Real Money on Virtual Items: A Visual Analysis of Fortnite Skins

On: October 29, 2021
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Long gone are the days when video game players were a marginal bunch of nerds. Thanks to the proliferation of high speed internet connections to many households, online multiplayer gaming has taken off massively, which has led to a much broader gamer base. Today we live in a world where video games are more mainstream than ever, drawing players from all age groups, especially in the wake of the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic. The global video game market has reached $152.1 billion in 2019, growing at a rate of nearly 10% annually, making it greater in revenue than film and music industries combined. They have become very much embedded in popular culture, with references in other art forms, especially in music and cinema commonplace.

Games becoming a staple of daily life, gamers have come to attach much greater importance and meaning to the virtual worlds they inhabit with their avatars, as they identify with them to a certain extent. So much so that, they are willing to purchase “virtual items” for their in-game characters, i.e. things in games that are of purely cosmetic nature -such as skins, clothes or accessories- and have no functional value; that “do not grant any advantages to their owners in the gameplay.”

In order to begin to get a sense as to why people would spend real life money on items that are merely decorative, we shall first try to understand what games and gaming means to people. Sheth et al. in their 1991 article have theorized that the choices of individuals are driven not only by functional value; but also social, emotional, epistemic and conditional values . It is therefore apparent that our behavior as consumers is also triggered by motivations other than pure function. Park and Lee have built upon this premise, and examined in-game purchases “in order to investigate online game users’ perceived value of purchasable game items”

People’s main motivation to purchase virtual items is to further their enjoyment of the game in question. Virtual items such as skins can enhance the player’s immersion in the virtual world the game takes place in, as they generally offer higher production quality possibly with better special effects. Another major reason is that separately sold virtual items provide a perceived increase in prestige and respect commanded in others; it serves as a status symbol, signaling that the bearer of the item is an important member of the community. They might also signal skill level, implying that the time or money invested to get the special item must indicate how good the player is in that game. Players may also choose to acquire exclusive cosmetic items to differentiate themselves from the crowd and express their individuality.

Fortnite is a prime example of today’s video game prominence. With a total registered player base of over 350 million and a record of 15.3 million concurrent players, it stands today as a pinnacle of online multiplayer gaming. Not only by virtue of its player base, but also through ground-breaking collaborations with celebrities, such as musicians giving virtual concerts within the game to record audiences. Fortnite manages to, more than merely staying relevant, push boundaries and maintain its integral place in pop culture.

The popularity of Fortnite skins seems like an indicative factor of Fortnite’s success as a free-to-play video game. For this reason, we aim to make a critical intervention on the phenomenon of Fortnite skins by performing a visual analysis of several Fortnite skins. In turn, our goal is to relate our findings with current debates and topics within the field of academic research on video game consumption and its implications.

To explore the questions, we attempt to look at the skins on Fortnite through direct visualization. Direct visualization, as introduced by Lev Manovich, is data “reorganized into a new visual representation that preserves its original form.” Instead of abstracting the skins into graphic signs or reduced charts, we aim to employ direct visualization as a tool for the intervention.

Up till October 2021, there are altogether 1,191 skins that are released or to be released on Fortnite. The skins consist of all specified and non-specified genders, and are inspired by various categories such as sports, animals, daily objects, mystic creatures, holidays, robots, celebrities, aliens and more. While a major part of the skins depict fantastical human figures in an array of imaginary outfits, many are essentially non-human or anthropomorphized characters. Mythical, eccentric, and utterly impossible in real life, these characters therefore highlight the virtual aspect of video games and serve as a reminder that the cosmetic items are ultimately infeasible in the players’ regular daily lives. Hence, out of 1,191 Fortnite skins, we selected every food-inspired skin and generated a direct visualization as an exemplary category that represents all of the designs. Through a thorough intervention of the direct visualization, we venture into the patterns of these designs, and analyze how the skins could continue to encourage and motivate virtual cosmetic purchases.

