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Bots are making Fortnite players question what’s real

Is that a real person?

A few Fortnite characters shoot at enemies in the distance Epic Games

When Fortnite Chapter 2 launched last week, players everywhere dropped into a match and claimed a victory royale. But then a rumor started circulating. Was it actually possible for so many people to have come out on top like that? Was there perhaps something fishy going on?

News articles started popping up, claiming that Fortnite’s battle royale mode had placed everyone in bot lobbies, and in the absence of skilled enemies, the game made it possible for more people to secure a dub. The conspiracy theory was the confluence of a few factors; beyond the new addition of computer-controlled characters, Fortnite didn’t seem to spend any time actually matchmaking for that first Chapter 2 skirmish. And, players remembered that Epic, the developers, noted that bots would now be more pervasive at the lower levels of play. The idea, which Epic has been doubling down on over the course of 2019, was to open up a cutthroat game for more players.

And so we arrive at the first big cultural moment for the newest chapter of Fortnite, which is largely defined by skepticism. Whether or not the initial conspiracy theory is true is beside the point. (Epic declined to comment on bots in the game.) But the paranoid outlook isn’t limited to a single match. Examining the way people talk about Fortnite now, you see this hyper vigilance and fear of bots nearly everywhere you look.

When players win or rack up eliminations now, they don’t always know if they “deserve” it, at least not in the way we might traditionally think about skill. And “skill” is a huge thing in Fortnite — it’s a battle royale game, after all, and that means there can only be one winner. But that exclusivity is at odds with Fortnite’s mainstream success. How can a game that everyone plays continue to capture their imagination if, most of the time, players will probably lose? Enter bots.

“I forgot Fortnite added bots and here I thought I earned my 6 kills,” one Fortnite player remarked on Twitter.

“It does not make me feel good knowing I am killing fake players when I eliminate a whole team,” one fan pleaded to the official Fortnite account on Twitter.

“Is it me or does it seem like Fortnite games are easy,” one user mused on Twitter. “I mean everyone I came across plays like a bot.”

“Y’all really flexing y’all’s kills on Fortnite when you know half of those were bots,” one wary player remarked on Twitter.

“I have felt much more capable in a firefight,” actor Joe Ferrarelli told Polygon on Twitter. But, he adds, “The hidden nature of the bots feels shitty.”

Bots aren’t flagged by the system. They have usernames that sound believable, and they wear fancy skins, just like a human player might. And at first glance, or in the middle of a frantic firefight, bots might appear like actual users. This resemblance has led players to look for warning signs. Video game critic Carolin Petit likened the experience to a horror game, because there’s something uncanny about cataloguing the behaviors of something attempting to resemble an actual human being:

I feel like some kind of paranormal investigator, cataloging the eerie behavior of this insidious new life form. I cross the island now and I see single walls tossed up here and there, something the bots routinely do but that’s unusual for human players. Often a single wall in a structure will be destroyed, leaving a gaping hole, where most players would have just used the door. Sometimes you’re in a place where treasure chests have been looted, and you can just tell based on what’s been picked up and what hasn’t that whoever–or whatever–opened that chest wasn’t human. This haunted feeling follows me everywhere in the game now.

Folks aren’t just concerned about whether or not the people they’re killing are actual bots. They’re also worrying about whether or not they look real to other people, especially at the lower echelons. If you make a mistake, or play terribly, will someone confuse you for a bot?

The result is that players are sharing “foolproof” methods to determine whether or not you are playing with real people.

Others, meanwhile, are taking advantage of so-called bot behaviors to trick people into lowering their guards. This sort of thing has always existed in the game, but before, the aim was to make people believe you were a “default” — that is, a newbie player who hasn’t bought a skin yet. Now it’s about imitating pre-programmed behaviors that may not look natural, rather than simply looking unskilled.

Of course, it would be reductive to say that bots are hated or disliked by the Fortnite community at large. Some aficionados say they don’t like bot lobbies, because it’s never as interesting or as rewarding as dominating other real people. But there are also plenty of players out there who see bots as a boon.

Inevitably, as multiplayer games grow older, the skill gap widens. Those who play throughout the lifespan of a game become monsters to more casual players who may not have the time or inclination to get better at the game. Jumping into a game like Fortnite, where shooting at an experienced player suddenly means witnessing the instant creation of a protective tower, can be an intimidating experience. But Epic may have finally figured out how to level the playing field with the new season, thanks to a total map and mechanical refresh that goes way beyond the inclusion of bots. Those additions, along with a lack of patch notes for new updates, means that everyone is more or less starting off from the same place once again.

“I actually have a chance of winning now,” Twitter user funkarius told Polygon. “Before skill-based matchmaking I would get bopped by sweats in almost every single match. It’s hard to get better when I’m outmatched every time.”

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