You probably don’t know this, but I don’t actually live in the United States of America right now. Born and raised there, yes, but I moved to central Europe almost immediately out of university and now I mostly absorb American pop culture the way most foreigners do, second-hand over the Internet. It’s served me well enough in the broad strokes, but when I went back home to visit over the past two weeks I was shocked at just how much I didn’t know.
Specifically: did ya’ll know that Fortnite had trading cards?
I was rather shocked by this at first: how could I have never heard of this until now? But the more I dwelled on it, the more sense it made. It is the biggest video game in the world right now, and there have been countless other video games that have made the jump to the world of physical trading cards. Pokémon is the most obvious, of course, but everything from World of Warcraft to Fire Emblem have had TCGs made from them, with varying success.
But there was something else that really caught me about the Fortnite trading cards, specifically: they seemed rather… lazy. As an example, take a look at some Fire Emblem trading cards:
Look how nice they are. Beautiful, dynamic art featuring both iconic and lesser-known characters. There was clearly a lot of love and passion put into them. Let’s also check out the World of Warcraft cards too (forgive the pixels):
Blizzard has a lot of problems, but their art department isn’t one. Each one looks almost cinematic, mixing both epic fantasy with whimsy and danger. They’re professional and beautiful and certainly deserving a far better fate than a second-hand afterthought to Hearthstone.
But look at the Fortnite cards.
They have numbers and such, so clearly there’s some mechanics here for players to enjoy. And there’s technically… backgrounds. But otherwise, each one may as well be just a screenshot of a skin or an item in one of the poses you’d find in the game. It’s so incredibly lackluster.
And that extends beyond the cards themselves. While the boxes and packs and advertising material for the Fire Emblem and Pokemon and World of Warcraft games are all these epic drawings of characters locked in a struggle, with vivid and imagination-inspiring depictions… Fortnite’s advertisements and boxes are just… exactly the same as the cards. Characters standing in static poses with the Fortnite logo over them. Maybe there’s one of those Piñata’s in the picture somewhere but if you’ve been in any grocery store recently, you’ve probably stumbled into one close to the checkout so you know what I mean.
Now, my first instinct was to point this out and make an observation on how Epic Games barely seems to need to try with Fortnite, and that they’re just being super lazy. And that’s probably true as far as this crappy card game is concerned, but before I could get home and put that opinion into words, I also happened to stumble into some Fortnite action figures in the toy isle.
What is it? More skins. The ads for them? The same static background with characters in simple poses. These folks really hate their own hips if they keep punching them like that.
That’s when I had something of a thought. A disturbing thought that’s way more important than any glib observations about “not trying”.
What, exactly, is the “culture” of Fortnite?
Because here’s the thing, when a game gets big enough that it outgrows the industry that produced it, it tends to take a culture of its own as well. It’s not something people tend to really think about or notice, but if you take a step back, you realize that it’s pretty much happened with every major game. For example, Pokemon as a franchise exists well beyond the confines of the actual games that spawned it: people love comparing their favorite Pokémon, imagining themselves as trainers, and putting the iconic pocket monsters in new situations and environments. People collect them, trade them, battle them, there are musicals and TV shows and movies, and countless in-jokes and references and even it’s own vocabulary. Heck, you can buy a Charmander plushie or a Ditto-as-a-Charmander plushie and the only people who would notice the difference are the fans.
Minecraft’s culture, on the other hand, might not be quite so big, but it’s far more wholesome. Like Pokemon, it has it’s own in-jokes and vocabulary, it’s own heroes and legends, but rather than being about collecting and caring for a magical monster, it’s about creating. People make amazing things in Minecraft, and other people flock to these creations and their creators with awe and wonder. It’s a celebration of what patience, creativity, and sometimes teamwork can accomplish, and it extends far beyond the gaming sphere. Schools use Minecraft to teach their students, governments use it to raise awareness, in so many ways Minecraft has turned into a medium within itself, a canvas that the whole world shares.
Each of these games cultures is represented in not only how they run, but the products they put out. There are no Ash dolls, only Pikachu plushies. Minecraft doesn’t have a TV show, it has a lego series. They distill the appeal of these games and they deliver them to people even when they’re not in front of their console or their PC, respectively.
So what’s Fortnite’s culture, I ask again?
It’s the skins.
The trading cards and stickers? Mostly just print-outs of existing skins that you buy in-game with money. The action figures? Of the many different skins you can buy in-game with money. The apparel? If it’s not the logo, it’s a skin you can get in the game with money. Everything around Fortnite revolves around the skins.
If you never heard of the game and were asked to figure out what it was while never playing a second of the game yourself (or watching some asshole on Twitch play it for you), you’d have no earthly idea what the game was about. You wouldn’t know it was a Battle Royale. Hell, you might not even know it was a third-person shooter, or even a video game. All you’d have to work with are people in costumes crossing their arms or holding their hips or doing a stupid dance and staring at you with cold, emotionless eyes.
I’m not saying Fortnite doesn’t have in-jokes or a vocabulary or anything that marks it as something bigger than the medium that spawned it. It has all of those. But when other companies – and Epic itself – considers and condenses the raw essence of what makes Fortnite “Fortnite”, the one and only thing they settle on is the skins. Without the skins, you have nothing.
And isn’t that kind of super gross? I mean sure, there’s an element of grossness to every “culture” that surrounds a product of media, because the heart of that culture is inevitably a money-making machine. But not only do “good” cultures manage to promote other values in addition to that – friendship and creativity in the case of Pokémon and Minecraft, for example – Fortnite takes it the extra step by saying that the only thing inherently of value in the game they’ve made is the marketplace. There’s no greater message to unpack, there’s no story to tell, there’s nothing else to enjoy. There’s skins, or there’s nothing. Lord knows there aren’t any action figures for the defaults.
And the disgusting thing is, it’s working. People buy into it. The trailers all include paid skins in them as if it’s no big deal. The biggest selling point of new seasons are the new skins, which get highlighted way more than any changes to the game. And the audience eats it up with a sincere and almost disturbing passion. Did you see the Polygon article about how kids are getting bullied – actually bullied – for not having skins in Fortnite? That’s not an accident: that was planned by Epic Games, who realized that they could replace the genuine heart behind other cultural phenomenon and replace it with goofy outfits that cost 10 bucks and people would still eat it up. People are social creatures: they strive to create communities in all things they do. So Epic Games, in a move as brilliant as it was evil, ensures that the only community people could build around the game was around the in-game microtransactions.
And staring at those big, stupid boxes of trading cards that just have a 15 buck skin on them as their sole point of advertising, I realized something while I was over at America. I had underestimated just how large, how terrifying, and how friggen’ evil Epic Games had become. Because if they can, and will, make the cultural cornerstone of their enormous game the friggen’ micro transactions, then there’s clearly nothing else on their minds. They have nothing more to say than “we are here, give us money”.
And that, my friends, is very, very bad.