Gaming’s Role in Subverting Education
Standing before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his legendary “I Have Dream” speech to 250,000 people gathered on the National Mall. Now, almost sixty years later, 350 million people worldwide can experience a recreation of that moment thanks to Fortnite, one of the world’s most popular video games.
Fortnite, through a partnership with Time Magazine, is giving its players the opportunity to virtually watch the speech together, explore parts of 1963 Washington D.C., visit digital museums, and participate in activism mini-games inspired by the Civil Rights movement.
It’s early days yet, but so far the game, dubbed “March Through Time”, has been nothing if not controversial. Many, for instance, complained about players being able to use Fortnite’s “emote” function, which lets their avatars gesture and do dance moves. In short, hardly appropriate for such serious subject matter. Credit Fortnite, then, for quickly addressing that by disabling many of these questionable functions in the game mode. Still, there’s no easy fix for the concern that children will now associate Dr. King more with the game than activism. Nor is there a way for Fortnite to fully replicate the context, experience and impact of the original “I Have a Dream” speech. Fair comment. Nevertheless, argue the game’s advocates, after all we’ve been through in 2021 and all the technology now available, does it really need to?
Time was we’d generally turn to museums, libraries, schools and other institutions of learning to fill in the civic education blanks. But the plain fact is, depending on where you live and who’s doing the teaching, we’re not all on equal footing. Moreover, in the U.S., states have significant say over what children learn, and it is common for history to be revised and facts left out to serve individuals’ or communities’ ideas of morals and ethics. For the most part, that sort of curriculum has never painted a complete picture of history, often favoring exciting or romanticized narratives while hiding painful, ugly truths.
Enter gaming. Because gaming exists outside the bubble of cultural institutions and educational platforms, it is immune to many of their faults. In an opinion piece for Bloomberg.com on the distinctions between gaming and the greater world of culture, George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen writes that due to the insular nature of gaming: “It is easy to become a world-class performer in a game without knowing much about the broader culture. By the same token, most of today’s cultural experts know very little about gaming, and they get on just fine.”
That autonomy, free from personal or geographic biases, positions gaming as an option and resource for users who lack or don’t have access to the wider knowledge traditional learning institutions offer. For those school-age gamers, this sense of escape offers them new paths to explore and, even more, the prospect of new online communities with whom to do it. Such prospects give gaming platforms an effectiveness, scale and reach that mainstream educators can only dream about. As Cowen puts it, “gaming is more like participating in an event than watching an event.”
Fortnite’s MLK experience has so much value precisely because it works as an educational first step and conversation starter for many who otherwise may never have been exposed to or creatively engaged with the civil rights movement and its importance in our nation’s history. While users aren’t participating in the actual event that inspired the platform, they are sharing and participating in an interactive experience hard to replicate in the real world. For all the social media brickbats that have been hurled at “March Through Time”, many parents have chimed in that their children, after playing the game, wanted to talk to them and learn more about Dr. King.
Gaming’s foray into positive social impact isn’t necessarily new. In the summer of 2020 Fortnite itself hosted a roundtable discussion on race. Minecraft, another popular game, hosts “The Uncensored Library” — a safekeep built by Reporters without Borders that houses news and articles banned in countries without freedom of the press. Another important point Professor Cowen raises is the capacity of games to fight back against government regulation. In games, rules are set and enforced by creators and players, essentially allowing for innovation and new ways of thinking that government oversight might prevent. That’s a valuable resource to have, indeed, when tackling how to shake up a system as large and essential as education.
For years, gaming has been put down as a negative contributor to a plethora of social and health issues. But it turns out many of those who complain the loudest about it really understand it the least. While gaming may exist on the fringes of culture, it commands massive audiences equal to or greater than traditional media’s top performers. What Fortnite and others in effect are doing is exploring the capacity of gaming’s greatest asset, its power.
Malcolm X, the Civil Rights leader and contemporary of Dr. King, once said: “Power never takes a back step — only in the face of more power.” In the spirit of that sentiment, then, rather than critique Fortnite for exploring new territory with “March Through Time”, let’s instead applaud its creators for seeking how to use gaming’s power as a tool for progress — leveraging its reach to challenge, knock down and hopefully evolve traditional educational systems that all too often use their power to hold us back.
This post was written by Dylan Stiga with thinking contributed by Brianna Jacobson. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.