My wife and I finally broke down allowed my sons to download and play Fortnite. The major reason for this was that online gaming seemed to be a great way for our two older boys (10 and 7) to play with their friends. Boy has this been true. After the first couple of days (which were over Spring Break) we finally had to put some limits on the amount of time on the game. I know this probably ruins my street cred in the EDU Gamification community but experience has shown that our boys need to have these limits. (Differentiation and Personalization… Am I right?)

While my kids are enjoying the game I have been struck by some observations that might have some classroom implications. First is that the main draw is not really the game. After the 1st day the boys have mostly given up on the Solo Battle Royale games and prefer the Squad Modes with friends or, in a pinch, a Duo mode with each other. The Relatedness Community Motivator seems to be the main driver of motivation. My oldest son has a system worked out where he can FaceTime with his 2 best friends and they chat and laugh and throw out wierd quotes to each other. When one of the group has to leave the fun is pretty much over and the others pretty quickly sign off.

The other big thing I notice about the game is what I would guess Yu-kai Chou’s Octalysis would call Black Hat Gamification.

I’m this framework Black Hat means exploitation. From Yu-kai Chou’s post linked above: “Black Hat Core Drives, make us feel obsessed, anxious, and addicted.” After watching my sons’ and their interactions with Fortnite I can see how Fortnite’s “Free” model exploits users through this Black Hat design to wring real world dollars from players.

One of Capitalist Tech’s greatest tricks has been figuring out ways to have people pay for things without having to hand over physical cash. Try paying for items using only cash for a week and you will be shocked how much more psychic pain is associated with handing over physical money than swiping a debate card. Tech companies exploit this “ease” of spending digital money constantly – debate cards, PayPal, One-Touch Payments, iTunes Credits, and… V-Bucks.

An example of the Fortnite Item Store

If you are not familiar with V-Bucks, these are the digital currency that are bought with real world currency. Players can spend V-Bucks to but new outfits, weapon skins, hair cuts, and other aesthetic changes. Unlike some other games it doesn’t seem like the V-Bucks can purchase game advantages but, as my 10 year old told my wife incessantly, it can by a Battle Pass.

After the 1st day of playing with his friends oir 10 year old went to his room, took $10 out of his piggy bank and asked his mother to buy him enough V-Bucks to purchase the Season’s Battle Pass. This is a set of missions and challenges that, if completed, will allow the player to move up a series of tiers. There seems to be 100 tiers. The player wants to go up the tiers because each tier unlocks little rewards like a new haircut, a special weapon skin, some clothing item, or even a new character model. When a player is new to the game the are given a set of basic tools and either a male or female default characted. Within 2 or 3 playing sessioms the group of friends were referring to other players as “noobs” or “defaults” and the basic character model was a dead giveaway. The dread and scorn in my sons’ voices as they were killed by a “default” was palpable. Of course they did not want to be thought of as a Noob so they HAD TO buy V-Bucks so they could get new characters and clothes and hairstyles. My wife and I asked my son to wait while we checked it out. I swear every 15 minutes he asked if we had figured it out. We wanted him to wait in case this would blow over. But my god after 18 hours or so we caved and bought him the V-Bucks so he could by the Battle Pass.

We thought this would satiate the desire. We were wrong. The tiers release a few items at a time and they are not always tge most desired items. Within a day we were getting bombarded with requests for more V-Bucks because there was a sweatshirt that everyone else was wearing. Fortnite has figured out how to rake in cash by preying on the darkside of social fun and weaponizing SAPS rewards.

SAPS stands for Status, Access, Power, and Stuff. The most powerful of these rewards is Status because it is the longest lasting and hits a deeper internal drive. This is followed by Access, the desire to have access something others do not, then Power (over others or the game), and finally stuff. Through the Battle Pass the players get stuff but that isn’t the reward – it is actually the Access to the stuff as well as the visual Status that the stuff represents. If my son has an Agent Peely (can’t believe I typed that) he is showing hes not a Noob. Fortnite obviously knows that this is a powerful and potentially moneymaking motivator. They give away their understanding of this with the Battle Pass. For an extra $15 the player can START at level 25 rather than level 1. “Prove you aren’t a Noob by giving us your real cash”. Individual items can be bought with V-Bucks too. Players can show off their individuality by purchasing their own style. That sweatshirt my boy wanted would have cost FIVE real dollars! Of course, Fortnite charges V-Bucks so my boys dont have to think,of it as money…. It’s just V-Bucks. They designers have added a layer between the cash and the spemding which helps remove the mental difficulty of spending.

In thinking about the classroom, I wonder when we as teachers weaponize Social Fun in a way similar to Fortnite’s money making scheme. Obviously we aren’t charging money for kids to get get special books or badges they can show off to their friends. But I need to do some reflection on when I use peer pressure to manipulate students to my ends. This whole thing is making me reconsider some of the items that I have placed in my game that may use social pressure as a motivator. I don’t think a complete ban is necessary but I am concerned about items that may have the potential to cross a line between playful and possibly harmful.