Fortnite is free, but kids are getting bullied into spending money

In a private school where tuition is high, students can bicker about clothes, shoe brands, cellphones, or video games. At Paul Towler’s middle school, where he teaches English to seventh and eighth graders, some kids “have enough money to be comfortable and others’ parents are owners of giant nationwide restaurant chains,” he says. Towler is used to seeing such disparities play out in the real world through objects that you can physically hold. But after battle royale sensation Fortnite exploded, the fights between students took an unexpected turn. Fortnite’s virtual clothes became a status symbol, and some of Towler’s pupils started policing what their classmates wore in-game.

The confrontations could get ugly. One student in Towler’s class “begged his parents for [money] to buy a skin because no one would play with him” because he wore basic virtual clothes. While the bullying wasn’t always Fortnite-specific, Towler recalls that it seemed “vicious for [the student] to have another avenue for the meaner kids to attack him.” Things got better for that kid, but when your social scene begins and ends with Fortnite, having nobody to play with is like a mark of death.

Anyone can deploy on Fortnite’s island: The game is free, and available on consoles, computers, and phones alike. While the objective is to survive against 99 other players, Fortnite’s culture isn’t nearly as hostile. For kids playing the game, Fortnite is a cartoon wonderland where you can shoot the shit with your friends more so than it is a competitive game about survival. As the game expands and adds modes beyond battle royale, opportunities to build fantastic creations, inhabit the world, and explore have only increased. In 2019, Fortnite is less of a shooter than it is a playground.

As Fortnite has shifted into a hangout spot, the messiness of social hierarchies has followed. Some players make a name for themselves based on skill, and status is granted in accordance to your win rate or kill/death ratio. But Fortnite matches can only have a single winner (or squad), which means that the average person can’t stand out this way. Instead, players earn prestige with other fans based on their character’s look. And in the realm of Fortnite, there is nothing worse that having a standard character, otherwise known as a “default.”

One of Fortnite’s many defaults.
Epic Games

When you first boot up Fortnite, the game randomly grants you a character decked out in drab military gear. These characters are functional, but they also single out players. Maybe you’re a newbie — in which case, hey, fresh meat. Or worse: Maybe you’re a player who can’t afford better cosmetics, which can cost up to $20, depending on the rarity of the item. Some skins can be earned through the Battle Pass, which typically costs around $10 per season, and others can be unlocked by linking your account to outside services such as Amazon Prime. Most people, however, just purchase their desired look — the best outfits always seem to involve money somewhere in the process.

And so “default” quickly became a put-down within the Fortnite community, a signal that you are a lesser player in some way.

“On more than one occasion I heard the kids refer to one another as a ‘default,’” Towler says, referencing things he’s overheard at school. “At one point they started to use it just as a generic insult both in and out of the classroom.”

The abuse goes beyond insults. Fans who play as defaults end up getting ostracized by classmates, too. Libby, a middle schooler in seventh grade, told Polygon that defaults at her school “get made fun of,” and that mockery is compounded by the fact that these players are often on mobile platforms, which are perceived to be a worse experience.

“Noob” is a word that comes up a lot in conversation with parents. Kids ask their parents for skins because they don’t want to seem like Fortnite novices in front of other people. The label turns kids into “target[s],” according to a parent on Twitter. Guy Diep, father of an 8-year-old boy, tells Polygon that while his son asked for money for Fortnite cosmetics to avoid the stigma of a default, what he heard between the lines was more heartbreaking than that.

“To translate him, he’s actually saying: ‘I NEED this [skin] because of my lack of self-esteem and confidence,’” Diep says. Many kids end up spending money in a free game just to keep up with the in crowd.

“My 10-year-old is obsessed with buying skins,” Twitter user Travis Manley tells Polygon. While Manley plays with the basic costumes to show his kid that skins don’t dictate your capacity in the game, his son genuinely believes that cosmetics reflect skill. Based on conversations with dozens of parents, it seems that young children circulate playground rumors that a sophisticated costume says something about your in-game ability. According to Manley’s child, “People with cool skins must be better players.”

This belief is so pervasive that you sometimes can’t hop into a Fortnite match as a default character without being singled out. In one video with 16 million views, a YouTuber wearing a default skin starts a Fortnite match, only to be immediately targeted and verbally harassed by other players in the game. The demand was clear: Prove that you’re good at Fortnite, or get the hell out of here. Videos compiling embarrassing clips of default players has practically become a genre on YouTube. In another YouTube video with 27 million views, you can watch as players taunt and toy with defaults just to humiliate them.

In competitive modes, able players will intentionally give defaults good guns, only to murder them before they can do anything. In creative modes, where the objective isn’t to win, players will find defaults — who are often children — and do everything in their power to provoke them. The point is to record screams, shrieks, and tears. “Why are you ruining the game for all the players?” one boy in the YouTube compilation asks. The YouTuber, who maintains that it’s all in good fun, just laughs. “His mother, where is she?” he responds. “Come get your child.”

Epic Games

According to parents who often finance Fortnite purchases for their kids, bullying is increasingly becoming a topic of concern.

“I asked my son why he keeps wanting skins etc in Fortnite, simply put there is a bullying regime where players mock others for not having them, this fuels that and causes emotional distress,” said Twitter user Monkenstien in a discussion about why people spend money on cosmetic items in games.

