Is The Bin Laden Kill Game Cathartic, Educational Or Just Ghoulish?

Osama bin Laden hunches quietly in the darkness of an Abbottabad basement, rifle clutched in his hands. He swivels smoothly left. Stops. Then swivels smoothly right. His face is frozen in a thousand-mile stare, eyes unblinking.

“We found him.”

The game developer sounds relieved. The virtual bin Laden, created over a rush of all-nighters by a team of game developers who specialise in turning current world events and military battles into playable video games, had somehow disappeared from the faithful recreation of his Pakistan compound.

For the past 30 minutes or so the heads of studio Kuma Games sat patiently as a developer raced his Navy SEAL through the compound. He moved the character from under a hovering copter, past the wreckage of a second crashed helicopter to the front door of the compound. He made his way up two floors, checking rooms and balconies. But no bin Laden.

Finally, four days after a team of real Navy SEALs ambushed bin Laden’s Pakistan compound and shot him in the head, the developer discover the recreation swivelling smoothing in the basement, apparently lost in deep, armed thought.

It’s Thursday, just one day before Kuma Games is set to release this, their last episode for a game that has recreated the battles, the war in the Middle East and elsewhere over more than 10 years and 100 missions.

The studio invited me to come watch them put this last episode together in record breaking time.

Things are fluid. The key points for the game, drawn from the reality of the SEALs mission, are written up on a whiteboard in a mid-town New York office. But they keep changing.

“12:30 a.m. Abbotobad, Pakistan,” is written across the top of the board.

“Drops into compound” ”

“Shots fired by courier in guest house.”

The list goes on, ending with “burial at sea”

There are also questions: “Who was armed? “Woman as shield?”

As the United States, the world, wrestles with these questions, the people working to turn the entire mission into a playable, educational they say, game need to nail this stuff down.

“There are certain elements we know are fixed,” Keith Halper, CEO of Kuma Games, tells me as we stare at the whiteboard. “Like we know where the compound is, and its layout.

“I believe the rest of the story is starting to gel right now.”

One set of facts seem to depict a real world mission that was heavily weighted in favour of that Navy SEALS assault team. Will gamers get anything from playing a reenactment that has them going in as one member of a team of 20 against unsuspecting enemies, I ask.

“Every time we do a game there is always going to be a balance between telling a story and creating interesting gameplay,” Halper says. “We have to make sure we’re factual, but at the same time the gameplay is going to vary a little from what happened.

“If you’re going to have a game that feels like a game that has to be part of your plan.”

Is this essentially the same as “spiking the football” after a victory?

The plan with this particular mission, is to create a movie, Halper explains, that uses the game to show exactly what the current thinking was on what happened. As of Thursday afternoon, that means only one armed enemy. That means an unarmed bin Laden with a weapon within reaching distance. It means women and children in the compound. The movie, which players won’t be able to control, wasn’t available to players as of Monday morning, days after the missions release.

The gameplay itself, though, will be far afield of reality. Kuma Games has decided that players will take on the roles of both sides, although bin Laden will never be playable by a person. He will always be controlled by the computer, a sort of moving, goal.

As members of the SEALs, players will have five minutes to try to kill bin Laden, capture his body, find intelligence, blow up their faulty copter and bury bin Laden’s body at sea. As the opposing, players will be asked to protect bin Laden.

“Some people will drop into the game and all of a sudden be the Taliban,” Halper says. “I think you don’t get the picture unless you play both sides.”

While the reality of the mission had the odds in favour of the SEALs, the game will have an even number of U.S. military and enemies.

“When you’re playing a video game you don’t care if you get shot or killed. In the real world you do,” Halper said by way of explanation. “We can build that same sense in players by making the sides more even.”

Despite the heavy shift from reality to something more tactically interesting to play, Halper thinks this last episode of Kuma War will provide something to the public, something that television and newspaper reports cant. It will give people a chance to walk through the diagrams of the Abbottabad compound as if they were there, Halper says.

The conference room is darkened and they boot up an early version of the mission. The developer showing us this first look, yells into a nearby room.

“The servers are live.”

Animated SEALS and Taliban begin to pop into the virtual recreation of the compound.

The developer guides his SEAL into the compound on a hunt for bin Laden, but he’s shot before he makes it past the first room. A few seconds later he’s back in the game, respawned as a member of the Taliban. Again he only lasts moments. His third try, as a SEAL again, ends just as abruptly.

He pauses the game and types in a code to make his character invincible and starts looking for bin Laden to show me what the aged character will look like.

“We read there were 27 children in there,” Halper says, as we watch the screen up on the wall. “We could put children in there, but I can’t find any proof of that.”

“Will you?” I ask.

“It’s a sticky issue,” he responds. Perhaps, if it’s proven that there were children in the compound and that they in someway impacted the mission, they’ll put them in, but not as children. Maybe they’ll be depicted as unarmed adults.

Halper’s attention returns to the game. He points out that the chief tactical challenge seems to be going up the stairs.

“I feel like it could get boring after a couple of times,” he says to the developer. “It becomes easily defendable.”

Halper’s also worried about the timeline, which seems to keep shifting as news reports hit and are confirmed or disproven. The team has a little more than 24 hours left to wrap up the mission and setting it live on their servers for people to download and play for free.

I ask Halper if he worries that people will use this game to delight in the death of bin Laden, and perhaps trivialise it. Is this essentially the same as “spiking the football” after a victory, something President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he doesn’t want the US to do? Is this a game that is cathartic, educational or just ghoulish?

“We have something to add to the information that is out there,” Halper says. “We are going to help people understand the tactical picture because of the tools we work with, that’s something you can’t do in most magazines that work in 2D.

“We will provide real value to the conversation… that being said, when it stops raining the birds sing. I think it’s OK to take a moment and be happy this guy is gone. I don’t want to be overjoyed at anyone’s death. But I think this is a guy who created a tremendous number of problems for the world, all over the world. So many things become easier with him gone.”

Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.

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