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Never heard of 'Fortnite?' Your kids have. Here's what you need to know

Jacob Tierney
| Thursday, April 12, 2018, 3:24 p.m.
With celebrity gamers like JuJu Smith-Shuster and Drake at the controls, 'Fortnite' is the hottest video game around.
With celebrity gamers like JuJu Smith-Shuster and Drake at the controls, 'Fortnite' is the hottest video game around.

The rapper Drake plays it. So does Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster . And so do millions of other people, many of them children and teenagers, all over the country.

“Fornite Battle Royale” is taking over the world. In January, developer Epic Games reported the game had 45 million players, and that was before the release of an iOS version.

On Thursday afternoon, about 250,000 people were watching Fortnite streams on Twitch , a website that lets people watch others play video games live.

Plenty of popular video games are released every year, but once in a long while one of them goes beyond the gamer crowd and becomes a mainstream hit.

“It's the few and far between that break so big that it's like, ‘Oh my God, everybody's playing it,' ” said Drew Davidson, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center .

Previous examples include “Minecraft” and “Pokemon Go.”

How does it play?

A game of “Fortnite Battle Royale” starts with 100 players skydiving onto a large island.

These characters start with nothing but a pickaxe and the clothes on their backs, and must explore the island to find guns, supplies and the raw materials they can use to build makeshift fortifications.

A deadly “storm” gradually engulfs the island as time passes, forcing players closer together as they move toward safe areas.

Unlike most shooter games, death is permanent. There's no way for a character to rejoin a match after dying.

The last player (or team, depending on the game mode) alive wins.

Why is it so popular?

There are many reasons, Davidson said.

The blend of exploring, scavenging, building and fighting creates dramatic moments people want to share with their friends.

“You're going to play, and you're going to die eventually, and you're going to have these great stories of how that happened,” he said.

This drama also makes it a great spectator game.

On websites like Twitch and YouTube, professional gamers play for thousands of adoring fans. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins set Twitch records last month when he played “Fortnite” with Drake, Smith-Schuster and rapper Travis Scott, attracting about 600,000 viewers.

When popular streamers play a game, it makes more people want to try it, Davidson said.

“Fortnite” borrows a lot of its ideas from games like “ PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds ,” which was released last year and also is wildly popular.

However, “Battlegrounds” was aimed at a more experienced gaming audience, with realistic graphics and violence.

“Fortnite” is more kid-friendly, with a cartoon aesthetic and gentler learning curve, Davidson said.

“Battlegrounds” costs $29.99, while “Fortnite” is free, with optional in-game purchases.

“It sort of polishes some of the edges to make it more accessible to casual players,” Davidson said. “It's just encapsulating some of the current trends really well.”

What should parents know?

“Fortnite” is violent, but the fighting is bloodless and cartoonish.

Because it is an online multiplayer game, kids can end up playing and chatting with strangers.

They also could be watching “Fortnite” streamers, not all of whom are appropriate for kids.

“Ninja,” the streamer who played with Smith-Schuster and others last month, apologized after using a racial slur during a later stream.

Some teachers have reported that kids are playing the game in class, particularly since the release of the mobile version, according to the BBC .

Greensburg Salem High School Principal David Zilli said the game hasn't been disruptive in school, but he knows how popular it's become, mostly because of his 15-year-old son.

His son wasn't much of a gamer, playing mostly sports games, Zilli said.

“And then someone talked to him about playing ‘Fortnite,' and I don't know if he's played a sports game since then. He's always playing ‘Fortnite,' ” he said.

The things kids could encounter playing “Fortnite” are no different from other online games, and the same advice for parents applies, Davidson said.

“Be aware of what they're playing,” he said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646, or via Twitter @Soolseem.

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