Playing ‘Fortnite’ on a phone makes me feel old

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Playing Fortnite on a phone makes me feel old.

As you may or may not have heard, Fortnite, Epic Games’ free-to-play Battle Royale shooter, has become the most talked-about game in and, more importantly, outside of enthusiast gaming circles. Drake plays it. A college basketball player compared it to upsetting a top-ranked team in the NCAA tournament. It’s … getting around. Now that Fortnite is coming to iOS and Android, one can (and probably should) assume the mobile version will become the definitive Fortnite experience.

Having spent a little time with the iOS beta, I have zero interest in playing Fortnite on a phone.

Having spent a little time with the iOS beta, I have zero interest in playing Fortnite on a phone. It looks great and runs well, but it relies on a familiar control scheme that’s kept shooters and other action-heavy games from making waves on phones. The controls, which include digital joysticks and buttons, make you sift through menus on the fly using the same vague tap-and-drags that controls your aiming and shooting. I think it’s imprecise and frustrating, and while I admire the effort Epic put into making the game run on mobile, I’ll always consider the PC and console versions the “real” game.

Here’s the thing: I know I’m wrong. I know that many, many players do not have my hang-ups. I’ve been playing with people who work Fortnite on a phone with skill and accuracy that far exceed what I can do with a controller. (Fun fact: I’m not great at Fortnite). The difference far exceeds the skill gap between us. They show a technical fluency that I would argue the game’s control scheme prevents. It’s not just that they are better at Fortnite on iOS, or even that they’re better at playing games on a phone than I am. They can act on instinct, and I cannot.

I’m 31. I wasn’t born with a phone in my hand, and it is not an extension of being the way it is for those who grew up swiping and tapping. That’s the real problem.

I know this because I’ve seen this divide before. My parents tried to play video games with me as a kid, but they never felt comfortable with an NES or SNES gamepad. Even if they studied the manual and learned every special move in my Street Fighter II strategy guide, I was faster and understood the game better. They’d always lose.

Now I am fumbling my way through Fortnite against phone-native kids, teens, and neurologically flexible adults. I grew up with a controller in my hands, but didn’t have a smartphone until I was, biologically speaking, an adult. I didn’t have to learn a controller, because it just made sense. When I bought my first iPhone in 2008, I had to look up guides on how to change settings. I had to learn, slowly and deliberately, how to use it.

Playing Fortnite on a phone has forced me to accept I am going to die someday.

Everyone reaches a point in life where new technology feels more difficult to learn. For me, Snapchat was the first, startling example. I saw people using it. I was interested, but I hated the UI and didn’t see the value in integrating it into my life. “If I make the time to take a picture, I want to keep it,” I once declared out loud, though to who, if anyone, I can’t remember. Snapchat didn’t enhance my life, but for a younger generation of people raised on the social web, where all content is disposable, Snapchat (and Instagram Stories) made immediate sense.

The distinction between phone-native Fortnite players and my own fumbling skill is smaller, I’d like to think. I know how to play the game on a basic level. There’s no element of it that completely eludes me. It just doesn’t feel natural. That may be, in part, because Fortnite was made for PC and consoles first. I played it there first, using controls that I already knew and loved.

Despite that, I still enjoyed the iOS version of Fortnite. While it may not show the same shimmer and detail as you’d see on a PS4 Pro, the iOS edition doesn’t cut any corners. It looks like Fortnite and, for the players who can use the controls, plays just as well. The mobile game even supports cross-play with PC, PS4, and Xbox One. I would never be able to keep up players on those devices, but some of the people I played with seemed like they could. (Fortunately for me, Epic said Bluetooth gamepad support should be added to the mobile game later this year).

Playing Fortnite on a phone forced me to accept I am going to die someday. More importantly, it brought into stark relief a concept that critics often wrestle with but must often leave out of our analyses of games, phones, and other technology. Our understanding of each device we touch is informed by the devices that touched us. Fortnite is not formative for me, but it will be for millions of people, and that’s going to change the way we play.


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