The cultural ripple effects of this summer’s widespread and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd have gone to some unexpected places. It was not surprising, then, to see one of the biggest games around, Fortnite, eventually find a place to acknowledge its impact. That acknowledgement, unfortunately, came across as rushed compared to everything else in Fortnite, and with some very foreseeable problems.
The result this past weekend was a roundtable discussion about race titled “We the People,” co-hosted by CNN commentator Van Jones and others, streamed on a massive in-game video screen. It was a lot like a recent promotion for director Christopher Nolan’s new movie, Tenet, in which films like Inception were played in-game. As noted by my colleague Matthew Gault, when players watched Nolan’s films in Fortnite, it was common for them to goof around in a variety of ways, including using a nearby vending machine to throw tomatoes.
Throwing tomatoes at the screen when it’s Leonardo DiCaprio struggling with the meaning of reality is a bit different than tomatoes being thrown at the screen when there’s a music video about rejecting police brutality being played. And yet, it’s no great surprise that happened:
These special experiences in Fortnite do not happen in the normal combat area the game is known for. Instead, players are dumped into a special, non-competitive game mode where their interactions are different. In this case, the “movie theater” for Fortnite often involves being near a vending machine that can drop various items, including gliders, vehicles, and, yes, tomatoes. The game also includes an emote where players can toss tomatoes.
Did tomato slinging happen in every screening? No. Should Epic Games have rethought the area where people watch and considered what players might do? Probably!
Epic Games did not respond to my request for comment, as of this writing; an email sent to the game’s publicist bounced back, saying the developer’s offices are closed until July 13.
Prior to the roundtable, Fortnite had last acknowledged the Black Lives Matter protests by announcing in early June that its latest season of updates would be delayed “for the team to focus on themselves, their families, and their communities.”
“If you wanna know how the Fortnite thing is going,” said game critic Justin Carter on Twitter over the weekend. “I’m currently watching a music video showing police brutality and protests while other players kneel and someone just threw a tomato at me.”
In a Twitter DM, Carter told me they were disappointed the developers didn’t turn off weapons or find other ways to restrict player behavior for “a subject as serious as this.”
“Both times I went, people were just dicking around, which on some level I expected,” said Carter, “but I think it was the lack of foresight in that regard that makes something like this come across as hollow.”
Carter also pointed out how there was no such promotion for Black Lives Matter—just the video. In-game promotions in Fortnite happen in a variety of ways, and often include licensed “skins” players can purchase, such as with Kylo Ren and Rey from Star Wars.
This comes on the back of Fortnite’s already fraught relationship with the Black creative community, given how regularly the game has appropriated dance moves by Black artists without paying for the right to do so. The argument over whether it’s legal is different than whether it’s ethical, and the developers have so far refused to engage with this question.
Given how often the video game industry does its best to dodge the every idea of politics even as its games are awash in them, it’s something that Fortnite decided to host the panel. And maybe a streaming video, compared to an elaborate and beautiful and clearly expensive digital concert, wasn’t the best way to engage Fortnite's young audience.