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The attention economy is dead

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But Fortnite might have the answer

Video Game Manufacturers Show Off Their Latest Products At Annual E3 Conference Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The attention economy is dying, and it’s not pretty; there is only so much time in the day to pay attention to things, and we as a society have reached the limit. (By things I mean ads.) Fortnite, though, has managed to stay culturally relevant and even grow since its 2017 launch — which is unusual. And that’s because its creator, Epic Games, has figured out how to get people to keep paying attention.

“Paying attention” was a phrase before it became a literalization, before canny people realized just how much money time is worth. The advertising industry — and therefore the industries it supports, like the media — is predicated on the idea that if you’ve heard of something and have a positive association with it, you’re more likely to buy the product or the experience. And that isn’t wrong: people make decisions for reasons unfathomable even to themselves all the time. It makes sense to monetize humanity’s fundamental irrationality. (Sucks to the economists who peddled the Rational Consumer model of microeconomic behavior!) But the base assumption that the whole edifice is built on is becoming unstable, because what happens when society’s attention is entirely monopolized?

A recent report put out by the media and technology research firm Midia underscores that point: “[E]ngagement has declined throughout the sector, suggesting that the attention economy has peaked. Consumers simply do not have any more free time to allocate to new attention seeking digital entertainment propositions, which means they have to start prioritising between them.” The trend, they write, has persisted for a while, and only now promises a revenue slowdown — as told through disappointing quarterly results from a few of the major games publishers. “Arguably sooner than most of the games industry would have thought.” As Midia analyst Karol Severin says, “competition within the attention economy is now more intense than ever before.”

The problem is attention doesn’t scale. There is only so much time in the day to be advertised to; ads themselves are becoming less effective, because they’re now everywhere. When was the last time you consumed something that wasn’t trying to sell you something, or harvest your personal data to sell you things better?

Enter Fortnite. As the most popular game in the world — or at least the most well known — it represents a substantial portion of the attention economy. Fortnite is ubiquitous among the under-18 set, and its microtransactions have reaped billions in profits for Epic Games. It really can’t be overstated just how popular the game is among young people: it’s become a shared culture, with all the in-jokes, references, and coded language that entails. If you’re around two or more kids, the chance that they’ll do a dance from the game grows astronomically.

But Epic’s real genius is in how it markets to the game’s young audience: Fortnite is, above everything else, a place to hang out with your friends. That’s why it isn’t weird that Weezer is playing unreleased songs on an in-game island, and nobody bats an eye when the DJ and producer Marshmello plays a concert in a virtual park.

The game’s immense popularity, and its status as a hang-out spot, has its competitors in the attention economy worried. Last month, Netflix mentioned in its 2018 earnings report that “we compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.” As Polygon noted then, Netflix sees the game as its “stiffest competition” because, to the streaming giant, the most valuable consumer metric is screen time. If people are playing Fortnite, they can’t be watching Netflix.

That means the ads (and bands, it seems) have arrived. It’s not hard to imagine Fortnite turning into a place where the ads are unobtrusive yet ubiquitous, like in those hallucinogenic cyberpunk movies of the past. The game has already done promotional work for Disney’s release of Ralph Breaks the Internet and has introduced Avengers villain Thanos into the mix with little complaint from players. That might have been because the collaborations were limited-time, low-stakes, and didn’t particularly affect gameplay, unless as in the case of Thanos, you wanted it to.

Fortnite’s model, too, allows for these kinds of otherwise invasive changes. Every couple months, Epic rolls out a massive update that overhauls the map and the items featured — Epic calls them seasons, exactly like television. And each serves the same purpose: to bring players back for just a little longer, and also to stave off competition from other battle royale-style games. Fortnite’s latest update cribbed at least two major features from Apex Legends, the first battle royale from publisher EA. (Apex managed to find a wild 25 million players in just under a month, after a surprise, no-promo release; it’s currently the only real competition Fortnite has in the space.) “It’s not that it’s particularly better or worse suited for the attention economy than others, but it does strike a chord with generations, who typically have more time to allocate, which is why it is doing so well in the attention economy,” says Severin. “I believe it’s more a matter of a generationally cultural shift: Fortnite is among the first to build a truly successful business model of selling digital items which don’t give players any progress in the actual game. They are just cosmetic” Twenty years ago, he continued, people defined themselves by the clothes they wore and what they listened to. “Today, consumers’ personal image is in much larger part defined in the virtual world.”

That Netflix is even acknowledging Fortnite as a competitor is important, because it means that digital media companies are beginning to concede that growth isn’t infinite, and are shifting their ambitions in response. Netflix won’t release a battle royale game. (Probably.) But I’d bet they’ll continue to experiment with interactives — like Black Mirror’s latest episode, “Bandersnatch.”

While Black Mirror’s audience is mostly adult, it’s not a coincidence that the company has interactive offerings aimed at younger people, who are in the same demographic Fortnite has captured. Netflix partnered with the now-defunct Telltale Games for an interactive cartoon version of Minecraft: Story Mode. A Stranger Things-inspired collaboration was also in the works before Telltale shut down, and Netflix says it’s still “in the process of evaluating other options for bringing the Stranger Things universe to life in an interactive medium,” according to Polygon.

Fortnite’s eighth season started just a couple days ago, and the island has changed again. This time, there is a volcano with lava, cannons to shoot yourself out of, and a pirate theme; familiar locations had been replaced with new ones that players will sink hours into mastering. When I logged on the other day, the other players seemed better, somehow — as though they’d only just returned from playing another game somewhere else, and craved a return to the familiar.