I’ve thought long and hard about what the first sign that society is genuinely irredeemable might be. The event horizon. The point of no return. And I think this is it: The point where we cede control of the education and knowledge transfer from parents, educators, museums and the arts and give it to corporations that cynically see it all as content. So have I got some good news for you, friends! We just hit that point. We have tipped into the abyss and I genuinely think there’s no crawling back from this. Fortnite, in collaboration with Time Magazine and the Martin Luther King Jr estate (UPDATE: Apparently, the estate wasn’t involved at all, just the IP management company they have. The information out there that the King family approves of any of this is false. Figures.) have decided to turn one of the most important, iconic speeches of all time into content.
That happened yesterday, and Fortnite’s user base, infamous for being deep-thinking, highly respectful and inquisitive individuals, immediately turned the whole thing into the most obnoxious kind of “humour”. Here’s just one example. Twitter is filled with them, but this one encapsulates nicely what I’m talking about here. Just take a look at this guy and all the chuckles that were caught on stream, and try telling me that any of this is, on any level whatsoever, encouraging people to learn and pay due respect to the importance Martin Luther King Jr.
— engagement enthusiast (@notKHRIS) August 26, 2021
Now, for clarity, of course that’s how these people would respond to this content being made available in their content-driven game. This isn’t their fault. This is precisely the kind of engagement that Fortnite has been designed around from day one. Fortnite exists – exclusively – to erode sensitivities towards gunplay and gun culture by giving people silly costumes drawn from the most vapid examples of pop culture and turn stupid “dances” like the floss into a primary/elementary school phenomenon (no one seems to realise that pre-teen children aren’t meant to be playing Fortnite and therefore shouldn’t be inspired to floss… but that’s another story). At no point does Fortnite ask – nor encourage – respectful consideration. Certainly, absolutely nothing about Fortnite has ever been designed to get people to extend that respectful consideration to important events in society or moments in history.
In fact, the entire genre that Fortnite took mainstream trivialises something quite serious. Battle Royale – as in the book that Fortnite and others shamelessly steal from – was a bitterly written opus to anti-violence. The whole “trap people on an island and get them to kill one another” concept was a frustrated warning against a culture that would see exactly that as entertainment, written by an author that never bothered producing another book and faded into complete isolation. I have often thought that the reason the author slid himself into obscurity is precisely because people picked up his book and thought it would make for some awesome entertainment. The Japanese Battle Royale film was excellent, but then some trashy YA author picked it up and turned it into a media mega-property, and the suits making PUBG and Fortnite saw money bags flashing before their eyes. Fortnite’s very existence is an insult to the idea of sober, serious analysis and discussion, so, again, let’s not fault of the chuckles merchants on Twitch and elsewhere because they all engaged with Martin Luther King Jr’s speech in exactly the way Epic Games wanted them to.
I had a discussion about this with a good buddy that liked what Fortnite is doing here. His argument is basically that in the absence of anyone else giving these kids a decent education, at least this is something. And I do get that. I get that America’s education system is a deeply under-resourced cultural embarrassment that dedicates what little resources it has to indoctrination rather than education, and I appreciate that these kids might not otherwise have any exposure to this speech at all.
And there is, absolutely, a role for video games to play in teaching and inspiring people to learn. But all of the above has to be in the right context. I celebrated Ubisoft for putting “history modes” into its Assassin’s Creed titles, allowing people to travel around the game worlds without the violence and simply enjoy learning from the encyclopedias of research that goes into the making of those games. I was more than happy to hear that schools were looking at the potential applications of that mode, because it was genuine and considered, and put education right at the forefront of the project. I’ve said on many occasions that I’ve learned a lot directly from playing games like Samurai Warriors, Civilization and Nioh myself. There are absolutely ways to tackle history and serious topics in a way that encourages players to see it, and respond to it.
But again, context is everything and Epic isn’t the company for that. Epic is a pure case of laissez-faire libertarian ideology that respects nothing. From concept to execution, everything about Fortnite is pure capitalist exploitation, ripping any context and meaning out of the material that it shamelessly mines, and spitting back out content that has been scrubbed of any value beyond its ability to entertain a pliable audience that it then “subtly” nudges to be profligate with their money. Giving Epic content to use to educate is like encouraging children to learn about money by giving theirs to Wall Street bankers. There’s a conflict of interest there and education (and the children) are not the priority.
But you know what the saddest thing about all this is? It’s the fact that so many media outlets dutifully wrote this up as a positive (or at least neutral) thing. Why is that sad? Because it suggests that we are no longer properly affected by the words of Martin Luther King Jr, nor consider them relevant to our society. To be blunt: it’s no longer a sensitive subject. Even as we see such horrible treatment of black (and other ethnic minorities) around the world, we see that speech and decide that it’s appropriate content to be thrown into passive entertainment.
Do you know why I know that society, as a whole, doesn’t take Martin Luther King Jr with a deep enough level of sensitivity now? Here’s a hypothetical for you. Take a really good, hard think about this, and consider what the response would be if this came to pass. Imagine if Epic did exactly this same thing to a subject that we all still agree is hugely sensitive (okay, the rational 99.99 per cent of us). Imagine if Epic decided to recreate Auschwitz in Fortnite and let people do their stupid floss dances, dressed as Superman and the twits from Rick & Morty, while watching what was happening to the Jewish people.
The very thought is sickening, isn’t it? Now ask yourself why Epic’s shameless, self-serving exploitation of Martin Luther King Jr. hasn’t distressed you equally.
And so finally, to quote my good friends over at Shindig: Fuck Fortnite.