Meritocracy and Battle Royale

December 10, 2020   •   By Brendan Mackie

BATTLE ROYALE GAMES have emerged as the artistic genre of the Trump years. In 2016, they were just another niche in the games mod scene, fanmade modifications to commercially released titles such as Minecraft. But since 2017, battle royale titles have constituted some of the most popular and profitable games on the planet, including PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds (PUBG), Apex Legends, Fall Guys, and of course Fortnite. The games vary in their realism, presentation, and gameplay; PUBG is gritty, for example, while Fortnite is cartoonish. But they all share the same basic DNA: they are multiplayer, last-man-standing competitions, in which scores of players compete in a battle to the death.

Fortnite in particular has emerged as a cultural force. Three hundred and fifty million people, most of them under 25 years of age, have signed up for accounts; a decent fraction plays regularly. Fortnite has major cultural swagger, too. In the 2019 film Avengers: Endgame, the character Thor, when he gets fat and depressed, sits around playing Fortnite with his loser friends. And Fortnite has returned the favor: this “season” of the game, “The Nexus War,” allows players to dress up as their favorite Marvel characters, such as Thor (now thin) and Iron Man. For today’s younger generation, Fortnite has become more than just a game or an effective marketing vertical; it is now a place to hang out. Young people play Fortnite together to show off their avatars, watch each other play, find secrets, and even invite dates to the prom. This April, over 12.3 million people played the game at once as part of a co-branded event with rapper Travis Scott.

The loading screen of “Fortnite” explains the basic rules of the genre

It’s easy to discount battle royale games as just another dumb thing kids do, alongside TikTok, vaping, and, well, listening to Travis Scott. Just to make clear what side of the generation gap your writer is on, I had to Google who Travis Scott is — he’s a rapper who also has a co-branding deal with McDonald’s that includes a Chicken McNugget body pillow. This generation gap may be the reason why we tend to lump battle royale games with consumer products like Chicken McNuggets, as shoddy commodities crafted to appeal to base appetites. But it’s a mistake to discount these games as mere crass consumerism. The sudden, explosive growth of the genre tells us that there’s much more going on here than kids shooting at each other for fun.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote his most famous essay about another kind of easily dismissible game: the Balinese cockfight. You might think it’s just a bunch of guys betting on fighting roosters, but you’d be wrong. Geertz believes that we can learn a lot about what it means to be a man in Bali in the 1950s by watching a cockfight (or by reading a thick description of it). In the same way, looking at the battle royale genre can tell us something about the experience of living in the declining neoliberal meritocracy of the Trump Years, where our hard work and striving seems meaningless because the decks are stacked in favor of the elites and the future’s fucked anyway.

The connection between the battle royale genre and a critique of meritocracy becomes clear when we look at the genre’s ultimate inspiration, the Japanese novel-cum-movie Battle Royale (2000). [1] Here’s the plot of the movie: We’re in the future. The economy has collapsed. Japan is ruled by an authoritarian government. A bunch of students are on a bus heading to their last class trip of middle school when they all fall unconscious from knockout gas. The kids wake up on a deserted island in a tumbledown school building. Their old homeroom teacher is there. Soldiers, too: all green fatigues, big guns. On a pre-recorded VHS tape, a woman explains the situation with the forced cheerfulness of a middle school sex-ed video. The kids have to kill each other. Only one survivor will be able to leave the island and return to real life. If they try to escape, explosives strapped to their necks will explode, killing them. Every few hours, certain sections of the map turn deadly; if you happen to be in them, the explosives will go off, and you’ll die. The kids are each given a duffel bag full of supplies and a weapon — some useful (e.g., guns, scythes), others not so useful (e.g., binoculars, a pot lid). One by one, the students are released onto the island, hapless and bloodthirsty. One by one, they die gory F/X deaths from crossbow bolts, scythes to the neck, gunshots, poison. One couple jumps off a cliff into a churning sea, holding hands, rather than become murderers. Most of the kids team up. They betray each other. They hide. They die. They kill. They run away.

A representative scene from “Battle Royale”

In a recent essay, Alyssa Pearl Fusek has argued that Battle Royale is a commentary on Japan’s “lost decade,” a time when the invisible compact between generations was breaking down. The life of a middle-class Japanese citizen was supposed to be a hard, rewarding climb up the ladder of success, from a good college to a good job at a big firm. But in 2000, after a decade of economic stagnation, the salaryman jobs that had once promised a lifetime of reliable employment were dwindling. The competition, however, the endless slog of studying and striving, was still there. The battle in Battle Royale is a bloody, explicit enactment of this grinding, near-pointless competition. The older generation grumpily yells at the kids that they just need to show up to school, work hard, and they’ll get their reward. But there’s nothing worth working for, not for most people. The kids are blamed for lazily slacking their way through the once-potent rituals of meritocracy, but it’s the older generation who are the real villains — they’re the ones who watch the kids kill themselves with pointless hard work (and kill each other in the Battle Royale).

