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Fortnite’s awkward MLK tribute could have learned from this thoughtful history game

Three developers reflect how to better teach Black history in games

Image: Epic Games

A cartoonish Rick Sanchez, a character from Cartoon Network’s Rick and Morty, stands outside a virtual recreation of The National Mall. In the background, a recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech plays. As it screens, other characters run around frantically and do dances like the floss or the robot.

This discrepancy wasn’t hard to miss at the March Through Time event which launched inside Fortnite on Aug. 26. Event producers told Time magazine (which partnered with Fortnite creators Epic Games to put on the event) they hoped it would, “teach kids about a vital era in American history via a platform they find familiar and engaging.” But Fortnite’s cartoonish nature largely prompted a wider conversation on what it meant to present history in a game known for battle royale gunfights and virtual concerts. In particular, writers noted the tonal dissonance between a cartoony, violent game and the historical importance of the MLK speech.

The event’s reception also called to mind Fortnite developer Epic’s marred track record with regards to Black creators. This includes a series of incidents that reach back as far as 2018, when Epic Games was sued for directly copying popular dances from Black creators to use as emotes for characters in their game.

“There’s a thin line between being entertained by Black history in this country, which is very painful, and being entertained by Black culture,” said Dr. Shearon Roberts, associate professor of mass communication at Xavier University of Louisiana. “Fortnite has been able to get away with the risk of co-opting and including Black culture throughout its game of experience.”

Dr. Roberts has been an advisor and developer on a smaller, independent game about Black history — one that offers an alternative vision of what a game that addresses Black history can look like. Released in August, Blackhaven is a first-person narrative adventure game that follows Kendra Turner, an intern and HBCU student working at a museum called Blackhaven Hall, a space dedicated to the preservation of historical plantation grounds in the south. Right now, you can grab the game for free on Steam for PC.

In Blackhaven, players tour and observe the space, and Kendra reacts to the world around her. As you play, you’ll look around the venue as Kendra while listening to her reactions to a museum exhibit or to an email from a co-worker. This is crucial for helping players understand Kendra’s experience, which may not match up with their own. As the story progresses Kendra uncovers the hidden history behind the building, and learns more about the legacy of slavery in her town in present day.

an image of a museum exhibit in a game. the name of the exhibit in the game says, “the war comes to Blackhaven” Image: Historiated

During my time playing Blackhaven, I don’t pick or control what Kendra says — I simply hear her own responses to the exhibit and the world around her. She serves as a guide as I accompany her on a story about her experience. For example, in the first 10 minutes of the game, Kendra pauses to look at a group portrait of a family in traditional colonial dress with a Black woman relegated to the margins of the painting. “Oh hey there,” Kendra says, “I wonder if this is the first time it’s ever been just you and another Black girl here. What stories must you have about these people?” In this scene, the camera follows her gaze, not mine, and lingers on the Black woman in the painting.

Blackhaven was first conceived by Dr. James Coltrain, an assistant professor of game art and 3D modeling, and former history professor. Dr. Coltrain, who is white, was inspired to develop the game when he worked in Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago. He visited private plantation homes for architectural references and recalled a tour guide talking about how “successful” and “clever” plantation owners had been without mentioning the enslaved people who created their wealth.

Dr. Coltrain brought together a team of professors and students from HBCUs across the country to help bring the game to life. This included a group of HBCU students who identified as Black women, and who helped decide how Kendra might react in a situation, mediating the player’s exploration of the in-game world.

“With Kendra, I really wanted her to be this character that was walking into a space that she wasn’t necessarily represented in, but that a space that she needed in order to progress in her career,” Tia Alphonse, a writer on the project and a graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana, said. “There’s always this kind of balancing act where, ‘I need this, but like, how much of myself am I willing to give up in order to get this?’”

An image of a building being restored in the world of Blackhaven Image: Historiated

Maintaining Kendra’s autonomy was the team’s way of maintaining their own editorial voice in the game, and directing player attention to subtle, but troubling moments that a non-Black player might miss. At the same time, this lens — this sense of feeling like a tourist at Blackhaven Hall — offers a layer of separation from the traumatic histories shared in the game, with Black audiences in mind. Further, designing it as a game gives vulnerable players a way to engage with traumatic histories, with the power to turn the game off anytime and step away if needed.

“[Black people] want to experience this, but need a level of space to, to go through this horror, and then emerge like a tourist,” Dr. Roberts said. “And so one of the things that I like about what sort of the gaming format could offer is the same level of outcome. You do exit. You got to level up and win something. And that agency allows you to go through a form of mediated experience, and exit on the other side, empowered to go on with the rest of your reality.”

Dr. Roberts ultimately sees power in gaming as a medium to foster a new generation of Black storytellers that are writing to a Black audience.

“Sometimes, as a Black woman — it’s easy when you do get a hand and you’re invited to collaborate, you may have some skepticism about motives, because you’re so protective about your lived experiences and the narratives, and what an end product can do to it,” said Dr. Roberts. “But if you don’t dive in, and advocate for the things that ensure that you are represented in these works, you know, we don’t get a start, we don’t get a space to do that. So sometimes it just takes recognizing that we are welcome in these spaces, that there are more creators that are looking for us to be collaborators.”

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