When he was 11 years old, Demis Hassabis was the second highest-rated chess player in the world for his age. His parents had taken him out of school to practice and focus on the game. During a tournament in Liechtenstein, he matched the Danish chess champion move-for-move for over ten hours of competitive play. They then spent four hours in a near-stalemate. Finally, Hassabis resigned, at which point the champion showed him the move he might have made to continue the match. The young Demis had an epiphany.
“It made me think, ‘Are we wasting our minds?’” he told Kirsty Young of BBC Radio decades later. “At that level of chess, they’re all fantastically smart people. What if we used that brain power for something more useful, like solving cancer or curing some disease?” Hassabis told his parents he wanted something more than to excel at a single game.
There are six signs a child may need the outside help of a coach or tutor, she writes, and I’m exhibiting most of them even before I fly down from my Battle Bus onto an island littered with other, more skilled players who only wish to see me dead.
First, I’m Lacking Confidence: Though I’ve played video games for thirty years, shooters aren’t my forté, so I’m on uneasy footing from the start. Second, I’m Consistently Confused: the start-up screen for “Fortnite” is a grid of menus and items detailing my Battle Pass rewards, level achieved, available currency, new modes, updated challenges, and both a shop and a store. All I want to do is play the game; I’m confounded and I haven’t even begun. Lastly, I am Not Managing Time Well: I should be writing this article but instead I’m loading up another round of the most popular game in the world.
“Hiring a tutor can assist your child to improve study habits, cultivate self-motivation, and keep pace,” Anderson writes. Which all makes sense when the subject matter is math or English. “Getting better at Fortnite” doesn’t seem like a reason for mom to get out the checkbook and fork over $20/hour to the local expert, but that’s exactly what’s happening across the country.
Varsity Tutors, founded in 2007 and home to over 40,000 experts in over 350 subjects, now highlights “Fortnite” as a subject alongside algebra and ACT prep. A representative for the company says they receive hundreds of requests for Fortnite tutors every day. The same activity is increasing across the pond, too: Bidvines.com, a UK site that contracts out local service professionals, offers “Pro Fortnite Buddies” to aid the fledgling battler.
Expert players have offered their services for years now, but “Fortnite”’s massive popularity has taken the trend into the mainstream; even Conan O’Brien is getting in his jabs, tweeting, “I’m taking Intro to Fortnite at the local community college.”
Some bemoan the practice, seeing the help as an unfair advantage given to privileged kids with helicopter parents. Others see it as an extension of all those hours of ballet classes and piano lessons: Time and money spent toward cultural edification. Still, others scream, “It’s just a game!” and barricade themselves up against the rising tide of a future they no longer understand.
To me, the more intriguing, and difficult, question to answer has less to do with “Fortnite” and everything to do with the feeling that pushes these children, and their parents, to seek out help in the first place. Why do we care so much if we win or lose? Especially in virtual contests played out on a screen?
Whether chasing a high score or a PUBG chicken dinner, players have always sought ways to excel. In 1982, the editors of Consumer Guides put out a book called “How to Win Video Games.”
“For the first time in the history of video games,” the introduction states, “you’ll be witness to the top-secret strategies of the best videogamesters.” They call the book an essential read for everyone “serious about their scores.” Just in case a potential reader hesitates at the till, the editors add a dose of the mystical: “This is a magical book.”
The gaming press has trafficked in hyperbole since the beginning. The subtitle of Stewart Brand’s piece on “Spacewar!” in the December 1972 issue of Rolling Stone says it all: “Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.” Our digital lifespans, momentary though they may be, have always inspired fanaticism. And indeed Brand’s piece feels wholly contemporary. Manic utterings of the game-obsessed rarely go out of style, it appears; a snippet of the transcript from his time at the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics forty-six years ago could have been recorded during a “Fortnite” chat session:
“Where am I? Where am I?”
“Okay, I won’t shoot.”
“You killed me!”
“Awshit. Revenge. Get tough now.”
But why such feverish attitudes toward a death that is fleeting and temporary? The easy answer: If you can win at a game, you can lose. And humans prefer to win.
“Why on earth would you play a game not to win?” says Tom Whipple, science writer for The Times and author of “How to Win Games and Beat People” during a recent conversation over video chat. “It seems completely ludicrous.”
Video games are well suited to ensnare players in their unique ouroboros of success and failure. There’s very little friction when losing demands only a simple press of the start button to reanimate yourself and try again. But that ease of resurrection does not explain our continued obsession with not only playing, but playing well.
In 1985, Japanese publisher Tokuma Shoten’s strategy guide for “Super Mario Bros.” was a number one bestseller. Even today, in our world of instant access to online forums and YouTube videos, publishers such as Prima and BradyGames put out detailed guidebooks for major releases. The appetite for information on how to play video games better has never waned.
And now those same kids who grew up playing Asteroids and Pac-Man have kids of their own. The new proving grounds aren’t black starfields stationed in darkened arcades but virtual playgrounds accessible on the home TV, office computer, or even our personal phone. The stakes, though, remain the same: Win or be cast aside as lesser-thans. And with some parents viewing their offspring as a second chance at childhood, a kind of vicarious replay of a game already finished, they take whatever steps necessary to make sure their spawn succeed, happy to spend money and time to help their children attain mastery: Not in the art of dance or a wicked curveball, but on the crowded islands of “Fortnite.”
“It feels like a psychological flaw in human evolution,” Whipple tells me, “that we, [especially] men, look for ways to improve our positions in particular hierarchies.” But there’s something almost noble about this new trend of parents hiring gaming tutors, he says.
