MLK's inclusion in ‘Fornite’ feels disingenuous and creepy

The battle royale game has a troubled history with Black culture as is. This only makes things worse.

Girl in Picket Line, Mid-City Company, South Chicago, Illinois, USA, John Vachon, U.S. Farm Security...
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

You’ve probably heard but the latest immersive experience from Fortnite involves Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream,” speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, as the country was embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement. In collaboration with Time studios, the massively popular battle royale game will teleport players to the virtual equivalent of those same steps outside the Memorial to witness the speech.

Put together by members of the Fortnite Creative Community, the D.C. 63 event functions like other immersive events in the game (see Travis Scott and Ariana Grande concerts) only this one is meant to be educational rather than pure entertainment.

Aside from taking in the most important public speaking event in the U.S.’s history, players will be able to explore museum-inspired points of interest and can work together to complete quests. According to a press release from Ryan Broseker, a community manager at Epic Games, the quests are intended to communicate an important message from the speech itself — “We move forward when we work together.” But, umm, this is a really strange way to commemorate or honor such an iconic moment.

Hard nope — We don’t need to make a joke because aside from the fact they have written themselves, much funnier people have already done so. It takes a lot for a headline to shock these days, but putting together an event using the name of one of the most prominent civil rights activists ever for what boils down to a brand activation certainly meets that benchmark.

While the intention of the event was meant to educate players on some of U.S.’s turbulent racial history there is a clear disconnect between this intention and the execution of the event. Players maintain their existing skins, cosmetic items, and still have the ability to use emotes while at the event. Something about the presence of Rick Sanchez and Master Chief tuning into a virtual homage to MLK Jr. feels disjointed.

Attending the event also gives players another item in their locker: a graffiti tag displaying “DC 63.” All of the goofy loading screens and wallpapers are still in place, as players enter and exit the event. Ultimately it’s difficult to take the event seriously.

Is the estate of MLK Jr. on board? — In the press release, Broseker said the experience wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions of the estate, suggesting Epic Games received some sort of go ahead. However, The King Center’s Twitter account pointed out they had nothing to do with it, since IP licensing for the late Dr. King is handled by a separate company.

Whether or not this event manages to reach a broad audience and make some kind of impact is largely irrelevant. If anything it is representative of Epic’s relentless pursuit of building out the Fortnite metaverse with scant regard for whether or not such efforts are appropriate.

Already a troubled past — From emotes to fashion, Fortnite has been ripping off Black culture since its inception, so this move feels exploitative more than it does educational. If Epic wants to engage in social justice, how about supporting Black creators or players rather than leveraging a famous name and event in a surface-level gesture aimed at boosting player numbers?