortnite is one of the most “pop culture” games of all time, and with that title comes the project of making a well-established, widely understood fact of gaming culture known to a broader audience: Online games are places, too. To Fortnite denizens, Travis Scott’s show (and DJ Marshmello’s before it, in February 2019) was as if their local Starbucks manager hired a national celebrity for a residency. Shooting each other, snacking on Takis over open mic, or watching Travis Scott make the sky fall, Fortnite players, like regulars in any online game, feel a sense of place there. Cementing its status as a hangout, today Fortnite added a new violence-free map called “Party Royale,” where, amid cartoony fast food storefronts and quiet beaches, players can race ATVs, play soccer, or attend disco parties with squads of friends and strangers.
Quarantined at home, all anyone can hope to wring out of social bonds is a sense of presence. Luckily, presence is easily translated into the digital plane. Covid-19 has spurred a spike in online gaming, and embodied or not, competing or vibing together, players are merging their subjectivities right now in online games. A community space doesn’t need a hardwood sign over the door to be a legitimate place; it just needs real people who treat it that way.
In 1989, sociologist Ray Oldenberg coined the term “third place” to describe the locales between home and work that foment communities: pubs, churches, coffee shops, the YMCA, all part of a long line of physical spaces including the Roman baths, Victorian gin palaces, the Iranian tekyeh. The haunt. A couple times a week, you go, decompress, maintain social bonds, assert your place in culture. At the time, Oldenberg was bemoaning how “the automobile suburb had the effect of fragmenting the individual’s world,” displacing Americans who longed for community hubs of yore. “No new form of integral community has been found,” he wrote. “The small town has yet to greet its replacement. And Americans are not a contented people.”
It’s unlikely that Oldenberg was picturing rainbow-backlit mechanical keyboards and alienesque gaming PCs when he theorized that, in the end, “the human instinct for community will eventually prevail.” The first big massively multiplayer online role-playing games thrived because, on top of a role-playing game, they offered both a sense of place and a venue for self-expression. Between dungeon raids and fetch-the-thing quests, players convened in gardens or pubs in central cities to show off their new gear, gossip about their guildmates, or maybe stand around idly absorbing the existence of their online friends. In a recent interview with WIRED, Ion Hazzikostas, the game director for World of Warcraft, recalled how, back when he started playing in 2004, he would load into the game simply to be there:
“I would just log on and kind of jump around [the city] Orgrimmar, bouncing around the roof of the bank, talking to my friends and guildmates. And that was my activity for a couple hours. I wasn’t actually going off and running a dungeon or doing anything. I just wanted to see how people were doing and be there, be present and share the experience.”
Over the last 15 years, games not traditionally set up for human-to-human relations have slowly integrated lessons from the heyday of MMORPGs. It’s all part “games as a service,” the latest trend in game design that pushes ongoing, continuous content to keep players interested, engaged, and spending unfathomable sums money on digital content. Successful AAA games don’t die anymore. These constantly refreshed titles are so endlessly consumable as cultural objects that to many they’ve developed a feeling of “home.”
Correspondingly, the latest editions of the Fallout and Grand Theft Auto franchises—originally single-player role-playing games—are now both online role-playing games that, years after release, are sustained by creative players who organize flea markets, pit fits, and elaborate player mafias. First-person shooters are expected to have emotes, graffiti sprays, and voice lines—some of which cost money. Several added options to engineer custom games in which players engage in everything from erotic role-play to dodgeball. Culture keeps people coming back.
Games don’t need to be designed as third places to become them. Gamers don’t need circuses and bath houses to feel a sense of place. They don’t even need congregation spaces. For millennials who love video games but hate talking on the phone, absentminded gabbing on Apex Legends voice chat—or even over the chat app Discord—comes naturally. Voice chat isn’t as contrived or heavy-handed as a planned, intentional phone call; it’s as casual and engaging as two friends running into each other at the corner coffee shop.
With this “third place” atmosphere, Apex Legends, Overwatch and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare are more than the sum of their shooter mechanics. They’re places where friends can reliably find each other, just like they could at the local watering hole in the days before texting and phone tracker apps. For a huge segment of the population, the friend lists in game clients like Battle.net, Steam, or the Epic Games store are the barstools, where you might find your friend, in ‘50s movie style, sipping bourbon and reading the paper. The games are the bartender, bouncer, owner, and landlord.
Right after it launched today, Fortnite’s “Party Royale” mode matchmade me with a player named Zeke. For a half hour, we separately explored the plaza, the main stage, the fields. I actually forgot about Zeke until their name appeared over a hillside west of my avatar, when I was looking at the ocean. I ran toward it. A moment later, under Zeke’s name, a pink-haired avatar appeared driving a speedboat that was careening towards me. Although I was on land, Zeke ran me over about five or six times before stopping long enough to let me in.
For a long time, Zeke drove the speedboat around in the circles on the ocean while I watched the horizon. Zeke then deposited us onto a pirate ship with vending machines offering paint launcher guns. Doing no damage, racking up no kills, we shot big, colorful globs of paint at each other until we wordlessly parted ways.
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