Figure 1. Direct Visualization of All Food Inspired Skins on Fortnite. Generated on October 26, 2021.

In the direct visualization above, the food inspired Fortnite skins are shown in their original forms with all details preserved. In the meantime, they are completely taken out of the contexts of the gameplay and thereof displayed as individual characters. When laid out in the direct visualization, it becomes immediately apparent that all the skins are still designed upon the base of a human form, while certain physical parts are either realistic representations of edible items, or completely covered in distinct patterns that are archetypal of the particular item. For instance, “Crustina” [Fig. 3] is a female character with the head of a grinning tomato. While her arms, torso and legs remain human, she is dressed in a red-and-white-striped vest and green trousers that are stained with tomato sauce. The image on her vest indicates that “Crustina” is in fact inspired by pizza. On the other hand, “Dappermint” [Fig. 4] is a candy cane that conveniently takes the peppermint candy’s original shape as head and torso, with human arms and legs attached to the character. In Buying the Unreal: Drivers of Virtual Item Purchase in Video Games, Syahrizal et al. discuss several factors in the playability of a game, one of which is attractiveness, that is “defined as the pleasure and satisfaction of players with aspects of the game, which are of interest and gain the confidence of the player. It increases the feeling of presence and enjoyment and creates higher levels of engagement.”

Figure 3, Crustina. Accessed on 26 October 2021.
Figure 4, Dappermint. Accessed on 26 October 2021.

As confidence and the feeling of presence comes to discussion, the food inspired skins become an intriguing subject – a tomato head or a candy cane body will not necessarily make a person more attractive or provide a self esteem boost in everyday life. Moreover, they do not grant any direct advantages in the overall gameplay. Nevertheless, the skins become desirable items sold for real money in a virtual world. To understand some aspects behind the motivation of cosmetic purchases, direct visualization can offer some clues. When taking a closer look, it is perceptible that 93.9% of the food inspired skins are depicted without a racial or ethnic representation, with only two of them depicted with a customizable human face (“Gingerbread Raider” and “Guernsey”). In Getting into the Game, Casey Hart examines the personalities of gamers and their projection in the video game avatars. In his findings, Hart discusses that “Subjects appear to use video games in order to experience alternate personalities, instead of projecting actual or ideal self into their avatars” and that “players may use video games more for escapism than projection of self.” In correlation to the direct visualization of Fortnite’s food inspired skins, it is arguable that these particular skins are a drastic and unusual step in representation of oneself in a game. While the color of the skins are already tunable in Fortnite, most of the food inspired skins completely omit the concept of race and ethnicity. The players therefore have the option to express themselves creatively, and freely choose their identities in ways that are not affected by stereotypes or cultural backgrounds – a nearly impossible mission in the real world. With the increasing awareness and global discussions of the racial conflicts and non-binary popularities, these sexually ambiguous and racially obscure skins might also be a correspondence that reflects these issues.

Upon closer inspection, it is also noticeable that one skin can develop into multiple enhanced versions and alternatives. “Peely” is a popular skin in Fortnite that was first released in February 2019. The skin depicts a slightly peeled banana with a wide set of beady eyes and a smile. The original “Peely” is not dressed or accessorized in any special costume. Yet through the direct visualization [Fig.1], “Peely”’s character forms a recurrent pattern, as the skin evolves into “P-1000, “Agent Peely”, “Peely Bone”, “Potassius Peels”, and “Unpeely”. [Fig. 4]

Figure 4, Peely and variants of Peely. Generated on October 26, 2021.