“Normally when you find parents are doing this in a slightly creepy, obsessive way, it’s because it’s going to improve their status,” Whipple says. “Everyone likes having a child who will play tennis at Wimbledon or go to Harvard or something.” But to many of these parents, few bragging rights come from glomming onto their kids’ gaming talents, even if it was their salary that paid for it. “In that sense, it’s a slightly altruistic act,” Whipple says, “something to give your child social standing amongst its peers.”
As a new parent, I understand the compulsion to want the best for your child. The fact that video games, once derided by misunderstanding moms and dads as the devil’s work or brainless time wasters, are seen as worthy pursuits alongside the more traditional arts is somewhat mollifying. We don’t see games as strange or dangerous but familiar, a potential point of shared interest. Where once aged ballerinas put their kid in ballet class or Miles Davis wannabes stuck their young in trumpet lessons, now maturing players are proselytizing the form to their gamer kin.
But introducing Master Chief to an eight-year-old by firing up your original Xbox is a bridge apart from hiring a $20/hour coach to aid and abet. So why the sudden interest in the next generation’s skill ceiling? Another easy answer: Money.
The site e-Sports Earnings has tracked the amount of money paid out during official tournaments since 2012. In the last six years, they’ve recorded over $460 million of earnings. That may seem like a big payday, but consider their player pool of an estimated 50,000 competitors. Do the necessary math and your average lifetime payout comes to $9,200 per player. That’s a good summer job, not a 401k replacement.
As a parent himself, Whipple would be concerned over the value of his dollar. “If you’re going to tutor your child to be extremely good at something, it doesn’t strike me as a good long-term investment. The chances of [Fortnite] being relevant and popular in two years, let alone twenty years, are pretty slim.” Some esport titles have endured: “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive,” “League of Legends,” and “DOTA 2” have all been played competitively for years. But “Fortnite” only came out in 2017. If the fad runs its course, all those tutoring hours will add up to “a pretty niche skill set,” Whipple says.
Still, I can understand why this game, in particular, has engendered such loyal and obsessive players. The battle royale format lends itself to an all-consuming desire to decimate your opponents. In single-player games, you are often pitted against a sequence of curated obstacles placed there by the game designer. The challenge is to overcome an abstract gauntlet.
But in multiplayer games, your foe is another human: The challenge becomes intrinsically and immediately personal. “Fortnite” and its ilk, framed as tests to be the last player standing, rewards the individual above all else: There can be only one. To be that final competitor is to soak up all the glory for yourself. Such a spotlight exerts a mighty pull. And it never stops shining.
Sarah Needleman, the Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote the “Fortnite” tutoring story, told NPR: “[Games] can last indefinitely. It’s not like watching a movie that has a beginning and an end. You could be at it for quite some time.” The Mobius strip shape of so many popular games, especially those played against others online, creates a near-infinite possibility space: If you deem it important enough, you could play, and practice, forever.
“There are some people who like working out the best way to win a game as a genuine mathematical problem,” Whipple says, giving the example of scientists who have written their dissertation on ‘Risk’ and the boardgame’s complex variables. Others use games like Rock, Paper, Scissors to study human psychology: “I spoke to scientists who did massive studies but it wasn’t because they were interested in the game, it was because they wanted to see how humans tick.”
Multiplayer online games like “Fortnite” allow each kind of player their particular obsession. For some, it’s finding the best possible upgrade path to maximize your performance; for others, they want to engage with their fellow players in whatever chaotic or helpful way they can. Each match is a new burst of endorphins. And in a last-one-standing competition, the better you are, the longer the high lasts.
But sometimes there’s little reason behind our madness. “Some people are just willing to absolutely single-mindedly dedicate themselves to something,” Whipple says.
Kurt Steiner holds the world record for most skipped stones in a row. “The guy sat down and thought, ‘I am going to become the best stone-skipper in the world,’” Whipple told me. “Then he left his job, spent five years and ended up getting [almost] a hundred stone-skips in a row. That wasn’t for money. It wasn’t for status. It was for something else.”
The ‘Fortnite’ tutoring craze seems driven by those simpler goals: from higher social-standing in class to the promise of monetary awards at official tournaments. Epic Games, the developer of “Fortnite,” aims to give away $100 million in prize money by the end of 2019. And more universities are starting to assign scholarships to high-level eSports players the same way they do blue-chip athletes.
But for the rest of us, our odd devotion to playing–and trying to master–games feels closer to that ineffable ‘something else.’ There’s little tangible reward. But we keep pushing anyway. Sometimes there doesn’t have to be a reason. To the average teen getting help from an hourly tutor, Whipple suggests you look inward for your reward.
“There are people for whom there is a simple joy in winning–in working out how to win,” says Whipple, “but it can very quickly tip over into simply wanting to win, and ultimately, perhaps seeing your life slipping away as a result.”
The 11-year-old Hassabis saw his future slipping away in that moment surrounded by chess masters in Liechtenstein. Such a singular focus distracted him from what he really cared about: intelligence and imagination. So he put away the chess board. He went back to school, studying computer science and design. He worked for Bullfrog Productions, programming the original “Theme Park” alongside Peter Molyneux, helping create the influential simulation. Years later, he would co-found DeepMind, a research lab studying artificial intelligence that Google bought in 2014 for over $500 million.
“Fundamentally, our entire existence is pointless,” Whipple reminds me, “so how we fill our time between being born and dying is nobody else’s business. And if people want to get good at a very specific thing, then why the hell not?”