Epic Games partnered with TIME Studios to bring players an exhibit commemorating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in Washington, D.C. The timed, 20-minute virtual experience takes place inside the sandbox builder Fortnite Creative and arrives in time for the 58th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The biggest question following the reveal of the event was, of all virtual spaces, why Fortnite?
The two studios put players in D.C. 63 — a “reimagined Washington, D.C.” — in their March Through Time exhibit. According to Gizmodo, Epic said “The experience extends with museum-inspired points of interest, and collaborative mini-game quests you complete with others. These activities progress players through the experience and bring to life important themes of Dr. King’s speech: we move forward when we work together.”
While well-intentioned, the trending hashtags following the event revealed a different story about the way in which we organize conversations around civil rights and Black oppression.
Several images and videos circulated online, showing players dressed in all different kinds of Fortnite skins, flossing, dancing, and emoting in front of the many digital landmarks recreated for the exhibit. While innocuous, the conversation was quickly overcome by memes and satirical takes on the March Through Time event, and rightly so, considering the wacky brand that Epic and Fortnite have built the last five years.
There have been a handful of popular music events online in the game, from Travis Scott to Ariana Grande concerts, and dozens of franchise crossovers featuring different intellectual properties making their way into the game’s cosmetic store. The point is, how thoughtful a conversation could players have if the space in which a civil rights event is held soon transforms into a battleground between Rick Sanchez of Rick and Morty and a dancing hotdog?
Last summer, the video game industry was turned upside down by the murder of George Floyd and subsequent calls for action by communities of color across the U.S. Dozens of postponements followed and even more public statements promising greater support for marginalized communities came out of companies like PlayStation, EA, and IGN. Epic Games went as far as to remove police cars from Fortnite, but what last year’s displays of performative allyship highlighted was the disconnect between corporations and social issues on the ground.
For the first time ever, companies were actively tweeting and sharing the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, to the dismay of groups of toxic gamers, and were contributing to initiatives that would support people of color. The disparity in the video game job market was also examined, with foundations like Black in Gaming (BIG) calling attention to the lack of representation in the field. The organization is “a community dedicated to cultivating, supporting, and promoting Black professionals in the video game industry.” Their mission cites research that revealed just 2% of professionals in the gaming industry are Black, but when compared with the 13% African Americans account for in the U.S., the disparity becomes daunting.
I could just be an old man yelling at the clouds or caught up in the memories of high school lessons where Dr. King’s speech came and went. The March Through Time event was surprisingly well received by hundreds of players who took it as an inspirational moment in gaming. There were tweets of support and solidarity following the announcement from Epic that a prize would be included at the end of the event.
Ultimately, a virtual space like Fortnite could potentially offer a moment to discuss the travesties of the Civil Rights Movement but it can also become its own distraction, as trending hashtags have proven. Universities have been working hard on digitizing historical moments of Black history in the U.S. and have made virtual reality exhibits a thing too.
The digital landscape offers up countless opportunities to preserve and explore conversations of the past but should be done so with careful consideration of its surroundings. Epic Games and TIME Studios clearly want to educate players with an event like March Through Time, but are their players ready for that conversation? And if the answer is no, how can we help foster a better digital space to get them there?