In the 23 years I’ve known my sister, Fortnite is the only video game I’ve been able to get her to play on a consistent basis since our days of playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and 3 back when we were kids. You may think, “Well yeah, everyone has fallen in love with Fortnite at one time or another. It’s a very popular game.” And you’re right. Part of the reason is that it’s extremely fun, especially since she, my partner, our friend, and I have made it into our go-to group activity. But one big aspect that keeps bringing her back is the fact that she can see herself in the characters she uses in the game.
Notably, she uses the featured skins of Hollywood star Zendaya, who become the main character in her Fortnite experience. For her, it’s not about playing as her favorite Spider-Man character, but as a hero that actually looks like her.
More than skins
My sister has always looked for Black women to look up to in pop culture. Women that look like her and share her sensibilities — and the big and small struggles she goes through. Zendaya became that, and her inclusion in Fortnite quite literally changed the game for my sister. Suddenly, she wasn’t just playing a game as a white character that she had no connection with. She was playing as someone she looked up to and could relate to on multiple levels, complexion included.
My sister and other Black players, especially women, are constantly looking for games where they can see a main character that somewhat resembles them. Despite so many games being on the market, it’s never been an easy thing to do. We’ve got our badasses like Garcian Smith from Killer7, Shinobu from No More Heroes, and a few more, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one that isn’t just a stereotype or played for sex appeal (yes, that includes iconic heroes like Barrett from Final Fantasy 7 and Laura or Elena from Street Fighter). While Fortnite has been mocked by “hardcore gamers,” it’s arguably done this better than 80% of the industry since its initial release with the series’ original characters.
There are titles that share cultural status with Fortnite in the gaming world — Super Smash Bros., World of Warcraft, and Overwatch, all come to mind. But none of them have made the diverse strides that Fortnite has been making since its start.
Super Smash Bros still doesn’t have a real Black character (no, I’m not counting palette swaps, and yes, I’m still burnt over Twintelle getting robbed), World of Warcraft didn’t let players actually be Black or any other ethnicity for 15 years, and Overwatch didn’t introduced first Black female character until recently, with its upcoming sequel. Meanwhile, like players jumping off the Battle Bus, Fortnite has been dropping skins that are all shades of Black and brown since its inception.
Epic Games has gone beyond most games in its approach to giving players more options. In Fortnite, there are certain outfits called “character styles” that frequently appear in the item shop. Many times, Epic will add various characters that can be suited up in these styles. When that happens, the characters typically span across many skin tones and ethnicities, letting players choose those they feel closest to. Systems like that naturally expand players’ ability to find a hero that best represents them.
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— Fortnite (@FortniteGame) April 1, 2022
No, Fortnite isn’t perfect with its representation. There are still more groups that can be celebrated in the game. But what other game are you seeing boast an in-game Ramadan-inspired Lantern Fest with Muslim-inspired skins? The fact that there’s a video game that is looking to branch out to literally everyone that plays it is stunning to me as a Black guy. It’s something I never thought I’d see going back to my days as a child playing the Dreamcast.
Watching my sister’s excitement over Zendaya becoming a Fortnite skin serves as a constant reminder to me that representation in gaming, and media in general, does matter. I’m not saying that every game needs to insert colors out of obligation. However, as shown in blockbusters like Apex Legends, Horizon: Forbidden West, and Fortnite — as well as bad examples like Elden Ring and its lack of Black hairstyles — there is always someone hoping to find themselves in the games they play. The minds behind these experiences need to make sure that they can create better links between players and their virtual world, especially in a time where literally everyone is gaming.
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