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No Days in Fallujah

Posted by Nick Dinicola on May 1, 2009

So, Konami recently decided not to publish a game based on the Second Battle of Fallujah during the Iraq War, citing public outcry and negative criticism as their main reasons for the decision. Michael Thomsen wrote an article on IGN chastising the general public for holding tight to the out-dated notion that video games are somehow “lesser” than other mediums. A few days after, Steve Butts followed up with an article that, while not defending Konami’s decision, put it in necessary context. Both articles are worth reading for anyone who cares about video games as something more than mindless entertainment.

When I first heard about Konami’s decision I wholeheartedly agreed with every word Thomsen wrote. I was angry, no, I was pissed, that Konami gave in to the critics so quickly. And not just any critics, but critics who were offended by the game simply because it was a game. One really had to wonder if there would still be cries of “insensitive” and “trivialization” if Six Days in Fallujah were a movie instead. As someone who really believes, who knows, that video games are a powerful artistic medium, it was disturbing and depressing to see how vehemently the general public disagreed with me. Thomsen wrote,

“The war in Iraq has been examined in every other medium imaginable. Film, radio, theater, prose, television, fiction, non-fiction, journalists, and polemicists have all had a turn at trying to put the on-going conflict into a meaningful context. Apparently, videogames do not have a place in that ongoing social conversation. To see the battle in Fallujah interpreted as a videogame would be to marginalize it, to turn into an adolescent entertainment.”

Now, this game could easily be nothing more than adolescent entertainment, and setting it in Fallujah could just be a way to generate controversy and buzz. That is a very real possibility, but is that a reason not to try? The game was going to be controversial no matter what, Konami was willingly playing a game a chicken, but they backed out while the engines were still revving.  It was dropped before it had a chance to prove itself, and that was the most disturbing thing out of all this. As Thomsen writes, “What does it say about the corporations financing today’s most recognizable games when they are unwilling to stand behind their creative teams and defend their rights to take risks?”

The whole controversy felt like a giant step backwards for the game industry. But then I read the piece by Steve Butts, and I realized I fell into the same trap that so many other gamers have: Butts writes,

“I wanted to present my own case, not necessarily in support of the cancellation, but against the misguided idea that appeals to the artistic worth or experiential nature of a game are all that’s needed to justify its presence in the marketplace. […] Whether we agree with the decision, Konami has an obligation to respond to the controversy in a way that balances its bottom line against the importance of the game’s message.”

Taken at face value, his statement seems even more depressing than the lack of respect for games by the general public. He suggests that since games are a business, and controversial games are risky business, dropping the game was nothing more than a business decision (which is probably true). So does that mean business always takes precedent over the artistic? Money over meaning? Well, yes…of course. That’s capitalism for you. But we have to look past that at the reason the game was controversial to begin with, that’s the heart of all this after all.

In stepping back from the controversy after reading Butts’ article, I realized that the people decrying Six Days in Fallujah for being “insensitive” and “trivializing war” were not actually people that had a bone to pick with video games. These weren’t relatives of Jack Thompson, they were the family members of dead soldiers. Gamers have a tendency to rise up like a tidal wave against anyone who threatens, or even disagrees with, our hobby. In some cases this is appropriate in order to counter the sheer amount of inaccuracies our critics can spit out, like anytime Jack Thompson speaks, or the “Mass Effect ‘SeXbox'” ordeal. Other times this knee-jerk reaction backfires, as Butts notes:

Dismissing all objections to our interests as either oblivious or overprotective does nothing to develop among the general public any sympathy or understanding of what games, at their best, are able to achieve.

With that in mind, I started to wonder if, just maybe, it really is “too soon” for a game based on the Iraq War. I tried to list all the movies that explored the war, and my list came up shockingly short. There are actually very few movies about the Iraq War. Most movies instead explore the “War on Terror” or the effect of war on soldiers, but there is no Saving Private Ryan for the Iraq War. The 2005 FX show “Over There” was about the war, but was canceled after only a season, with speculation that people were just tired of seeing war on TV. It really was “too soon.” Other than that, the only show/movie I could think of that dealt directly with the war was HBO’s “Generation Kill.” I’m sure someone could point out an independent or foreign film that’s all about the war, but that’s besides the point. Six Days in Fallujah was going to be a mainstream game published by a mainstream publisher, essentially a Hollywood movie. And to my surprise, Iraq is a topic relatively untouched by Hollywood.

This isn’t meant to excuse Konami’s decision. Just because Hollywood hasn’t explored a topic doesn’t mean games can’t. But it’s important to note that games are not the only medium subjected to this kind of censorship (I hate to use that word since there’s such a negative connotation to it, but this really is censorship, albeit one self-imposed out of respect instead of forced upon us by a higher authority).

I really want to play Six Days in Fallujah; it could be a grand emotional experience or an exploitative shoot-em-up, but either way it’ll certainly be interesting to deconstruct, and regardless of whether or not it succeeds or fails, it will create discussion about games as a valid medium for serious stories. But that’s just me; I don’t know anyone that has died in Fallujah, or in Iraq, or that’s even been to Iraq, or that’s even been to the Middle East at all. I don’t have any stake in this game other than my curiosity as a gamer. Is that curiosity worth more than the feelings of those who have loved ones?

There has to be a middle ground somewhere. I can understand if it’s too soon for a game based on a real battle in Iraq, but at the very least games should be able to use the real names of nations without generating controversy. Instead of setting Modern Warfare 2 in “nameless Middle Eastern country,” how about setting it in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or somewhere else I can actually point to on a map. All the characters and battles and plot developments will be fictional, but the place will be real. Baby steps. After all, if there’s one thing I learned from war games, it’s that charging in just gets me killed.

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