Fortnite meets MLK

Learning about civil-rights history from the game that teaches you to “aim for the head”

In a game that involves running around in ludicrous costumes building protective barriers while people shoot at you constantly, a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. went over about as well as judgmental nongamers might have imagined.

The partnership between Epic Games, the company that publishes the wildly popular, cross-platform online shoot3er game “Fortnite” and Time Magazine is called “March Through Time.” It’s meant to be a sobering, educational, inspirational virtual event timed to the anniversary of the Aug. 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. The virtual-museum addition transports players to the Lincoln Memorial where they can listen to King’s speech, explore the area, and earn a “D.C. 63” spray.

Reaction has been mixed; some applauded the effort, if not the execution, in trying to expose run-and-gun gamers to some actual American history. Den of Geek called the online event more tasteful that it sounds even as it suggested the whole thing was the perfect storm to make “the Internet Cringe.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center and King’s daughter Bernice King said they had nothing to do with the licensing, but didn’t criticize the project itself.

But the biggest knock on March Through Time, apart from the completely expected bad behavior of gamers who will always take the opportunity to push the boundaries of good taste with inappropriate skins (costumes, basically) and emotes (in-game physical gestures like flossing, something Epic had to disable for the exhibit is the context.

Epic has already proved that it may not be the best curator of King’s legacy, when its CEO Tim Sweeney previously likened its lawsuit against Apple Inc. over app revenue to the civil rights movement (yikes!) and as one user reported, load screens for the game still include this out-of-context gem during the MLK event: “Aim for the head!”

The problem, to my mind, is that videogames are not particularly great at teaching history or contextualizing it unless that’s the core mission of the content. The “BioShock” series, for instance, brilliantly introduced gamers to an Ayn Rand-inspired, Art Deco underwater world where objectivism actually became a core mechanic of the original game. The even more ambitious follow-up “BioShock: Infinite” used a crackling story about personal regret play out against the background of American exceptionalism gone rotten.

“The Oregon Trail” may not have been super complex, but it did teach generations of schoolkids about the travails of American settlers. If nothing else, it taught many how to spell “Dysentery.”

Modern VR experiences like “War Remains” may not be as book-smart as listening to a podcast or watching a documentary, but they sub in sensory overload to make history come alive and stick in the brain.

But these examples all started with the goal of teaching while they entertain, of introducing gameplay mechanics to established American history. More typically, videogames use history as a setting or backdrop for bleeding-edge graphics and gameplay tweaks without offering that educational context. The “Call of Duty” series, perhaps the most consistently profitable game franchise currently running, went from an earnest World War II combat game, to an annual barrage of shiny weaponry and excessive multiplayer mayhem (it has a zombie mode, for instance). It went from trying to expose gamers to the horrors of war to either trivializing, glamorizing, or glossing over history, depending on that year’s edition.

Nobody buys or plays “Call of Duty” games expecting historical fidelity; it’s an action-shooter, the videogame equivalent of “Inglorious Basterds” than “Dunkirk” or “1917.”

But still, the games industry tries, and sometimes even gets it right. The “Assassin’s Creed” series, for instance, employs a historian for its time-hopping adventures. And the great “Civilization” series from Sid Meier is fun, educational, and has a lot to say about how societies rise and fall.

But the idea that gamers will learn about history by osmosis, or through a game add-on, seems like a longshot. Do we expect “Fortnite” players to take a break from their battle royales to learn about King’s dream? Could anyone handle that much cognitive dissonance?

“March Through Time” cost a lot of money and resources, I imagine; and maybe someone will be able to justify its cost. I, too, would like to imagine a twitchy 12-year-old wandering into the event out of boredom and a tiny bit of curiosity. I would like to imagine that kid hearing “I Have a Dream” for the very first time, of being overwhelmed by the message, listening all the way through, feeling the butterflies that many of us feel when we hear the man’s booming oratory, even today.

Maybe all that money and time opened up that kid’s brain, shot it full of hope and inspiration instead of virtual bullets. Thank goodness the kid heard the speech somewhere, even if it was in a game that may not line up with the ideals of the message.

If that kid’s worldview improved just one tiny iota, making them into just a slightly better person with a wiser view of humanity, I guess that would be something.

That’s my dream at least.

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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