2019 was the year the young went wild for Fortnite. It achieved more than 250 million players and Epic Games (the studio behind it) was valued at more than $15 billion. Despite the various controversies surrounding it, there is much to learn from the game’s success about engaging Generation Z and understanding the future of gaming.

Fortnite gameplay isn’t particularly revolutionary. As a multiplayer third-person shooter game, its narrative revolves around an island where 100 players battle to be the last person standing. It is free to play, with the option for in-game purchases to update your ‘skin’ (your character’s appearance) or purchase ‘emotes’ (moves and dances). Fortnite’s distinction is in its social elements. It not only requires team play and strategy: in its online community, a virtual skin carries as much social currency as a new pair of Nike trainers, especially if supported by a network of celebrities and influencers.

To tackle such a multifaceted phenomenon, we designed a holistic approach combining video diaries with players to understand their behaviours, discussions with parents, as well as using semiotics and cultural analysis to examine the broader cultural landscape.

Our research revealed that the game’s success in engaging its audience came down to three main factors: how it is recycling and refreshing pop culture, its relationship with influencers and gamers, and embracing ‘virtuality’.

The pop culture cycle

Fortnite constantly draws from and uses pop culture, borrowing from a variety of sources, including: TV, cinema, memes and viral videos. There are numerous examples of this, but probably the clearest are the emotes. Take for example the emote titled ‘take the L’, which was inspired by the 2017 remake of Stephen King’s ‘IT’.

The game recycled an element of the 2017 movie without mentioning the original reference. Gamers started using the emote in the game and then took it to the real world where young people (some of whom didn’t play Fortnite), started doing it. At the same time new memes and user-generated content created new viral clips. When footballer Antoine Griezmann performed the move at last year’s World Cup the emote reached worldwide notoriety across new audiences, who were possibly not familiar with the game.

Looking to understand what Griezmann’s bizarre dance meant, many people discovered Fortnite and, possibly, ‘IT’ – or at least the relevant clip. This circle of pop culture references delights both players who recognise the references, and those who subsequently discover the original sources.

Fortnite’s relationship with gamers and influencers

Using pre-existing content without any explicit reference to its creators has naturally caused some controversy, especially related to copyright infringement and cultural appropriation. But Fortnite also offers an opportunity for the creators of this content. As a platform with more than 250 million players, the external content it uses gains exposure and is opened up to a new generation.

Many of Fortnite’s players are young celebrities and content creators who mention the game during interviews. Additionally, Fortnite has been able to include some of its audience’s feedback by adding skins inspired by memes and fixing issues in the game.

This creates a sense of inclusion which resonates across audiences who want to have a more active role in the content they consume and at the same time generate a cross-media phenomenon which transcends gaming.

The move to ‘virtuality’ – a trend for the 2020s

When young people spend so much time in a virtual world, socialising and developing deep relationships with other inhabitants of the same online community, their virtual accessories and cosmetics gain a very similar value to their ‘real’ clothes or physical possessions.

Although ‘virtual’ is often perceived to be the opposite of, or an alternative to ‘real’, new technologies and societal changes are causing these virtual worlds to become an extension of our everyday reality and tangible representations of our personas.

This provides a valuable opportunity for brands to think more holistically about how they use the virtual world. It isn’t just about targeted ads, they need to leverage the shift towards an online life. For instance, Fortnite holds ‘live events’ in a virtual space and last year more than 10 million players watched DJ Marshmello perform a live concert within the game.

Other brands are also taking note. Active Voice used an augmented reality experience where products virtually appeared in a platform such as Pokémon Go, where consumers could walk towards the items and put them in their virtual shopping bag. Meanwhile, Nike created a virtual queue for their Air Max product launch, where consumers created avatars to queue for a virtual sneaker drop, in turn giving them the opportunity to buy new products.

Virtual reality is now an important tool in the creation of events and experiences, and opportunities for new ways of engaging audiences multiply exponentially. The line between the virtual and the real is getting increasingly blurry, and the way brands will be able to leverage both will define how they will engage with Gen Z, and following generations.