In our increasingly impatient, data-driven society, where matters of style and aesthetics are largely seen as a waste, art for art’s sake is thriving in an unusual place — the massively popular video game “Fortnite: Battle Royale.”
The goal in “Fortnite,” as in most multiplayer shooter games, is to blow your enemies to shreds. It follows a typical “battle royale” format, where 100 players brawl until there’s only one survivor. Though it costs nothing to play, “Fortnite” is raking in higher monthly sales — $126 million, for example, in February — than its nearest competition, “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.” How does “Fortnite” do this? By getting players to buy “skins” — avatar costumes — and avatar dances.
These elements of style are “Fortnite’s” secret sauce. Styling on other players is a big part of the thrill. After a kill, players can dance on the body, adding a fillip of humor and split-second grace to the victory. In gamespeak, the dances are called “emotes.” You can choose from dozens of these quick, seconds-long snatches of choreography in the game’s Item Shop. Most of the emotes are drawn from real-life dances or gestures: from fist bumps and the brush-the-shoulders dust-off to full-body expressions such as the worm, the crisscross swivel of the “Electro Shuffle” and a riff on Korean pop star Psy’s wide-legged “Gangnam Style” gallop, from his 2012 viral music video.
“Fortnite” makes clear that skins and emotes add nothing to a player’s chances of winning. A note on the shop’s page warns: “These items are cosmetic only and grant no competitive advantage.”
“They’re purely aesthetic,” says Nelson Le, 21, a University of Maryland computer science major and avid “Fortnite” player. Acquiring emotes is purely a marker of personal style, he says: “It adds another level of personality to the game.” Once, after he’d been killed, “someone emoted on my body with the Salt Bae meme” — an emote based on the meme of a chef flamboyantly sprinkling salt on his steak in an artful ta-dah move. Le thought it was funny, and he added the salt emote to his others, including the bouncy “Boogie Down” and “You’re Awesome,” a crash-landing in the splits with a nonchalant recovery and quick double spin.
Le says that when he’s “in the lobby,” the waiting area where avatars assemble before the game starts, he might linger over some of his emotes, watching his avatar dab or drop into the splits, simply enjoying a performative display that collapses time into contemplative pleasure.
“It’s actually gotten me to learn a little bit about dancing,” Le says.
The “Fortnite” emotes are contagiously fun to watch, and they’ve also become fun to do, in real life. They’ve come full circle — drawn from life, re-purposed in the virtual realm and spun back to the natural world. Professional athletes have been know to bust some “Fortnite” moves as victory dances, most notably England’s soccer player fan Dele Alli. After scoring against Sweden in last July’s World Cup quarterfinal, the “Fortnite” fan wiggled his knees in the “Ride the Pony” emote, “Fortnite’s” reference to the choreography of “Gangnam Style.”
The swift, punchy little emotes have also taken off with little kids, teens and young adults, especially if the avatar dancing is performed in place or confined to a tight space, with repetitive, staccato motions and gestures. You can find them on YouTube with hashtags such as FORTNITEMOVES.
Why have the “Fortnite” emotes taken off in the real world? After all, dance emotes for avatars are nothing new. Other video games have them, such as “Destiny 2.”
“It’s a function of how popular the game is,” says Dave Thier, a forbes.com contributor who writes about video games. “You see people dressed up in the skins of the game, but it’s easier to just do a few moves.”
As a highly competitive game, “Fortnite” has a natural fan base among athletes, Thier adds. “Athletes have a lot of opportunity to do dances and have people look at them, and that ties in to how the emotes are used in game.”
The “Fortnite” emotes may be a relatively new phenomenon, but they reflect a truth as old as the first human footprint. They tie into a collective understanding of the body and its language. A message is transferred from the player to the community, through an avatar that’s eerily able to conjure emotion through gestures and movements.
In the avatars’ mini-choreography, a dance is distilled down to its fundamentals, the smallest particles that make it identifiable. It’s like a visual scent, a whiff of perfume left behind in an elevator, from which you can resurrect a personality and even a story. The gaming experience gets a little richer from the aesthetic charge.
In however small a way, the dance matters.
“Without the emotes you wouldn’t have any fun,” says Le. “It would just be another battle royale game.”