Fortnite is one of the most popular online games ever for young gamers. This sentiment isn’t just because of its enormous player count – Fortnite’s fluctuating daily average tends to land somewhere between 6 and 12 million players – but also because it is deeply accessible. Fortnite’s cost of entry is a new-ish phone and a decent WiFi connection.
It theoretically shouldn’t have come to anyone’s surprise that TIME Studios chose it as the platform to deliver its March Through Time project, which brought Martin Luther King, Jr’s seminal ‘I Have a Dream ‘ speech to the battle royale game. But considering the cartoonish youthfulness we tend to associate with Fortnite, it was. Black people were especially vocal online in highlighting both its problems and its potential to spread a positive message; I personally believed that a confusing rollout and lack of foresight made Fortnite a poor choice to host this event. However, after experiencing it for myself in-game and talking with others, I’m more convinced by its intentions, if not its execution.
Every Fortnite Crossover Outfit
On August 26th, 2021, TIME Studios partnered with Epic Games to launch “March Through Time”, an educational project centered on Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech housed within Fortnite Creative (a mode that allows players to build structures on private islands and/or create custom games and experiences). This year-long event, acting as an extension of TIME’s “The March” VR experience (a virtual recreation of the 1963 March on Washington installed at the DuSable Museum in Chicago), celebrates the 50th anniversary of MLK’s speech by inviting players to a digital recreation of The National Mall. Once there, players can listen to MLK’s words while completing mini-games that shed more light on the Civil Rights movement.
The idea, according to Time’s announcement around the event, was to work with a handful of community creators to spread awareness of MLK’s speech addressing racial injustice. But TIME and Epic’s “March Through TIME” event wasn’t welcomed with open arms when it launched on August 26th. Quite the contrary, a lot of people were baffled when it was announced on Twitter (the common concern being that children would only recognize MLK through Fortnite). The disconnect was exacerbated by the suddenness of the event’s reveal and the lack of context; though the initial Tweet said “presented by TIME in Fortnite,” most people seemed unaware that TIME Studios had anything to do with the project. This of course led to speculation and a large portion of Black Twitter voicing a shared concern about respecting MLK’s legacy, which is hard to do in a game like Fortnite where a Xenomorph can kick it with Rick Sanchez.
Epic Games and TIME didn’t respond to our requests for an interview. Because of this, we weren’t able to learn what went into the planning and selection process (concerning the community creators) for the March Through TIME event.
This concern reached its peak after players shared videos of themselves dancing/using disrespectful emotes (like cracking a whip) during the speech (Epic subsequently disabled emotes for the period). Bernice King, MLK’s daughter, made it clear that neither she nor The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center had anything to do with the “March Through TIME” event. TIME partnered with Intellectual Prosperities Management, Inc., run by Bernice’s brother Dexter King, which ultimately controls the licensing of King’s work. It’s safe to say that things got pretty messy, pretty quickly.
Epic vs. Black Creators
The thinking behind Epic’s efforts drew more suspicion because the company doesn’t have a great public track record when it comes to the black community. It wasn’t long ago that Epic was being sued by people like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star Alfonso Ribeiro, rapper Terrance “2 Milly” Ferguson, and James “BlocBoyJB” Baker (among others), who claimed Epic monetized their popular dance moves without compensation. And while the lawsuits were withdrawn due to the plaintiffs needing to complete their copyright registration before filing – which can take a long time due to the Copyright office’s backlog – the idea that Epic could essentially take from creators without compensating them doesn’t sit well with black people in this space. (Regardless of the fallout of these potential lawsuits, companies co-opting black culture for profit without acknowledging or paying its original creators is old hat at this point). This sentiment was echoed by host, producer, and content creator Tamika “REDinFamy” Moultrie during a recent talk with IGN.
Tamika explained that, for her, there was a dissonance between March Through Time and Epic’s relationship with the black community. “It’s kind of like an oxymoron to me if you don’t have things put in order that MLK was about,” Tamika said. “Essentially, Epic Games can’t take advantage of black creators while trying to spread a message of equality.”
Tamika — who amplifies black and brown voices through her work (among other content, she hosts a series called Uncovering Black Women in Esports) — is passionate about representation and sees a pattern of Epic prioritizing white creators. She notes that its Icon Series – a collection of skins dedicated to musicians and Fortnite’s top content creators – was particularly unbalanced, and prioritized white creators over black. “When we see black people attached to Fortnite, it’s always because of an entertainer like Travis Scott or LeBron James, you know, having a skin in the game. What about the people who actually play the game? The people who built their careers off this game? That should be worth something.”
