Six Days in Fallujah and the Dirty ‘G’ Word

Six Days in Fallujah, which I wrote about before, is still alive and kicking, despite fierce opposition and lack of a publisher. Its opponents say its very existence as a game belittles the sacrifice of those who died there. Its supporters say it’s an honest record of the battle.

It should be published. Then we can all play the game and decide for ourselves how it treats the memory of the fallen.

A couple of days ago, I ran part of a training session for journalists from BBC News.  It was a day-long course on the new possibilities offered by new media. I told them about the power of using video games as journalism, including Darfur is Dying, Insurgency and Six Days in Fallujah. The people I was talking to are hard-bitten, editorial types. They’re the people who make the news happen, who send pictures from war zones and famine areas to our living room TVs. I could see them stir uneasily in their seats when I mentioned the ‘G’ word.

There’s a prejudice against games as a medium for significant content. On one hand I understand this, because video games are still new, and many people are still likely to think of them as something invented as a plaything for their kids. On the other hand, this prejudice is odd, given that video games are the most popular medium in our civilization and many (if not most) of them deal with one of the most significant subjects of all: death.

I concede that the prejudice is reinforced by the fact that many video games are violent, sensational, visceral fun.

But then again – so are most movies.

Most movies are sensational, entertaining. But that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of significant communication. I think most of us would agree that there’s a way to make movies about difficult subjects sensitively and appropriately. For example: United 93, Generation Kill, Schindler’s List . . . need I go on?

So – why can’t we treat video games the same way?

Know Thine Enemy

Like many unjust prejudices, the prejudice against video games is founded on a lack of understanding.

Dan Ephron writes in the latest issue of Newsweek:

Efforts to document war in new ways have always garnered skepticism and controversy. The first published photographs of dead American servicemen—including a 1943 shot showing three bodies sprawled out on Buna Beach in New Guinea—prompted a public outcry. The effect of television footage beamed from Vietnam directly to the living rooms of Americans was hotly debated throughout the war.

This same prejudice is back, and it has crystallized around Six Days in Fallujah. Opponents say the game is trivializing and disrespectful by its very nature as a game.

But let’s look at the way the game was made:

Peter Tamte [head of Atomic Games, Six Days‘ developer] says he got the idea to make a videogame of the Fallujah battle from Marines who fought there. Starting in 2003, he worked closely with members of the Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment, to make training simulators based on games he’d helped develop. A year later, those same Marines ended up at the center of the Fallujah battle, code-named Operation Phantom Fury. When they came home, Tamte says, several were already contemplating how they could turn their experience into the kind of game they themselves would want to play.

So the very origin of this idea came from the men who fought and lost friends there. If soldiers wanted to write a book or film a movie about their experiences we wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Why should we dismiss their desire to tell their stroy just because it is in a new medium?

From an editorial perspective, Atomic’s commitment to accuracy is impressive:

Capt. Read Omohundro, who led a Marine company in Fallujah and lost 13 men there, acts as a kind of quality-control manager for Six Days. “I’ll say to them, no, that guy has to be facing the other way. This piece of ammunition doesn’t blow up so fast, it only detonates this much. You can’t be standing next to it when it goes off or you’ll become a casualty.”

The game’s makers also appear to have treated the dead with respect, by not including any dead Marines in in-game cinematics. Though this gesture is also the target of some criticism – does that make the game less accurate as a documentary?

Procedural Accuracy

Or: It’s about the way it works, not the way it happened.

I’d say this game can be accurate even with those changes made above. That’s because any game’s accuracy is procedural, not narrative – that is to say, a game is accurate if it works the same way as the real thing did, not if everything in the game happens the same way it did in reality.

If you think about it, it’s impossible for everything in a video game to happen the way it did in reality. There wouldn’t be much point in playing it if you could only follow one pre-set sequence of actions. Then it’d be a 3D movie, not a game.

The whole point of using a video game to convey the reality of the battle of Fallujah is that the player can figure out the way things worked during the battle, and get at least some sort of appreciation of what it was like for those who fought there.

Hell, Abstracted

I’ve never been in the military, and I have the greatest respect for those who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. That includes two of my best friends from Montreal, who are now serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.

I don’t think any media experience can really convey what it’s like to be out there in a battle. But some can get close – and each medium increases our understanding in different ways.

War is something we need to understand, not ignore. If done with sensitivity, in an appropriate manner, this is a gesture of respect towards those who have made sacrifices in battle. From what I’ve seen, it looksl ike the folks at Atomic have made every effort towards sensitivity and appropriate treatment.

Why should we deny ourselves the use of our civilization’s most powerful communications medium as we seek to understand war and appreciate the experiences of our soldiers?

p.s. The rest of Ephron’s article makes for interesting reading and is well worth a read.

6 thoughts on “Six Days in Fallujah and the Dirty ‘G’ Word

  1. This is tough to read.

    “Miller listened politely, but remained skeptical. ‘By making it something people play for fun, they are trivializing the battle,’ she told NEWSWEEK.”

    This is obviously bunk. As I like to continually point out, someone in the dark ages was probably saying the same thing about reading. Do I demean the sacrifices of Russian and German troops at Stalingrad by enjoying a popular history by Anthony Beevor? This is patent b*llshit, and it’s hard not to get angry about it.

    It’s hard to imagine that the same woman was able to come up with an objection as relevant as this:

    “She worries that Six Days, precisely because it aims to re-create the Fallujah battle so realistically, will further desensitize youngsters to the horrors of war. And she’s concerned that insurgents will learn about the operational procedures of American troops.”

    Those are fair points… not necessarily realistic ones, but relevant. The route that this information would have to take to get from a North American 360 to useful intel in Iraq would probably be circuitous – but it isn’t impossible. Anthony Beevor wasn’t exactly in danger of spoiling things for Stalin with a book published 60 years later.

    The immediacy of modern media presents us with a lot of questions about censoring this kind of game. That said… wouldn’t it be better to see this game done well? Wouldn’t it be better to include the names of real soldiers? All of these things are done by authors regularly, often without the permission of the families of those involved. It isn’t always right… but it could be valuable.

    As for desensitization; it’s too late for that now. Video games are a large part of the language of this generation. Everyone needs to get used to this idea, AND LET THE NEW MEDIA PLAY.

  2. “video games are the most popular medium in our civilization and many (if not most) of them deal with one of the most significant subjects of all: death.”

    No, they deal in Killing. If Games dealt in Death and dying then seeing a Team-mate gunned-down would affect us emotionally, like the portrayal of War in “Black Hawk Down” (the Film, not the Game). I am old enough to remember some of the scenes of the reality of the Vietnam War on the evening news, again, it isn’t as immediate as actually being there, but compare that to Battlefield:Vietnam…no civilians in those villages or paddy fields? (not that I’d WANT to see them there!)
    I have been fascinated with WHAT Death is, you know, possible After-life and all that..even that is avoiding the experience of dying, which none of us ever can. there’s no “save and reload” in Real Life (at least not yet!)
    Yes, I love playing Games of conflict, but until there is a meeting of Art and Life, such as is seen in the most moving/affecting and effective of Films, translated into Gaming, then it’s a case of endless bloody KILLING, not DEATH.

    1. Interesting point. To be sure, there’s a difference between killing and dying. And I’d be the first to point out that video games aren’t particularly good at dealing with this in a particularly intelligent way. Not usually. But the fact is that it’s a young medium with plenty of room to grow. I think games like this are a step in the right direction.

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