By all measures, Fortnite did everything right. The battle royale-style combat game is sweeping the country, scooping up unprecedented numbers of players and raking in scores of award nominations.
Associate professor Celia Pearce, a game designer and scholar of games and gender, said that Fortnite was built to appeal to as wide and inclusive an audience as possible—a difficult feat for an industry typically dominated by young, male players.
But gamers who identify as female, she explained, are still finding it a hostile environment.
“If you go in and identify yourself as female, you are likely to get harassed in spite of all the best intentions of the game design,” Pearce said. “That really concerns me because it shows that this toxic male culture—which has gone unchecked for the past decade—is so pervasive that even if you, as a company, make a decision to make a more inclusive game, it’s not enough.”
To be sure, it appears that Fortnite’s developer, Epic Games, made a lot of mindful decisions along the way. Pearce identified four.
First, the overall aesthetics of the game—bright colors and cartoony characters—make it more appealing to a more diverse group of players.
Second, those characters represent a wide variety of gender expression. Pearce explained that there are female characters who are more masculine and male characters who are more feminine.
“Fortnite seems to have been very thoughtful about representation as far as character design goes,” she said. “There are certainly still hypersexualized bodies, but not the over-hypersexualization we see in other games.”
Her students in the course “Designing Imaginary Worlds,” with whom she had a discussion about Fortnight, “take it for granted that gender isn’t real.” For them, she explained, “it’s a foregone conclusion, not a controversy.” A broader, more inclusive array of gender identities in Fortnite, then, seems the natural choice for a young audience.
“It just brought home this problem: When there is a toxic culture around gender, then no matter what else you do—and from my research every other thing the game designers did, they did right—female gamers are likely to get harassed.”
Third, the game mechanics themselves foster a diverse audience. In the most popular version of Fortnite, 100 players are dropped into a huge fight to the death with only one survivor—and one winner. The game’s world is massive and fully open for exploration, and players can collect materials to build houses, walls—anything from which to defend or attack. This means that within this one game, players engage in exploring, building, and fighting, each of which is beneficial to their overall success.
“In the research I’ve done, it’s always better to have multiple play modes,” Pearce said. “If you want to design for inclusiveness, then you have to have diverse ways of playing.”
The flexibility of gameplay has also allowed for gamers to be creative in how they play—and how they win. For example, players can build and destroy structures on the fly.
Fourth, Fortnite designers decided to make the game for multiple platforms, including desktops, consoles, and mobile devices. Not only that, it’s free.
“It seems to be the case that more women and girls are playing Fortnite because it’s free and available on mobile, so it’s easier to get into the game,” Pearce said, explaining that gaming platforms tend to be highly gendered. Game consoles, for example, are marketed and used primarily by men.
Despite this design effort, however, Pearce said she’s heard from students and those on online forums that men don’t like it when women play.
“It just brought home this problem: When there is a toxic culture around gender, then no matter what else you do—and from my research every other thing the game designers did, they did right—female gamers are likely to get harassed,” Pearce said.
According to her, part of the solution lies in self-policing. But without community watchdogs or oversight from the gaming companies themselves, harassment can run rampant.
Noting the terms of agreement to which most gamers are required to agree before using a game, Pearce said, “People go into these games, sign this thing that doesn’t do anything, and then are allowed to behave badly without repercussions.”