Just a Game About Iraq

For the sake of full disclosure, let me say right away that I am biased towards peace. War is a tragic human folly, and I would like nothing more than to see a world free of violence. That being said, I am no stranger to war games. Yet I have to admit, I was taken aback earlier this week when Konami announced Six Days in Fallujah, developed by Atomic Games, a third-person action shooter set during the 2004 battle for the Iraqi city.

Fellow Gamernode writer Tyler Cameron has a great column up right now regarding the game’s design goals and potential pitfalls. I highly recommend giving it a read, particularly if you are interesting in why some have come out against the game, anti-war advocates and veterans alike. Peter Tamte, President of Atomic Games, recently spoke with the Wall Street Journal to address some of these concerns and explain the team’s approach to a very touchy subject.

"For us, games are not just toys. If you look at how music, television and films have made sense of the complex issues of their times, it makes sense to do that with videogames," said Tamte.

I’m mostly in agreement with Tamte, preferring not set thematic limits on videogames, though I’m not so sure anyone can "make sense" of war. For some intimate with the war, the theme is fine but the timing is off, perhaps we need to give the subject time for wounds to heal. Yet, other experienced vets are not so concerned. In fact, at least a few dozen soldiers who actually fought in the battle have worked with Atomic’s design team. The Los Angeles Times spoke to one such Marine, Mike Ergo, about his consultant work with Atomic.

"Video games can communicate the intensity and the gravity of war to an audience who wouldn’t necessarily be watching the History Channel or reading about this in the classroom," said Ergo, now 26 and a junior at the University of California at Berkeley. "In an age when everyone’s always online or playing games, people’s imaginations aren’t what they were, sadly. For this group, books may not convey the same level of intensity and chaos of war that a game can."

I’m less pessimistic about people’s imagination, but I can’t deny the evocative power of videogames. I wouldn’t adore them as much if they could not express meaning in a unique and immersive way. As I see it, there is no time restriction on current event subject matter. Films such as Stop-Loss, Redacted, and Gunner Palace tell stories about the actions in, or repercussions of, the war in Iraq (both real and fictionalized) because subject matter is fresh.

The role of art is not only to recount past histories. Art can heal the wounds violence or open them again, it can force us to reexamine an experience, to approach a subject from a new angle or simply remind us we have such wounds in the first place. An argument can be made that not enough stories are coming out of Iraq, and the last thing the world needs is to relegate the war to history books, as if it were already over. Mature stories can be told in any medium, including videogames, and I have no doubt such a game can exist.

Whether Atomic Games can tell very sensitive stories in an entertaining game is yet to be seen. There is nothing inherent in videogames that makes such an endeavor impossible. Some of the most disturbing films are still enjoyable and fulfilling experiences, though not "fun" in the classical sense. I think Call of Duty 4 reveals such an approach is possible. What I find most disconcerting is this statement from Anthony Courts, VP of marketing for Konami: "At the end of the day, it’s just a game."

Such statements sweep meaning under the rug, and I find them insulting to developers and players alike. Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra News Director and Kotaku contributer, framed my concerns well and I’ll let her words speak in my stead:

It must also be our responsibility to uphold a willingness to examine games, to discuss them civilly, to be willing to see what we’re saying about ourselves through play. To have answers for the really hard questions: "Do these actions we take in games affect us as people? Does interactivity make it unfair to compare harsh content in games to the same content in movies?"

We want to defend, we want to react, and we want to forgive, because we want to love games and everything about them. And sometimes, we just don’t want to think at all, and we’d rather just play, thank-you-very-much, and that’s fine.

But don’t say "it’s just a game." For gaming’s most passionate fans, there should never be any "just" about it.

I do believe Atomic Game’s developers want to approach this game with tact. They’ll be incorporating personal stories and real soldiers into the game’s story with the intent to add a thread of documentary style to the entire experience. They have also explicitly stated they have no qualms about including civilians into the story, something Call of Duty 4 was oddly devoid of, complicating traditional good-guy/bad-guy dichotomies.

I am less optimistic about whether Atomic can succeed. Though they’ve stated they do not want to take sides, inherent ideological beliefs tend to reveal themselves through the creative process. Atomic’s 2003 "sophisticated training tool for US Marine officers," still in use today, doesn’t build their credibility either. If the game is ever released, there is sure to be a flurry of outspoken individuals on both sides of the fence. The game may turn out to be a failure, but this discussion is more interesting anyway. That is, as long as we don’t call Six Days in Fallujah "just a game."


  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Myspace
  • Google Buzz
  • Reddit
  • Stumnleupon
  • Delicious
  • Digg
  • Technorati
Author: Jorge Albor View all posts by

Leave A Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.