'Fallujah' game cancellation shows what's wrong with video game business

Video games are constantly criticized for being hyper-violent and without any sort of redeeming context or meaning. Recently a controversy surrounding a new war game helped to illustrate this, but the end result shows that game publishers and critics alike still don’t understand how the business should be working to further the aim of social relevance and education through play.

Last month I was invited to a press event held at the luxurious Ruby Skye Theater in San Francisco, put together by Konami, which publishes games on various platforms. There were several titles previewed for the press that night, but two really stuck out in my mind. The first was Saw: The Game, a survival/horror game based on the series of movies where a bunch of poorly realized and dimly lit characters are thrown into a number of elaborate death scenes. Fun!

Six Days in Fallujah
Six Days in Fallujah is a realistic depiction of the battle of Fallujah, made with the help of U.S. Marines who were there.
The other major title that Konami previewed was Six Days in Fallujah, a third person shooter/combat simulator that is based on the battle of Fallujah during the Iraq War. The game draws from the experiences of real life marines and depicts real life events, environments, and scenarios. The developers interviewed not only 47 US Marines, but also civilians and enemy insurgents.

Recently, Konami announced that though Six Days in Fallujah was only months from being launched, it would no longer publish the game. No one in the gaming community is particularly surprised, of course. In between taking advantage of the open bar and the free hors d’oeuvres, game journalists took turns decrying the game’s controversial topic and in the same breath grinning with anticipation at the amount of fodder this would provide their Web site.

But while the journalists at the Konami event sensed that Atomic Games, the developers of Six Days in Fallujah, were playing piñata with a hornets’ nest of controversy, the truth is that there have been plenty of Mid-East Conflict-themed war games. 50 Cents: Blood in the Sand and Atomic Games’ own Close Combat: First to Fight either directly or indirectly reference modern political climates. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare did everything but throw up the Iraqi flag when depicting a Middle Eastern city for the Marines to invade. Six Days is, however, one of the first to attempt to cast aside the mask of allegory, and instead tackle the subject directly.

Peter Tamte, president of Atomic, knows better than most what kind of high wire act his company has to perform. Atomic Games has done its best to sidestep the political issues surrounding the Iraq War and instead focus on objectively and accurately telling a story. In an interview with the News and Observer, Tamte defends Atomic Games’ intention: “‘Six Days in Fallujah’ is not about whether the U.S. and its allies should have invaded Iraq. It’s an opportunity for the world to experience the true stories of the people who fought in one of the world’s largest urban battles of the past half-century.”

(If Peter Tamte’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he’s president of Destineer, a publisher of Mac games, and he’s also the founder of MacSoft.)

If we take Atomic Games at its word, it's trying to tell an extremely relevant and pressing story. If we remove the pro/anti-war elements of the debate, Atomic Games draws flack from Iraq war veterans and their families who consider the game distasteful towards the soldiers’ memories. But over 40 Marines involved in the conflict contributed to the making of Six Days. Rather than approaching the Marines, Tamte explains that the Marines approached them: “After they got back from Fallujah, these Marines asked us to tell their story. They asked us to tell their story through the most relevant medium of the day — a medium they use the most — and that is the video game.”

The close ties the developers have had with some of the Marines who fought this battle helps undercut some of this criticism, but it’s hard not to feel like the game is making light of a war that has taken the lives of thousands. The game may be able to convey the story of the Marines respectfully, but it’s tough to convey the weight of loss when you can restart a level and ensure your buddy doesn’t get ambushed this time around.

But these questions of narrative distance and appropriateness are nothing new for other forms of media. As Matt Peckham at PC World points out in his erudite post, movies and books are regularly released that are less objective and are less accurate. How is Six Days more offensive than war documentaries such as “Generation Kill” or major film releases such as “Valley of Elah?” The issues of conveying the weight of war and respecting those who fought are present there as well. But you won’t see the level of hate thrown at films or books because they’re not video games.

“Every form of media has grown by producing content about current events, content that’s powerful because it’s relevant,” Tamte told Macworld. “Movies, music and TV have helped people make sense of the complex issues of our times.” But video games haven’t yet, and instead are still thought of as toys. Tamte is hoping that Six Days will help change that. “Artists can help people understand things that can’t be communicated through words. Video game creators can help people understand things that can’t even be communicated through pictures.”

Konami apparently doesn’t agree. Dropping Six Days while still going forward with Saw: The Game is like punishing the kid in class who is asking adult questions while ignoring the kid who is killing the class hamster. Any suggestion that Konami is being high-minded is immediately undercut by releasing a torture porn game based on a series of movies that represent the very worst instincts of American entertainment.

While Konami could have pushed gaming forward by asking gamers to tackle a serious topic with naked realism, instead they copped out and settled for exploiting one of gaming’s worst habits — sinking the survival horror genre to new and more violent depths. Saw: The Game represents what gaming gets dinged for: controversy without substance, the habit for developers to push the envelope without pausing to ask why. These intellectually bankrupt games not only give the industry a bad image, but their unoriginality ensures that actual game progress is stuck in neutral.

Hopefully Atomic Games will find a publisher for Six Days in Fallujah. I hope the game’s story is handled with objectivity and intelligence, fully realizing that in all likelihood it will be a lightning rod for knee-jerk reactions and (largely) undeserved hate. But like any piece of new art, Six Day in Fallujah has the potential both to draw short sighted critics and later appreciation. In the end, we should encourage this game to not only be released, but as gamers, we should want it to be good. We should want it to ask difficult questions and become such an icon of artistry that it pushes the entire industry forward.

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