It is, after all, a pretty absurd video that Epic has clearly had in its pocket for some time now, ready to play as a calculated move in a weird 3D chess match between several multi-billion dollar tech companies. First the side-step of the storefront revenue cuts, then the game is pulled, then the video, the tweets, the statements, the lawsuit. Epic baited; Apple bit.
The video itself, which Epic showed across its social channels and within Fortnite yesterday, includes multiple ridiculous layers that the vast majority of kids playing Fortnite who stumble on it in-game won't recognize. It's a play on an old commercial from, yes, 1984, that originally introduced the Apple Macintosh personal computer to the public. In the original, Apple positioned itself as a heroine fighting back against an Orwellian Big Brother (then positioned as an analogy for IBM) brainwashing the populace, with the heroine smashing a propaganda video being shown to a crowd with a sledgehammer.
In Epic's 2020 rendition, dubbed "Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite," the citizenry is enslaved by a deeply on-the-nose talking Apple playing the role of Big Brother, while Epic puts itself in the shoes of the sledgehammer wielding heroine, concluding its clip with the following message:
"Epic Games has defied the App Store Monopoly. In retaliation, Apple is blocking Fortnite from a billion devices. Join the fight to stop 2020 from becoming '1984'."
The weirdness of Apple's original ad was mercifully limited by its very clear nature as an ad: it debuted on TV with the clear goal of selling people personal computers. But Epic's version, despite its clear goals to paint the company in a Messianic light, is more sinister. Rather than a product ad, it's a political one, and rather than being broadcast generally to the public, Epic's targeting a pretty specific demographic: gamers -- specifically young gamers.
"Epic knows well that its video plays to an audience that doesn't understand the nuance and complexity of the battle it's about to fight -- and frankly, has no reason to"
While this may sound a bit too "Someone, think of the children," it's clear Epic is already thinking quite a bit about the children. Epic Games is not a stupid company. It's aware that its audience of millions skews very young, and is augmented by numerous streamers and content creators who have even further reach and influence outside the Fortnite's walls. Epic knows well that its video plays to an audience that doesn't understand the nuance and complexity of the battle it's about to fight -- and frankly, has no reason to. That's why its concluding message is boiled down so simply: Apple wants to take away your video games. We're fighting back. Join us.
But Epic also knows that, obviously, these children are gamers, and gamers have proven again and again that if you can make them angry enough and get the right hashtag in front of them, they can be pretty effectively weaponized in a myriad of ways. In fact, Epic Games has been on the receiving end of this throughout the last year or more, as accusations were lobbed at it on social media of being controlled by the Chinese government, all because Tencent owns a 40% stake in Epic Games.
The noise got so loud and so ridiculous that CEO Tim Sweeney felt he had to address it, despite the fact that most of the criticisms across social media didn't really have anything to do with concerns about Tencent's actions as a company -- instead, they just led back to a big box full of racism. How many kids wandering around Fortnite social communities tuned into this argument and were fed a lot of gross racist talking points disguised as consumer concern for how a company was investing?
That doesn't even touch on other instances where Epic or its associates have been the target for internet mobs -- remember the backlash against Epic exclusivity deals? Another prime example of angry mobs of gamers being weaponized because someone on the internet convinced them they were being cheated or lied to about something they were "owed" -- wrong as they were.
"Epic knows that gamers have proven that if you can make them angry enough and get the right hashtag in front of them, they can be effectively weaponized"
This is not to say Epic doesn't have a point here. There are plenty of good arguments for the bogusness of 30% revenue share, especially for a company like Apple with its walled garden and fist clenched around the smartphone market. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't fascinated to watch this play out in the courts and to ponder the implications for developers big and small if either side gets what they want. But how many among Epic's audience, including adults with access to resources, analysts, and news outlets, are going to spend the time and effort to learn what the issues are really about?
Far smarter writers than me have canvassed the issues of online hate mobs as they relate to gaming and their dangers especially in the wake of GamerGate. It is for this reason that I cannot fathom why Epic would think it at all a good idea to try and stir up a cocktail of gamer frustration by telling an audience of millions that anyone -- even a multi-billion dollar phone maker -- is trying to take its toys away, especially when that's not an entirely accurate framing of the situation. It speaks to the incredible confidence Epic has that it can get gamers on its side here -- and so far it seems to have worked. But it also reveals that Epic has figured out exactly the sway it has over its enormous audience, and is prepared to use that to its own ends.
This can, given the right cause, be a good thing. Earlier this year, Epic used Fortnite to screen the documentary 'We the People,' which presents various conversations with BIPOC individuals about their experiences in the US. At a time of critical national backlash against racist treatment of people of color at the hands of police, Epic had the opportunity to share information and perspective on the side of human rights with its audience. And it did. Whether that grave message was effective in a virtual space where many of the audience members were dressed as Deadpool or as sentient bananas is up for debate, but it's an encouraging example of Epic recognizing its enormous platform and using it for good.
"The second you exit the territory of 'advocating for human rights' and enter the world of drumming up mob support for your giant gaming corporation, things get real weird"
But the second you exit the territory of "advocating for human rights" and enter the world of trying to drum up mob support for your giant gaming corporation against another gaming corporation, things get real weird. It begs the question of what other issues Epic will perceive as important enough to call its players to action over in the future.
Epic has seemingly opened the door to "educate" its audience about a wide range of issues that might impact it, including not just future court cases, but also potential legislation or political candidates that might work in its favor. This steers into dangerous territory, especially in the current political climate where no piece of legislation or political figure can ever be boiled down to a single issue, and especially for a company that's proven it's happy to present a laser-focused, heroic version of its own desires and ignore all nuance. And it certainly flies in the face of Sweeney's statements back in February of this year that gaming platforms should remain neutral figures in political conflicts.
I love the notion of getting kids interested in political processes like the ones we see unfolding now by speaking to them in their own spaces. But doing so necessitates offering plenty of information and open communication, not broadcasting corporate propaganda videos. How this battle between Epic and the mobile storefronts turns out will be up to the courts -- an online mob mostly composed of young gamers is unlikely to push that one way or another. But whatever Epic does to rally its digital citizens in its favor is likely to set precedent for how politics and games interact for a long time to come.
As the operator of the current biggest video game in the world, Epic holds unprecedented power over a massive audience. But based on its actions this week, I'm not sure it's interested in the responsibility that comes with wielding it. In truth, Epic's willingness to sway its young audience more closely resembles the Big Brother figure of the commercial than the sledgehammer-swinging heroine it paints itself to be.