Fortnite Nerfs Martin Luther King Jr.

Epic Games and TIME Magazine have collaborated to create an interactive museum that whitewashes King's legacy.
Fornite Nerfs Martin Luther King Jr.
Image: Epic Games

Last year, when corporations scrambled to take advantage of George Floyd’s murder by police and the summer uprisings to offer proof of progressive values, it felt like we had reached the zenith of these types of performances. Enter Fortnite and TIME Magazine, which have collaborated to create an interactive museum honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. that feels more like a glitchy mausoleum.

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For a limited time, you can drop in March Through Time, a recreation of Washington D.C. in 1963 where combat is disabled but video and audio of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech blares from two spots: a large screen on a marble block raised in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and a tinier screen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his speech. Floating lights can be collected and teleport players to empty blue rooms with a recreation of an important place or scene. One is a Freedom Rider bus set on fire, another a diner that was integrated in protest of segregation, another is a segregated bathroom, and all feature small short descriptions explaining the relevance of the scene. 

On some level, March Through Time promises to be an interesting experience that might be educational for some. On the other hand, it continues a long and frustrating line of hagiography that limits and ultimately whitewashes King for the benefit of whoever is curating him. The “I Have a Dream” speech is his most famous partly because of its powerful and high-soaring rhetoric, but also because companies can simply point to it and assent. It’s much harder to get behind, say, King’s early sermons condemning America as a country plagued by great evils like rampant exploitation and oppression, or his later speeches condemning it as a callous imperialist power. Epic Games may see itself as confronting some of these great evils, especially with this digital exhibit, but that’s hard to reconcile with the exploitation it has done. The company itself, for example, has been appropriating and profiting from Black artists by selling their dances in-game without proper credit or compensation

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So, for the March Through Time, I got to watch some people listen to the speech, flash a protest sign as an emote, and dance a bit in front of videos of him speaking. In most lobbies I visited, the majority of players got bored or finished what they wanted to do and left before a quarter of the speech was even done.

There are a host of mini-games and puzzles that largely have little to do with the theme, aren’t particularly fun, and are riddled with glitches that make some impossible to play. You can play a game where gravity is altered to allow for higher jumps, you can push a ball up one flight of stairs, you can run around in a maze, and a host of other activities.

March Through Time was built by Fortnite map creators ChaseJackman, GQUanoe, XWDFr, and YU7A. TIME sees the exhibit as an expansion of another initiative it’s running to honor King’s legacy, THE MARCH, with two TIME Studios executive producers stating they hoped Fornite’s platform would allow for “​​the most significant impact.” For Epic Games, this is the latest attempt to furnish its "metaverse." What was originally a dystopian science fiction concept where corporate giants constructed digital retreats from a decaying reality has today become… well, that. With Fortnite, that has meant a number of concerts and musical performances, a growing number of licensed skins, and movie screenings.

Epic Games, which runs Fortnite, did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

“Civil Rights is a struggle we still fight for to this day, and it has benefited from the collective efforts of millions of people around the world,” the PlayStation blog post announcing the collaboration read. “We hope the March Through Time experience inspires the community to promote mutual respect and empathy towards all people no matter their race, religion, or orientation.”

“Epic Games and Fortnite’s community creators have been instrumental in bringing this powerful content to millions of players, and we are excited to enable the next generation to explore Dr. King’s historic impact in a new way,” said TIME Studios executive producers Tomi Omololu-Lange and Matthew O’Rourke in the TIME announcement.

Fortnite has attempted to deal with the problem of racism in gaming over the years, which is pervasive. It has implemented measures and rules, and run in-game events and panels. Everything felt a bit undercut when I jumped into another Fortnite Creative lobby for a community-made game that was much more detailed, much more interactive, and also featured hordes of children lobbing slur after slur at one another.