Lines not to be crossed

Earlier this month Konami, one of the leading videogame publishers in the world, had announced their plans to publish an action game named Six Days in Fallujah that was to be released some time next year. The game would place the gamer in the shoes of U.S. Marines who would capture the town of Fallujah, door-by-door, fighting against and killing Iraqi insurgents on the way. The vice president of marketing at Konami, who were quoted alongside the announcement, contended that:

We’re not trying to make social commentary. We’re not pro-war. We’re not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience. At the end of the day, it’s just a game.

The background stories on development of the game further explicates this kind of view. The developer, Atomic Games, was allegedly working on virtual training software for U.S. Marine Corps in the beginning, but after the deployment of the Marines to Iraq and the (second) Battle of Fallujah, decided to create a military shooter off the experiences of those war veterans. The level of reality in the game had been accentuated throughout the whole explanation. Given the fact that the development interviewed more than seventy people on both sides of the battle as well as experts such as military officials and war historians, authenticity in replicating the war scene was expected to be achieved to a magnificent degree. A certain notion of confidence, almost condescendence, can be felt when Atomic Games defined Six Days in Fallujah as “a meticulously recreated in-game version of Fallujah, complete with real life Marines lending their names and likenesses, as well as recreations of specific events from the battle. It’s almost like time travel. You’re experiencing the events as they really happened.”

It should be recognized, however, the emphasis on so-called reality of war attempts to disguise itself as a neutral reflection on what happened in Fallujah. It would recreate the sounds of mortar shells detonating somewhere far away, gunfires somewhere next block, and U.S. marines shooting down an Iraqi armed man from a distance; but it would not reproduce any historical contexts of the war in Iraq, any sentiment that Iraqi people may hold against U.S. forces, nor any indication whether people who lost their lives in gunfights and bombings on Fallujah those days deserved to be killed at all. All it would present would be an authentic rendition of graphical images and sounds that permeated the U.S. soldiers from their points of view but never the sense of danger that Iraqi people may have felt, the sense of lives threatened, the sense of their hometown torn to shreds. It is this sense of so-called reality that can be so misleading, often more so than “reality TV.”

But to what extent would it be appropriate to depict warfare, or violence in general in videogames and other media? There are numerous videogames that utilize various wars as their core subjects, and some even overtly advertise themselves as “war simulators.” America’s Army, which is developed by the U.S. Army, has been released in 2002, and designed as a public relations effort to attract young males to the military service through popular electronic entertainment. Meanwhile, Full Spectrum Warrior, a 2004 videogame which features squad-based military action, had been derived from a U.S. Army project that sought to utilize commercial gaming consoles for training military personnel. Therefore a number of videogame titles actively blur the lines between entertainment and training for use of violence in many ways, but what they did not give rise to a surge of public outcry like Six Days in Fallujah did, because they only dealt with hypothetical, fictionalized situations as backgrounds (of course, there are a few exceptions like Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, which shares the subtitle and settings with a Hollywood film, received similar criticisms), not a war whose legitimacy has been at question since the beginning.

Due to intense protests following the announcement of the game, Konami recently cancelled the plans to sell Six Days in Fallujah altogether. It is yet unknown whether the developer Atomic Games will seek to secure another publisher to release the game, it may be for everyone else’s better that it has been retracted. Now I am reminded of a salient comment on the announcement of Fallujah earlier this month; a person who referred to him-or-herself as “mabadaba”, claimed to have served in the times of the assault on Fallujah, noted that,

I play games to enjoy myself, and I feel that there needs to be a certain amount of time before the terrible events of a war can be adapted for this medium. The battle, despite US overwhelming technical superiority, was hard fought and devastating. It shouldn’t be revisited so quickly by an entertainment medium, it needs to rest first, people need to digest these types of events for many years. I think there are several methods of exploring these events that should occur well before an interactive simulation of them is created, books and documentaries in particular. Wars should be intellectually explored, and I even think there is merit in using video games as a medium to view war from but it feels entirely too early.

There are certain levels of freedom that creative media, be it performed instantly or recorded on a material, should enjoy as forms of expression. Six Days in Fallujah wouldn’t have been legally challenged to be released as an entertainment title after all. The state is generally not eligible to judge nor sanction a particular manifest of expression, at least in the United States thanks to the constitutional basis found in the First Amendment. Whether Atomic Games depict killing Iraqi insurgents as an entertaining experience on their game title or not, it is not the role of government officials nor judges to regulate what the developer does.

The desirability of such things are rather left for the general public to decide, whether they are artistic paintings, feature films or videogames. Of course, the public can often be wrong about those expressions, too. Any forms of art, however, always brings a certain level of critiques to be recognized as a legitimate, artistic expression, and videogames cannot be an exception. If Six Days in Fallujah, a videogame, is entitled to be protected as a form of expression like other forms of art (as the medium has sought to have), it is also open to criticism which the Hollywood film Rules of Engagement met upon its release, or even a satirical cartoon (whose kind enjoys a wide range of political freedom in the U.S., by the way) on New York Post faced with allegations of racism.

Retracting and declaring “[a]t the end of the day, it’s just a game” therefore makes little sense here, as it simply compromises many years of efforts to debunk the myths about videogames (the same kind of myths that rhythm and blues music degrading American culture in 1940s; hippies corrupting America in 1960s; and hip-hop music degenerating the youth from 1990s to present day) and unfold serious arguments to have it accepted in the world. Though fortunate it is that Konami decided to pull the Iraqi-war-inspired game off its portfolio, I still find that Atomic Games and Fallujah, similar to any other creators of art and their properties, carry a certain sense of responsibility, although vague, not to cross some lines, especially considering that videogames have more robust power to put its users into the shoes of particular roles.

For example, even though World War II games are generally acceptable today, especially when it’s about killing Nazis (undeniably “bad” guys) in the name of justice and freedom, no videogame has so far allowed the gamers to simulate the Bombing of Dresden, because above all the conviction that Nazi Germany was an evil regime, destroying a city to rubbles and killing up to forty thousand civilians were hardly justifiable by any means. Similarly, would the Battle of Fallujah ever be suitable to be enjoyed as an entertainment, even if Operation Iraqi Freedom as a whole turns out to be righteous after all? Would someone first create a videogame on My Lai massacre or Tiger Force, appointing the players as the U.S. soldiers involved in the killings, please? Maybe Vietnam War could no longer be too early to make into a videogame.

Well, there are still grey areas between what is appropriate to be represented in a videogame (as a form of artistic expression) and what should not be recreated as an entertainment of any form. Some may reject any videogames that feature any rate of violence altogether as a deterioration of culture, and some others may defend all kinds of videogames, including Postal or Manhunt, as a legitimate form of art. Nonetheless, while videogames or any other forms of art or entertainment should not be prohibited (unless involved with criminal acts), they should be subject to various opinions and critiques that may arise due to their formalities and contents. The case of Six Days in Fallujah can indeed be seen as a healthy indicator that our world is not comfortable with exploiting a recent event of violence that, regardless of values, took thousands of lives. And the circumstance, under which videogames are intricated in certain political values and landscapes, may signify less that videogames are discriminated as an inferior form of entertainment, than that they are starting to be accepted as a serious form of art like films, novels, and music do.

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