It’s no giant Joe Biden hologram, but Fortnite has gotten a Biden/Harris-themed Creative island days before the US election. “Build Back Better With Biden” features mini-game challenges, easter eggs about the candidates, and voting information. Like everything about 2020, it’s more depressing than inspiring, but it’s what we’ve got.
As first reported by Mashable, the island features six mini-games that relate to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ political talking points. You collect rusty tin cans to ostensibly restore a river, which a cardboard cutout Jonesy tells you is because “Joe will mobilize a Civilian Climate Corps to train and mobilize next gen conservation workers.” You add solar panels and efficient AC units to an electric car factory. You install high speed broadband around the island’s Reboot City and complete a basic building challenge to “build a new research facility at the local Historically Black College.” You collect Kamala Harris’ “kicks,” a scavenger hunt for glowing sneakers.
The island itself is dotted with signs for Black Lives Matter, “Love is Love,” and the Biden/Harris campaign. There are reminders to vote and links to websites to make a voting plan. There’s a polling place and a Biden/Harris headquarters, where pop-up text thanks you for social distancing, though I didn’t see any other references to the coronavirus, so key to this election and all of our lives, on the island. The challenges are basic and clumsy, though they might be more fun if you aren’t solo. (There are multiple matchmaking prompts on the island, but none of them worked in my game.) Text printed on a speech bubble can’t get at the nuances of Biden and Harris’ positions, but, as a whole, the island paints the ticket as good for the economy, the environment, and people who aren’t white or straight. If you’re playing with your kids, it might be a good opportunity to teach them about the Democratic candidates and what they stand for.
The island is created by Alliance Studios, which bills itself as “a consultation group catering to companies seeking marketing in the gaming industry.” Director of digital partnerships for the Biden/Harris campaign Christian Tom told Mashable the island is to “meet people everywhere they are online and offline” in order to “engag[e] players in a substantive, approachable, and fun way to reach and mobilize voters.”
It’s certainly approachable if you’re a Fortnite player, in that you understand how to click prompts, drive vehicles, and build (back better?). But I wouldn’t say it’s engaging. The island tries to give Biden personality, with mentions of his favorite ice cream flavor and his dogs, but to me it reads like a desperate, hollow attempt to get me to like a man I mostly scream at through my computer as he distances himself from the Green New Deal and professes a misguided allegiance to fracking. Hunting through a virtual town for Kamala Harris’ sneakers taught me that Harris likes sneakers I guess, but I don’t care about her footwear—I care far more about her stance on prisons and policing.
Nothing, including video games, is going to make me like these people or be earnestly excited about voting for them. But that doesn’t matter: I don’t have to like them because they aren’t my friends, and I’ve already voted for them, waiting two and a half hours on a chilly Tuesday night at my overburdened early polling location. They are not nearly good enough on the issues that concern me most, but they’re OK, and they’re not as abjectly terrible as the alternative. If they win, god willing, the country might not go as far forward as I desperately think we need to, but it will stop suicidally racing backwards on so many things. If building an awkward Fortnite island is a digitally-sneakered step in that direction, so be it.
Earlier this month, the Biden campaign created an Animal Crossing island, which my colleague Ian found as wearisome and hollow as I found “Build Back Better.” More recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez streamed Among Us with big Twitch names. The most memorable moment of that stream for me (besides all of us envying Ilhan Omar’s gaming rig) was when Ocasio-Cortez dunked on the game’s spaceship for running on a combustion engine. It felt like the kind of thing you say when you game, a minor moment of her living her politics like a real person instead of some tone-deaf robot trying to reach an illusory voting block of gamers. But Ocasio-Cortez is, in many ways, my peer, in her politics and interests and age (she’s actually nearly a decade younger than me). Biden and Harris are the Democratic politicians who can’t help but let me down, who either don’t understand what I care about or can’t (or won’t) care about those things as much as I do, because of money or generational divides or just a prudent need to seem appealing to the broadest possible base.
Contracting out a little Fortnite island isn’t going to change that, but it’s not going to make it worse either. “Why not?” is the best I can say of “Build Back Better.” It gave me an hour of something to do on another Saturday spent inside so as to do my part in combating the pandemic the US’ current government has given up on fighting. It reminded me of some of the positions I agree with Biden on, which was heartening. It encouraged me to think about politics while playing a video game, which felt good at a time when I’m sick of escapism. Despite the quotes dotted around Reboot City proclaiming Biden’s catchphrase of “No malarkey!,” Build Back Better with Biden is malarkey from top to bottom. But I don’t need politicians to like Fortnite or understand video games. I need them to lead.
(You can access Build Back Better with Biden by entering code 0215-4511-1823 at a featured island in Fortnite’s Creative hub.)