My brief foray into Fortnite: or, how computer games require and reveal sophisticated thinking and skills

A number of my students have started playing the massively popular online survival shooter game Fortnite, by Epic Games. I suspect that there are few teachers now that have not come across their students talking about it. One of my Japanese students, who is a particularly avid fan, explained to me almost everything I wanted to know about Fortnite.

Fortnite is free to play and if players want they can purchase “skins” for their avatars. These skins make no difference to players’ performance. They just add a little pizzazz and uniqueness. At the start of the match, each player, custom skinned or not, is equipped with a single battle axe and must collect weapons and build obstacles during the game in order to eliminate all opponents.

My student, who is a high beginner, talked about how he might even speak English during matches when communicating with other players. He also said it was common to hear other languages being spoken. I joked with him that if he wanted to convince his mother it was okay to play, he could argue that it was enhancing his English skills.

After using the Fortnite as a topic for conversation and his journal writing for a few weeks, I finally decided I would give the game a go myself. Now, I do love video games, but I’ve tried to stay away from playing them because it’s hard for me to justify the amount of time put into playing them compared to the time I need for the responsibilities I have in the real world. The last game I really got into was during university when I played Age of Empires for a few months.

With the game installed, and not a lot of time before my wife came home with the kids, I found myself playing as a female avatar and I was soon hang gliding into the island arena. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and the ominous updates flashing on the bottom left of the screen ominously suggested my likely fate – snipered, ‘sploded’, axed.

But the fates were protecting me, which was just as well because for the first five minutes I couldn’t even find a gun.

After wandering awhile and not encountering any other players, I finally found a shotgun. I also saw figured out what the decreasing numbers at the top of the screen meant; I was in the top 25 players from an initial 100.

As the game progresses the playable area shrinks because of an outside storm-like force. My student had explained that to me, so I thought I might as well head more towards the center. I wasn’t sure if I could touch the storm without perishing.

Then. Finally. I saw some figures bouncing around in the distance. They literally looked like leaping lemurs.

Approaching more closely I took a few shots. A quick glance to my ranking and I saw that I was now in the top 10 players out of an original pool of 100. I was awesome.

Suddenly, there were these two pink pony-tailed chicks bouncing around in front of me…and I was dead. A few seconds later, I was given the point of view of my murderess and spent the last few minutes watching her and a partner (I guess I had inadvertently joined a squad mode version) efficiently, and bouncingly, hunt down remaining players.

My, were they skilled. But always bouncing, thus making themselves a more difficult target for inept novice foes such as myself. Within a few minutes they had eliminated the few remaining players, and the match was over! I came 9th out of 100 on my first try.

When I shared this experience with my student, he said that I had actually been very lucky. It had been a bit of fluke that I had managed to wander around for so long without being eliminated. I told him I was just awesome. He remained unconvinced.

Boys, especially, seem to like computer games. As an EAL teacher I find games can serve as a meaningful connection to students. I’ve met students who know barely any English but understand exactly what “fire in the hole” or “double kill” means. I was covering a colleagues class this week and we were discussing igneous rock forms, such as obsidian. All the Minecraft players in the class knew exactly what it was.

The purpose of this post is not to encourage our ELLs to play computer games in English, though that’s not a bad idea. Nor am I trying to encourage all students to play more. Instead, as I reflected on this foray into Fortnite I couldn’t help but think that the cognitive and social skills required in playing and excelling in computer games are quite sophisticated.

Computer games cannot replace an education, but they can give educators pause for thought when many students that may struggle in formal learning contexts may actually excel in the applied, and even abstract, learning contexts required for success in many computer games. Resources. Physics. Bouncing (strategic and efficient movement). Teamwork. Growth Mindset (don’t let your initial slaughter set you back). All of these are virtual equivalents of real-world areas of concern. I mean just look at the high-stakes game theory being played by North Korea and the US right now.

I only played the one Fortnite game and then uninstalled it from my computer. I’m pretty sure that I have the cognitive ability to get into the game and eventually become quite competent at it, but it would take me a considerable amount of time to catch up with my elementary and junior high students. Nevertheless, I do need to think how I can connect these worlds better in the classroom.

Let me know what you think in comments below or via twitter @grahamwnoble.

One comment

  1. I absolutely love that game! I loved reading your first impressions of the game. Man, it sure is a popular game!

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