The meteoric rise of Fortnite from a quixotic tower defense project to the biggest game of the world has been a heavily covered subject in the video game industry over the last three years. Epic Games, which was known for engines and Gears of War, is now known for engines and Fortnite in an overwhelmingly different ratio, thanks to a strong live-service team and a little luck. While the game’s transition into the world's most popular battle royale is notable, Fortnite's ascension to a virtual social space might be the strange inevitability that nobody saw coming. Moreover, the cartoony shooter is using its transition into a platform to actually do some good.
This past weekend, Epic screened the townhall documentary 'We The People' within Fortnite. The movie is presented as a series of conversations with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) voices in the media and beyond discussing the black experience in America. The film, which ran every other hour on America’s Independence day and was even uploaded to Fortnite’s YouTube channel, and it marked the first time Fortnite used its theater social space for something other than concerts or scripted theatrical movies.
We The People comes to Fortnite
I attended. I had no idea what I was doing.
Even for someone as lost as I, who had only booted up Fortnite for the third time, it was a simple enough process to figure out how to get to the social space where I could watch a screening. Sure, I may have ended up literally bouncing between jump pads in the concert area for a while, but it would not be a social event if I did not show up late and half-lost on the way. One of my few cold comforts is that there were other people running alongside me to get to the outdoor theater, though I had hoped for their sake that they were not following me.
The layers of abstraction between the player and the movie feel prominent at first and gradually begin to wash away over the first few minutes. It did not take longer than the intro to 'We The People' for me to forget that it was my third-person avatar watching the movie. At the beginning of the feature, host Van Jones explains "Black culture is celebrated and beloved. The black experience that gives rise to that culture is often disrespected, dismissed, and minimized."
Video games have been historically unwilling to embrace subject matter that might be controversial or political in nature. Actually, that is a little unfair. Large, successful video games are risk-averse and, for whatever reason, society has deemed statements like "Black culture is co-opted without attribution to the experience" to be a risky thing to say. As such, it is strange, though welcomed, to see that message be a part of Fortnite, a game which commands a young audience that is presumably more curious about their next skin than the color of anyone else's skin.
A few months ago, director and movie theater traditionalist Christopher Nolan debuted a trailer for his upcoming movie Tenet within the confines for Fortnite's social space. He coupled that trailer with an announcement that he would air one of his movies, which varied by region, in the game just a few weeks later. In some strange way, Fortnite became a modern salon for people to congregate in. In an equally strange way, Epic found a way to wield that power to deliver a message both younger and older people probably needed to hear.
The future of Party Royale
Some aspect of Fortnite's transformation into a virtual hub can be attributed to the global pandemic currently at differing states of disaster depending on geographic location. In an age where movie theaters are struggling to open and people are unable to gather, Fortnite provides a safe space to live the little aspects of life that were previously taken for granted without fear of bringing something deadly home. Players can even come to the theater paired up in squads so that they can voice chat with each other without bothering anyone else.
We live in a world where it would not be absurd for political events to be held within the game. A savvy political team would not find it utterly absurd to have a candidate make a speech, especially in an era of social distancing, within a totally controllable space. It also raises the sticky ethical arguments of what politicians Epic should feel comfortable allowing on their platform and to what extent it is operating a private service versus a public space. While this might sound like a slide into uneasy science fiction for traditionalists, it increasingly feels like just another viable option for the future.
These things are not replacements for those real-world gatherings, but they can aspire to be something adjacent to them. If a theater announced that they were running 'We The People', it would likely attract a small local audience, though likely not enough to tie up an entire screen for repeated showings. Through Fortnite, a built-in audience can show up on a whim and be exposed to perspectives that they did not think about before at little risk or inconvenience. It can get a younger demographic talking about race earlier than modern entertainment traditionally encourages.
I am not so naive to think that everyone who ended up at the 'We The People' showing I attended actually let the message sink in. There were people there for whom that discussion could not have mattered less. Standing elbow-to-elbow with dozens of others there, however, and forgetting I left voice chat on, I listened to a younger kid in my random squad remark that he learned something. Maybe that seed will germinate into some independent research or critical thinking, or maybe it just stops there. Still, it is interesting to know that Fortnite has the ability to move along that potential.
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