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Why young people with SEND love Fortnite

The simple answer: Fortnite is awesome. In this article, I give a psychologically informed account of Fortnite so that educational psychologists (EPs) can better empathise with the young people playing it.

Doing so will promote the voice of the young person and support EPs to take a strengths-based approach to their work.

What is Fortnite? 

Fortnite is an online multiplayer game requiring players to adopt the identities of over-the-top cartoon avatars, before engaging in various competitive and collaborative game modes.

The traditional game mode, Battle Royale, challenges players to battle for survival in an exciting virtual arena which progressively shrinks over time, reducing the opportunities for players to hide, and therefore forcing them into increasingly desperate (and deadly) encounters – until a winner emerges.

Video games as supernormal stimuli

In terms of psychology, Fortnite is – like most video games – a collection of “supernormal stimuli”. Supernormal stimuli are collections of natural objects or cues which humans respond to, but, when accumulated or accentuated, have a much more intense impact.

Take, for example, the monsters of horror fiction, which reflect legitimate cues for fear that come from nature: teeth, claws, disease, ooze, fluids, size, odd movements, (unpleasant) surprises and – of course – the dark. In fiction, these cues are accumulated and exaggerated into something “oversized” or “supernormal.”

A more pleasant example is shared by Ronald Riggio in his Psychology Today article. “Stuffed animals”, he points out, “are made with giant eyes—much larger than what would occur naturally… these giant-eyed stuffed toys are more attention-getting and more desirable to young people than toys with normal-sized eyes.”

Reframing Fortnite as a way of meeting psychological needs

So which cues does Fortnite play on? There are a few surface-level things, like bright colours, a ticking clock to play against, and a competitive drive to “be the best”. However, on a more complex level, Fortnite acts as a supernormal psychological stimulus which satisfies a young person’s basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and belonging.


Autonomy concerns how a person “accepts, endorses, and stands behind one’s action” (Van Assche et al., 2018). It means getting to do what matters to you. For young people, this often means having fun. 

Young people – especially those with SEND – have less control in their lives for a number of reasons, like their days being organised for them, sometimes with military precision. They are constantly “asked” (instructed) to do things that they neither want nor feel competent to do, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. As a result, their mental health is likely to suffer. 

When people can make choices which reflect their “true” self, they report increased self-esteem and greater well-being. When their feeling of autonomy is frustrated, they experience negative physical and mental health outcomes.


Competence is about feeling like you are good at what you do. People gravitate towards doing what they are good at because being able to impact the world in reliable ways makes us feel efficacious, and this feels good because it makes us more optimistic about achieving our goals. 

Unsurprisingly, negative competence self-perceptions (i.e., feeling powerless) have been associated with decreased health and wellbeing outcomes. Fortnite, being a video game, is skilfully designed to assess the user’s level of competence and tailor its level of difficulty so that it represents just enough of a challenge to remain interesting (without becoming so difficult that it becomes disheartening). 

Multiplayer games like Fortnite are especially adept at this because they use algorithms to place players in leagues and tournaments alongside similarly skilled players, ensuring that every victory feels like a genuine achievement.


Belonging is the need to feel part of a group that we care about and which cares about us. Belonging has been associated with increased self-esteem and decreased feelings of loneliness. 

Young people with SEND are often aware of differences between themselves and their peers and are often working against a “mainstream” school culture which emphasises traditional academic skills and ways of learning.

Fortnite allows young people to adopt a more confident social identity with the use of an avatar. Many of the most taxing aspects of social interaction, such as the unpredictability of other human beings and their myriad social cues, are smoothed over by a predictable and repetitive gameplay mechanic. Many young people choose to play alongside familiar players, including players they know IRL (in real life), meaning that games like Fortnite can provide a sanitised, predictable, and fun way of belonging without many of the challenges of real-world interactions.

EPs reframing and broadening

There are, of course, important discussions to be had about the risks of vulnerable young people playing games with an “open chat” function, and the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) rating for Fortnite is 12+. 

Taking these guidelines on board, I believe EPs can reframe and contextualise Fortnite’s popularity in a psychologically informed way. When playing games like Fortnite, young people are pursuing basic and universal psychological experiences of autonomy, competence, and belonging. This is no bad thing, and it may be that this helps adults to identify, share in, and celebrate what matters to young people.

That being said – just as we would try to broaden a young person’s diet who has come to depend on the supernormal dietary stimulus of fast food – EPs should encourage young people to experience autonomy, competence, and belonging in other important aspects of their lives – including while learning at school. 

Part of an EP’s job is to support schools to find creative ways of providing these experiences, and meeting these needs, for their SEND students.


Van Assche, J., van der Kaap-Deeder, J., Audenaert, E., De Schryver, M., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2018). Are the benefits of autonomy satisfaction and the costs of autonomy frustration dependent on individuals’ autonomy strength? J Pers, 86(6), 1017-1036.

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