The “Peely” character in the game narrative goes through various phases and encounters challenging scenarios, as revealed by a special Loading Screen called The Ripening Ritual in Fortnite’s gameplay. In Season 9, “Peely” was blended into a smoothie, and was able to develop into “P-1000”, a namesake of T-1000 in Terminators, after dressed in a robot suit designed by another character in the game. “Peely Bone” was also introduced in Chapter 2, followed by Agent Peely who could dress in a secret agent black suit. Afterwards, in Season 3 of the Chapter, “Peely” peels himself off, and enjoys the summer dressed in beach shorts and a straw hat as “Unpeely”. In An Odyssey into Virtual Worlds, Animesh et al. argue that “participants’ interaction with a virtual world is enacted through the actions of their avatars.” Thus, the pattern of “Peely” in the direct visualization illustrates the interactivity of the gameplay behind the skins – as the basic skin experiences a myriad of events, the players who identify with the skin immerse themselves in the virtual adventure as well and follow the narrative of Peely himself. The purchases of the “Peely tribe” then transform into an extension of a self development journey, which will bring more pleasure as the collection completes.

Before we can navigate towards any conclusion drawn from the visual analysis it is important to shed light on how the game mechanics of Fortnite are designed. Fortnite is a free-to-play game with no performance-enhancing items available in its in-game shop. This implies that everything that can be bought in the shop is purely cosmetic and only offers personalization and customization of one’s in-game character, including all the skins. As shown in the direct visualization [Fig.1], skins are categorized in different colors. These colors indicate the rarity of the skins ranging from grey (common), green (uncommon), blue (rare), purple (epic) to orange (legendary) with the occasional exception of a different color used for skins in special events.

A basic understanding of how skins are attained demonstrates a key element in Fortnite’s success in selling cosmetic items; through scarcity marketing. First, skins can be bought directly using V-bucks, Fortnite’s in-game currency which can be bought in exchange for real-world currencies. 1000 V-bucks cost around eight euros and the average skin price varies between 800 and 2500 V-bucks. Secondly, players can purchase a Battle Pass that enables them to participate in daily challenges and special events through which V-bucks or skins are rewarded. The latter approach of collecting skins exemplifies the way in which Fortnite’s developers, Epic Games, create the demand for skins. Epic Games employ a strategy of artificial scarcity where particular skins are only available in limited quantities, indicated with the earlier-mentioned color code system, or within a limited time frame in which one must complete a challenge to unlock or purchase them before the possibility passes. The fear of missing out on skins increases the interactivity and engagement of players. Moreover, the achievement of unlocking skins adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the gaming experience that plays a role in the meaning and significance of Fortnite skins.

Our main objective for this intervention was to relate our findings in the visual analysis of Fortnite skins to existing debates and potential topics of research in academia regarding the phenomenon of cosmetic items. Through direct visualization, we were able to categorize, depict and highlight aspects that relate to various topics of research that allow for further exploration. 

While this article does not aim to focus or elaborate on marketing tools, we found it relevant to mention this factor relating to the experience of skins. As explained above, the way in which Fortnite is designed contributes a lot to the value and experience of engaging with skins. The act of earning skins is directly connected to a player’s engagement with the game as it requires the player to be proactively involved in order to participate in challenges and events. This adds to the game’s experience as skins are to some extent indicators of achievement and dedication. 

An important finding we like to emphasize in this article is the notion of identity forming through digital representations of the self. In 1988 R. Belk coined the term of the “extended self” for the way in which we use technological devices to disembody ourselves and engage in communication and interacting through different representations. With technological developments, the concept of the extended self naturally expanded into the digital realm where we find ourselves with limitless possibilities of self representations through social media and avatars. 

“In the digital world, the self is now extended into avatars, broadly construed, with which we identify strongly and which can affect our offline behavior and sense of self.”

This idea strongly relates to the ways in which Fortnite allows a player to choose from a wide range of skins with the possibility to change into anything. One’s digital representation is not limited to gender, race, or even to living beings as showcased in the various food-related skins. The limitlessness of virtual characters embodies a certain liberation one can experience from engaging in a digital environment that is as immersive as the one of video games. Skins enhance the immersion of players into the virtual world of video games, therefore, it can be interesting to examine the psychological or social implications this can bring to light.


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