There are famously only 22 countries in the entire world that Britain has not invaded at some point during its history. But now you can add Fortnite to that list, as the British Army has given up its plan to hold a livestreamed competition later this week between influencer-led teams on its very own custom Fortnite map.
The plan, called Operation: Belong, was revealed last week in a rousing video showcasing a custom-made map that would serve as a battleground for influencers Yung Filly and Elz the Witch. All evidence of the video has since been deleted but the intent, to me, seemed pretty clear: "You there, youngster! Join the army!"
Text messages laid atop Fortnite gameplay drove the point home: "You belong here. Work as one. Test your agility. Unlock the enigma. Conquer obstacles. Apply your training."
If you recall how things went when the US Army tried its hand at livestreaming (hint: not well), you can imagine what the reaction to the British Army's foray into Fortnite was like. Multiple comments on social media called it "wild Black Mirror shit," "vile," "immoral," "sick in the head," and other such things. Predictably, one person asked the British Army Jobs Twitter account, which had tweeted about the Fortnite plan, what its favorite war crime is. The army chose not to respond.
Epic Games declined to comment on the army-made map except to say that it was currently undergoing the standard moderation process. That could've proven tricky—among other things, Epic's rules say commercial content and sponsors must not "promote enrolment in the military"—but it's now a moot point, as the whole thing has been called off.
The British Army told PC Gamer that the map and livestreamed competition was merely intended to raise awareness of the military's role and values, and that it was not intended for children: The influencers taking part in the program have audiences that are largely 18 or older, and the army had also planned to incorporate an 18+ age restriction to watch the stream. The map itself was not intended for public release, but was designed specifically for a one-off livestream.
Despite that defense, the army surely knows there are an awful lot of gamers out there, many of them young, and they represent a very fertile field of potential recruits. Encouraging signups through gaming is nothing new: America's Army is the first and most famous example, and in more recent years the US Army has sent recruiters to major esports tournaments and sponsored "esports labs" for US high schools.
More pointedly (I mean, really on the nose here), the US Army founded its own official esports team which operates as part of the US Army Recruiting Command. The army has scaled back its public-facing gaming gaming operations somewhat in more recent years: It's been two years since the army last streamed on Twitch, but it's still out there, scrounging for engagement and/or approval:
In light of the blowback to the US Army's effort to go whole-hog into gaming, I'm a little surprised that the British would decide to do essentially the same thing. Did no one see this coming? I can understand the urge to rehabilitate the military's image, but Fortniting it up amidst rising global tensions and open military conflict is perhaps not the most well-advised approach to take. It's especially bizarre given that the Army is supposed to be, y'know, really good at strategy and stuff.
Just like their counterparts in the US, the British Army has been struggling to meet its recruitment goals in recent years. A January UK Defence Journal report says the Army hasn't met its annual recruitment targets since 2010. Perhaps this was just a case of necessity being the mother of bad ideas.