The genre of games doesn’t just borrow its gameplay conceits — deserted island, random weapons, dangerous parts of the map, sole survivor — from the movie Battle Royale, it also enacts the same crisis of meritocracy, where there are not enough rewards to go around. Around 2017, when the games first took off, it was clearer than ever before that American meritocracy had broken down. The institutions that had once, however imperfectly, facilitated social mobility, particularly higher education, now promise only endless debt. The lucky ones — the influencers — seem closer to us than ever, their lives floating impressively by on our social media feeds. Yet most of us live much more constrained lives, as we watch our hopes for a prosperous, stable future evaporate. And then there is the constant threat of random, meaningless violence: fires, shootings, riots, the pandemic.

Battle royale games are the stories kids tell themselves about this culture of cutthroat competition. Just like the real world, in battle royale games only the one percent win. But these games are a fantasy in which this unequal outcome is produced transparently and equitably, albeit violently, a fairy tale about how the meritocracy should really work. Though it is tough, brutal, and difficult, it is fair; and though you have only a small chance of winning, the forces that oppress you are not unseen — they are clear and distinct. The decks are not stacked: everyone has the same health, the same armor, the same access to weapons and upgrades. You’ll probably die. But you will live and die on your skills alone.

Your skills and your luck. It’s entirely possible to survive just by luck. And this element of fate in deciding a match is a huge part of why battle royale games feel fun, even when you almost inevitably end up getting killed. Me, I’m a poor player. I have bad aim. I don’t really know which weapons are effective and which ones are trash. I have no familiarity with the maps. I’m pretty much doomed. But my experience while playing is one of constant, gratuitous possibility. As long as I’m alive, I feel almost assured that, this time, I’ll win. As I scurry around the map, dodging teenagers with razor-sharp aim, I don’t feel constrained, I feel high on the continued proof of my good luck. I’ve made it this far. Maybe today I could finally win it all.

The author enjoys a Victory Royale in “Fortnite.” Note that he uses one of the “default” skins.

My luck almost never lasts, of course. But that’s okay because, when you lose, you can simply spin the wheel of fate again. When you die, the game prompts you to start another round. There’s always another chance to be a member of the one percent, always another match, always another opportunity to feel that gratuitous proof of your own luck.

The author’s avatar blissfully floating through the air as he waits for the next game of “Fall Guys” to load

But there’s another way that battle royale games get people to keep on coming back to play, a feature that subtly undermines the egalitarian promise that skills and luck alone matter — progression. Each time you play Fortnite, for example, win or lose, you get XP — Experience Points. And this XP unlocks “cosmetics” — new outfits, accessories, dances (called emotes), and “skins” (character models). But you have to pay to unlock all of these upgrades. Kids being kids, the players who use the free “default” skins tend to get bullied. The level playing field is further undermined by the fact that some people can get really good at playing these games. Over time, “the meta” — i.e., highly successful habits of play — come to dominate the competitive scene. Once the meta of a particular game has solidified, there are basically only two kinds of players: the insiders who know the score and the newbies who don’t. This is a problem for all competitive online games, and it’s why the communities built around them can feel so incomprehensibly cliquey — playing the game requires so much common knowledge.

The makers of battle royale games have, to varying degrees, solved this problem by issuing frequent updates, new weapons, new gameplay mechanics, new maps, new seasons, all of which upset the meta and level the playing field once again. And the wider games industry responds by constantly pushing out new games that thrive on their novelty. And this is the final reason for the popularity of the battle royale genre: the truly successful games keep on throwing new stuff at you so fast, you can’t even tell that the game is rigged. You can never really settle into despair over being a perennial loser because you’re having too much fun learning the game as it changes beneath you. And if you do get bored, you can just switch games.

Battle royale is a genre for our new era of oligarchy and inequality, where we are constantly distracted from the system’s failure to make good on its promises by frivolous novelty, and the chance, the dim chance, that maybe we’ll be one of the lucky ones, finally welcomed into the ranks of the successful, the rich, the beautiful. More than just a survivor — a winner.

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Brendan Mackie is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, where is writing a dissertation on clubs and societies in 18th-century Britain. He hosts a podcast, The Making of a Historian. He is currently on the job market.

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[1] The most influential mods referred explicitly to the Japanese movie. Another novel-cum-movie that directly inspired the genre is The Hunger Games. The original battle royale mod was Hunger Games–themed, debuting in 2012 when the movies were a cultural force. Indeed, The Hunger Games is similar enough to Battle Royale that author Suzanne Collins has had to dispel rumors she ripped the idea off for her novels.