Collaborating in Fortnite

Fortnite is popular for tons of reasons, but chief among it is the "battle royale" style of combat — 100 random players dropped on an island, foraging for defenses and weapons, and killing each other until only one is left standing. There's no in-game chat, so you have to assume that anyone you encounter is a threat. In such a situation, it's necessarily dog-eat-dog, yes?

Nope. As Robin Sloan — one of my fave writers and thinkers — discovered, it's also possible to hack a form of cooperation.

It works like this: Sloan unlocked an upgrade that lets you display a "heart" icon above your head. So he tried using it as a single-bit mode of game-theoretical communication. When he was dropped into the game, upon encountering another player, he'd refrain from shooting — and instead toss up the "heart" icon.

At first, it didn't work. The other player kept on killing him anyway. Until …

Then, one night, it worked. And, in many games since, it's worked again. Mostly I get blasted, but sometimes I don't, and when I don't, the possibilities bloom. Sometimes, after we face off and stand down, the other player and I go our separate ways. More frequently, we stick together. I've crossed half the map with impromptu allies.

When it works, it is usually because I have a weapon and my potential ally doesn't. When (shockingly) I do not blast them and (even more shockingly) do not pull a bait and switch, a real human connection is established, on a channel deeper than any afforded by the interface. Then, very reliably, when the other player acquires a weapon of their own—sometimes it's a gift from me—there is no double cross.

It's never not tenuous. You both have your weapons out. Sprinting down steep trails, my ally's footfalls crunching loud in my headphones, either of us, at any time, could flick our wrist and end the other's game, collecting their stockpile of weapons and resources.

But we don't!

When they're successful, these negotiations are honestly more nervy and exciting than the game's most intense shoot-outs.

As Sloan points out, being able to forge a detente in a situation where robust communication is impossible has some interesting real-world implications. One, as he notes, is that it refracts the "Dark Forest" theory of Liu Cixin, which argues that the reason we haven't encountered any other intelligent life in the universe is that they're keeping their heads low. They've decided that, given the possible hostility of other alien civilizations, and given that robust intergalactic-intercivilization communication might be impossible on first contact, the universe is essentially a game of Fortnite: If someone spots you, they'll zoom in for the kill.

But what if the same logic that allows for low-bandwidth-communication in Fortnite also allows for first-blush cooperation with an alien species?

The stakes of taking that risk are of course existentially rather higher than in a game of Fortnite, heh. But the fun here is, as Sloan points out, in pondering ways that two opponents might say "Hold up. Let's do this a different way."

Not a bad lesson for inter-human life here on Earth, frankly.

Go read the whole essay — it's terrific!