One of The Bloodiest Battles In The Iraq War Is Becoming A Video Game
Are video games that cover real violence any worse than ones that depict fictional violence?
Six Days in Fallujah, currently being developed by Highwire Games, seeks to cover one of the Iraq War’s bloodiest battles. The second battle of Fallujah, also known as Operation Phantom Fury, happened in November of 2004, and by the end, around 100 US soldiers were killed. Hundreds more were wounded. Almost 2,000 insurgents were killed, and estimates put the civilian loss of life of somewhere around 800. Expected sometime this year, this will be the second push by developers to publish this game. It was initially dropped the first time by the publisher, Konami, due to serious objections from the families of service members that were going to be portrayed in the game.
Predictably, controversy has sprouted up around this game again. Critics are rightfully concerned with how Six Days in Fallujah aims to contextualize one of the most violent battles in the Iraq war. It has been almost two decades since its start, and public opinion about the war has plummeted, especially in recent years. This is just another example of game developers and publishers finding it hard to navigate the political waters of how video games once again collide with real life.
In response to criticism, Peter Tamte, head of Six Days in Fallujah publisher, Victura, gave an interview to Polygon, saying that “ he was insistent that developer Highwire Games will not grapple with the political machinations that led to the titular conflict. Instead, their first-person shooter will try to engender empathy for American troops in the field, for their work destroying the insurgents that dug in throughout Fallujah, and for the civilians trapped in between.” He went on to say, “ For us as a team, it is really about helping players understand the complexity of urban combat. It’s about the experiences of that individual that is now there because of political decisions. And we do want to show how choices that are made by policymakers affect the choices that [a Marine] needs to make on the battlefield. Just as that [Marine] cannot second-guess the choices by the policymakers, we’re not trying to make a political commentary about whether or not the war itself was a good or a bad idea. “
On the spectrum of video game companies trying to have it both ways, this one surely ranks high. This belief that if the game ignores the context of the war, then gamers will too seems risky. If your only goal is to help players “ understand the complexity of urban combat,” then why set your game in the midst of an ongoing real war that is already controversial? Surely, they must have known that just by choosing this setting, they’d be inviting a certain amount of critique.
A month after their interview with Polygon, Victura did release a statement that walked back some of their previous statements and promised a sufficient level of complexity when dealing with its subject matter:
While it remains to be seen just how complex Six Days of Fallujah will be, in its wake, discussions have sprouted up around what subjects are video games allowed to cover and if there are any that are off-limits or at the least inherently problematic?
Even the bad ones prove instrumental.
As of this writing, the makers seem determined to get the video game out there, yet in the wake of the Six Days in Fallujah controversy, some corners of the Internet are calling for the game to be dropped for a second time. My inclination is that in an industry that has historically shied away from political controversy and tough subject matter, we should be encouraging more games to tackle hard issues, not dismissing them out of hand before they are made.
This does not mean the creators of Six Days in Fallujah get a pass. Choosing to set their game in the midst of one of the bloodiest battles of an unpopular war makes their job a lot harder. If the game avoids taking a hard look at all the complexities surrounding the war and instead makes this a story about flat heroes and villains, then the developers certainly deserve the heaps of criticism that will surely come for them.
Even if this game fails, though, and amounts to nothing more than trite military agitprop, I want to see more game developers be brave enough to tackle subject matter like this. Tackling real events and complicated subject matter with real complex people is a practice that should be encouraged, not dismissed. Video games are one of the greatest storytelling mediums that humanity has at its disposal. They have a lot to teach us if we let them. If video games continue to shy away from the hard issues and complicated subject matter, it would be a disservice to all of us.
I want to see and play the game that thoughtfully tackles the Iraq War, one that tells the story of all the fatal and corrupt decision-making that led us there, the futility of a war that has no end in sight, the stories of the troops on the ground and their belief in the mission, the stories of Iraqi civilians and their struggles and frustrations with the occupation of their country, and frankly, the stories of the insurgents too. That sounds like a game that I would jump at the chance to play.
Video games and depictions of war.
Peter Tamte went on his interview with Polygon to say that “ when we cut through everything, people’s objection here to Six Days in Fallujah is more of an objection to the Iraq War…We’ve made games about other wars, and real stories from other wars, that have not gotten the attention and have not gotten any sort of controversy. So fundamentally, people’s objection is to the Iraq War. I don’t think we should be a proxy for that particular battle. “
While I disagree with his whataboutism premise, he hints at what I might dubb as gaming’s worst kept secret. War is a well-mined subject when it comes to video games. Why then can some games get away largely unscathed from criticism about the violence they portray while others aren’t so lucky? The criticism can come off as arbitrary and nebulous at times.
I’m not saying we should cancel Call of Duty or Fortnite, but at the very least, a pause might be warranted in evaluating why so many of our most popular games center around violence and war. The go-to line for many game developers is using the shield of imaginary events. Since the war, the people, and the setting are all fake; it doesn’t matter. Let’s kill with impunity.
This is not about whether violent video games cause violence either. That question has been put to rest for a good reason. This is about the line between the sober depiction of war and glorification of it, the sober depiction of violence, and the glorification of it. Yes, these games may be fun. Yes, they are sufficiently exhilarating. No, they do not cause violence, but when you take a step back, doesn’t it seem weird that these themes pop up again and again? Is it odd that we have international tournaments with millions of dollars on the line that goes to the most efficient and ruthless virtual killer?
If you don’t believe me, think back to Six Days in Fallujah. The critiques of that game are over whether the game will show a sober depiction of the Iraq war or ultimately end up being a glorification of it? If you are one of those worried about this game’s fate, is there cause to be worried about Call of Duty or The Division 2 or PubG or Apex Legends or any of the other war games that have become staples of the industry?
— — —
This post was originally published as part of a free gaming newsletter at https://thevirtualregister.substack.com. If you like what you’ve read and want more content like this, you can check out the full newsletter here.
Also, follow me on Twitter for even more unsolicited opinions.