It’s not just that some Fortnite players are mean to each other in-game. At times, the bullying can spill out into the real world. In a viral video with 3 million views, one kid describes how classmates would beat him up for not having any Fortnite skins, on top of having few in-game wins. The YouTuber in the clip, The Dragod, is moved by the tale and ends up giving the child money to buy a cosmetic. Twitter is full of such tales from accounts claiming to be children, whose entire existence revolves around begging influencers for free skins. It’s not that they want to be cool. It’s that they want to stop the bullying.

The pressure to purchase skins is everywhere if you play Fortnite. Loading screens are decked out with cool and funny characters that cost money; upon logging in, the game will alert you about new items in the shop. Choices must be made quickly: Every offering is only available in the shop for a limited time, and there’s no known schedule for releases. If you don’t buy it now, that garb may not be available again for months. The Battle Pass, which is Fortnite’s system for rewarding players, also culminates in a lavish costume that you can’t get anywhere else.

Influencers with millions of followers, such as Tfue, will often ask viewers to buy things in Fortnite, because the “support a creator” program helps content creators get money off every purchase. If you roll in a crew, friends sometimes like to coordinate outfits with each other, too.

To the credit of developer Epic Games, Fortnite’s costume designs are by far the best in the industry. Characters like cartoonish bananas, werewolves, pirates, and ninjas make the game like you’re dipping into a toy chest full of surprises. Flourishes such as pets and backpacks inject more liveliness into the game, and help make your character feel unique. It also helps that premier cosmetics that cost around $20 often feel like they’re worth the price, given that they come in multiple styles or have fancy animated embellishments. If you want, you can fly down into Fortnite using a fire-breathing dragon. What kid could resist?

Epic Games

Costumes also carry the brunt of Fortnite’s culture, as far as the players are concerned. To wear a skin is to communicate to others what kind of fan you are. Maybe you’re a bit of a badass — in which case, John Wick is your go-to. Or maybe you’re a weirdo, so you run around in a fish costume. Players have created entire mythologies around costumes, which makes sense, because Fortnite doesn’t have a story. Instead, skins suggest small narratives about the island and the wider in-game lore. A new area of the map might be where a Tomatohead skin goes to sacrifice humans at the altar. If you wear a hero costume, suddenly the supervillain lair on the island feels just right. In more ways than one, Fortnite’s culture and economy live and die by the cosmetics.

Polygon tried speaking to multiple children who said they were bullied because they played Fortnite as a default, and while some are featured in this article, the majority did not get parental permission to speak on the record — a Vox Media requirement for children under 13. Some, it seemed, were embarrassed or ashamed that they were being harassed over something that was seemingly trivial, while others didn’t want their parents to know what they were going through. One kid Polygon spoke to said that he was bullied off Fortnite, but later came back determined to get better at the game, seemingly in an effort to prove people wrong about default skins.

Statistics on the frequency of bullying among teens and children vary depending on the source, especially because it’s a delicate subject that has to be self-reported in surveys. The Cyberbullying Research Center, which has questioned around 20,000 middle school and high school students, claims that 1 of every 4 teens has experienced cyberbullying of some kind. Typically, however, cyberbullying manifests itself as name-calling, spreading rumors, making threats, or sending explicit images. According to the Pew Research Center, teens from families with lesser means often get bullied at a higher rate than kids from affluent families. “Twenty-four percent of teens whose household income is less than $30,000 a year say they have been the target of physical threats online, compared with 12% whose annual household income is $75,000 or more,” the Pew report states.

Epic Games

While much of the rhetoric around defaults centers around skill, a costume doesn’t reflect how good you are at the game. Tfue, one of the top competitive players in the scene, went ages without wearing a cosmetic in Fortnite as a part of a boycott — and this had no bearing on how many matches he won during that time. It stands to reason that this is true across the board. While the average player may not identify it as such, it seems clear that Fortnite has an ongoing class problem. Before this, Fortnite fans derided users on mobile devices who couldn’t afford consoles or PCs, tech that is more of a luxury than a cellphone. Despite it being a free game, Fortnite players are still concerned with the flow of money, and with those who do not have it.

“When one’s identity is not rooted in something solid and substantive, individuals will seek to find their value and self-worth in superficialities,” says Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University.

“There is so much social currency tied into being a part of the [Fortnite] phenomenon, there is an incredible amount of pressure to be cool and stay cool … than others who play the game,” continues Hinduja, who holds a doctorate in criminal justice. “Everyone is vying for that kind of social capital, and so the competition breeds cruelty as everyone tries to one-up others to get to the proverbial top, even at the cost of stepping on others while tearing them down.”

It’s possible that Fortnite’s “default” problem will soften with time, especially as promotions across the web give players new ways to earn in-game skins. For a while, Epic even offered Fortnite’s Battle Pass for free if players completed a series of challenges — though some would argue that finishing a Battle Pass often ends up requiring money anyway.

Curiously, however, Fortnite has become such a big cultural force that the mere idea of a “default” has taken root outside of its candy-colored island. Every so often, you’ll hear a teen call another teen a default out of the blue, in a context that has nothing to do with Fortnite.

In Paul Towler’s classroom, students use a gamified program where their studies allow them to buy outfits and pets for characters. The students will take jabs at one another if they haven’t progressed enough to buy skins through the learning tool. Here, too, kids will police the basic threads of their peers.

“I’ve overheard someone being called a ‘default’ at least once,” Towler says. “It really seems to have stuck in their heads!”

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