The stigma of being a default
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 **** 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 with 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 than having a standard character, otherwise known as a “default.”
Epic Games One of Fortnite’s many defaults. 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.
The pressure to purchase skins is everywhere in Fortnite
“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,” according to a parent on Twitter. Guy Diep, the 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 rumours 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.”