Epic Games’ CEO Tim Sweeney has also made comments that have drawn scrutiny from black audiences. In November 2020, Sweeney compared his company’s legal spat with Apple to fights for Civil Rights. He then doubled down on Twitter, asking his critics to confirm if he was “actually wrong” in comparing the two. As you can see from the responses to Sweeney’s tweet, his critics were quick to explain that yes, the comparison was incongruous to the respective situations.
TIME’s Target Audience
So what was it like, as a black person, to actually experience the event inside Fortnite?
Surreal is the first word I’d used to describe my experience. As I walked through a giant TIME magazine and stepped onto a miniaturized version of the National Mall, I was greeted with a video of MLK’s speech. It was playing in a small, closable window on the left-hand side of my screen and at various landmarks across the Mall so you could hear Martin Luther King, Jr’s voice regardless of where you went. There were plaques describing events tied to the Civil Rights movement and old photos that depicted some of our struggles. Some of them elicited an emotional response from me. It was evident that a lot of work had gone into creating this space.
That said, all of this poignant visual data was still nestled in, well, Fortnite. The Civil Rights-era photos were a backdrop to superheroes running back and forth to key areas. Interactive prompts intended to make you connect with the struggle – such as pushing a boulder up a hill – fell a little flat. Again, it was surreal, and it didn’t all sit right with me.
There were others, however, who more fully appreciated the goals behind March Through Time. Kahlief Adams, host of the wildly popular Spawn on Me podcast, valued the initiative as this was the first time he’d listened to MLK’s speech in its entirety. “I’ve seen it in snippets over the years,” Adams explained. “Like, of course you have because you’re a black person in America. We’ve all seen parts of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But I never really sat down and like, watched the entire thing.”
“After the first initial moments,” continued Adams, “the couple of people who were kind of running around and acting a fool [stopped], everyone just sat down and just chilled. It was kind of dope.”
Adams said that the gamification of historical events isn’t a foreign concept, despite the easy cynicism it elicits. “I know that there’s an expectation for everyone to be really cynical about the connectedness that you can have in a moment like this, with a game that is about building things and shooting people. But it is really awesome to be able to have whoever those other humans were at that moment that were sitting down with me. I don’t know what they’ve got out of that speech. I don’t know if they care about Civil Rights. I don’t know if they care about blackness. But they sat and they listened. And to me, that’s really important.”
For a variety of reasons, we can’t expect young people to be taught a robust education around black history. Adams sees massively popular online spaces such as Fortnite as an alternative when the education system fails, or when legal guardians are focused on more immediate tasks. “I think that people don’t remember just how much time and mental space is given or used up just around safety,” said Adams. “I grew up in a black-as-hell household. Like my grandma was raising fists and walking with Panthers. But that’s also not a thing that you sometimes engage with depending on your household. She was a single mom. She didn’t have time to sit me down and say, ‘Alright son, we’re going to watch the MLK speech from beginning to end.’ She was like, ‘do your homework and go to bed.’”
Developer Neil “Aerial_Knight” Jones explained that, while he understands the immediate negative reaction, he feels like the event was planned and executed with good intentions. “My thing is that, in general, I try not to get mad at genuine attempts,” Jones said. “[Epic] is genuinely trying to do something good. And sometimes they’ll try it and still be really predatory. But other times, like this, I feel like this one is a really awesome situation and a good learning experience. They made their mistakes but I hope they try it again. Maybe not with Martin Luther King again but someone else.”
So, Was the Event Successful?
Now the dust has settled, it’s hard to measure how successful the March Through TIME event was. One could argue just being able to reach millions of kids around the world could be considered a win, despite the criticisms. “I think it was a success just for it being a first of something,” said Jones, “and we can’t expect the first pass to be exactly what we want it to be. Because they are just trying to figure it out.”
The conversation surrounding the potential benefits of Epic Games and TIME Studios collaboration, and what another collaboration like that might look like in the future, is ongoing. That’s a good thing; black people should be given the space to discuss how we’d like our history to be presented. That said, I’m still not entirely convinced that Fortnite is the best choice. If an important message becomes distorted because of the issues associated with a given platform, then maybe that platform isn’t the right fit for that particular message.
My hope is that these companies will work on proving people like me wrong, and that black developers and consultants are given the power to guide these experiences. And hopefully, with the proper planning and foresight, these types of events will be better received. Will they ever enact meaningful, positive, long-term change? Maybe one day.
“I think, if you’re really being honest about all of this, it’s never really about did something move the needle at all,” said Adams. “The question is more, did it move the needle fast enough? And the answer will always be no, because we’re already 200 years behind.”
Kenneth Seward Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and illustrator who covers games, movies, and more. Follow him on Twitter @kennyufg and on Twitch.