The video game industry was about to get its first major game based on a current military action, only to have publisher Konami pull the plug. What's wrong with releasing a realistic war video game?
Six Days In Fallujah, which was announced and then abandoned by its publisher last month, was a game both hyped by its developer for its potential to be a game-documentary and scrutinized by game critics who questioned some of its Gears of War influences. To the public it became a flashpoint, a warning of video games perhaps going too far.
Is a game like Six Days in Fallujah is even necessary? Coming out in favour, obviously, is Fallujah developer Atomic Games' President Peter Tamte. "Our point is that videogames are interactive, and they're the medium of choice for an entire generation," he told Kotaku this week. "Therefore, we should use this medium to deal with relevant issues while they're still relevant."
What obstacles are keeping the industry from tackling the sensitive subject of real-world warfare? And what divides the experts?
The Question of Fun
"It's not a great start that the Creative Director at Atomic Games is on the one hand talking about trying to "present the horrors of war" and on the other hand make 'entertainment'". - Dan Rosenthal, Iraqi War Veteran
When approaching a game that realistically depicts a modern combat situation, one criticism that often arises is the subject of fun. Can a realistic military shooter be fun? According to Ian Bogost, that's the wrong question to ask. "We use the word fun as a placeholder, when we don't even really know what we mean when we look for some sort of enjoyment in a serious experience," he said. Fun and entertainment aren't mutually exclusive, especially when it comes to entertainment based on real-world military conflicts.
As Bogost explains, fun isn't the key word in this situation. "It may not be possible to make a realistic war game that is fun - war is not fun - but it is possible to create an experience that is informative, appealing, and startling in a positive way."
Bogost cites the example of Blackhawk Down, the film adaptation of Mark Bowden's novel about military forces attempting to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid during the Battle of Mogadishu. It isn't the sort of movie you walk away from feeling good or happy, but it was a positively engaging experience for many film-goers. It wasn't fun, but it was fulfilling and by extension, entertaining.
Handling Sensitive Material
Retired U.S. Army Colonel John Antal is an author and a game developer, but he also spent 30 years of his life serving in the U.S. Army. From his unique perspective as a game industry insider who has seen more than his share of active combat, Antal has his doubts that the industry could handle such a sensitive subject with the reverence it requires.
"There is a vital and very important role for video games and interactive entertainment in recording historic events," Antal admits, "But when you are talking about headlines - real situations involving real people - you really have to treat the subject with great reverence or it will fail. There are few interactive entertainment companies that even come close to being able to handle that properly."
The current war is perhaps more sensitive and politicized that any previous conflict. Every day, critical information of tactical importance is being transmitted. Horrifying images of soldiers wounded and killed in action began to circulate within days of the conflict starting. Antal compares this to World War II, where the first images of a dead U.S. soldier didn't appear until very late in the war. Just because we have easier access to information than ever before doesn't necessarily mean we should use it.
As for Atomic Games admittedly working with Iraqi insurgents on the development of Six Days in Fallujah? The former Army colonel was quite clear on his opinion of that matter.
"If you're working with the enemy, that's called treason. The jihadist killing our people today would love to get a larger audience to perpetrate their hate. If you think that reporters and filmmakers and interactive entertainment developers are not part of this world and their actions have no consequences, then you're wrong. There will be no virtual world in a real world run by the Taliban."
The Problem of Public Perception
If the distinction between fun and entertainment confuses the games industry, one can only imagine what it does to the general public, a large portion of which still see video games as light entertainment. Take the reaction of former Colonel Tim Collins, a decorated Iraqi war veteran who spoke up during the early days following the announcement of Six Days in Fallujah:
"It's much too soon to start making video games about a war that's still going on, and an extremely flippant response to one of the most important events in modern history. It's particularly insensitive given what happened in Fallujah, and I will certainly oppose the release of this game."
In a time where movies, documentaries, and books pertaining to the war have already been release, often to critical acclaim, the news of a video game covering those same subjects is referred to as "flippant" and "insensitive".
According to Bogost, reactions like this are part of an ongoing media literacy problem. People are just not willing to accept the fact that video games, like any other entertainment medium, are capable of handling a serious subject with the respect it deserves. Based off of media coverage of a game which only tangible assets were a handful of screenshots and a short video clip, a large portion of society was ready to dismiss Six Days in Fallujah.
Conflicting statements between publisher Konami and developer Atomic Games certainly didn't help the matter. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Atomic President Peter Tamte is quoted saying, "For us, games are not just toys", while in the same article Konami states that "At the end of the day, it's just a game."
"We have to insist that there's not a subject that's off limits and there aren't things that we can't do," Bogost said. "We can do it more or less effectively, but there is no sensibility that we have to account for."
Some might say that's dangerous thinking, including John Antal. "Every author, every filmmaker, every interactive entertainment developer creating a product is responsible for what it does and its after effects. Aristotle wouldn't agree with that."
Extreme statements aside, Bogost has hopes that the situation is slowly changing, citing a most unexpected catalyst - Nintendo's Wii Fit. Not only does the peripheral attract a whole new audience to the gaming market, it also affects them on a deeply personal level. The key to changing public perception lies in letting people know that games can be about much more than simply sitting on the couch, shooting at aliens. As silly as it may seem to "hardcore" gamers, Wii Fit does just that. It's ironic to think that Nintendo's focus on a wider audience
The Final Fate of Six Days In Fallujah
As for Six Days in Fallujah, developer Atomic Games remains quiet on the subject of finding a new publishers, instructing those interested to "stay tuned" for further developments. While some remain firmly opposed to the project, others believe it's a game that needs to see to see release, as Ian Bogost puts it, "if only to be another example of how to do things well or poorly."