Sayonara Six Days in Fallujah, said video game publisher Konami earlier today, after former soldiers and activist groups tightened the rhetorical thumbscrews to the point the Japan-based company finally cried "Uncle." Konami had been set to publish the game sometime next year.
I'm not sure who to be more disappointed with: Konami, for caving to public pressure, or the pressuring public, for blankly deciding a game they've never seen and about which they've only the faintest mechanical inkling is automatically insensitive, inappropriate, and completely indefensible. I'll stop short of crying "censorship!" but I'm depressed that a few widely quoted individuals who rushed to judgment about a hypothetical simulation could fuel a public lynching before the actual game's been so much as glimpsed in action.
Hadn't heard of Six Days in Fallujah? It is (or was to be) a third-person shooter covering the Second Battle of Fallujah and developed by Atomic Games of Close Combat wargaming fame. I wrote about the game after it was announced a couple weeks ago, wondering whether a game based on any war could be entirely apolitical. As I said then, I was against the war in principle, but that doesn't mean I'm also flatly against the idea of attempting to confront what happened in the form of a "game" — a term to which I'd extend the definition "a virtual environment in which players can safely test hypotheticals." Note that I mean "safe" simply in the sense that a game lets you try, as well as see, and even to varying degrees experience things you couldn't otherwise. In the case of Six Days in Fallujah, it's supposed to involve coming to grips with some of the horrors of war.
Here's the deal. Some of the folks most offended by the notion of a game based on the fighting in Fallujah are Iraq vets and relatives of the battle's victims. It's impossible to grasp what they've been through, and difficult to argue with their position from an emotional standpoint, so I won't. What I will say, is that games deserve a chance to grapple with controversial, politically charged — and yes, even recent — subject matter. Just like any other creative medium, and without special exceptions made for one against another.
Was HBO's Generation Kill (based on Evan Wright's book about the Invasion of Iraq) a dramatized documentary, or "insensitive" entertainment? How about David Zucchino's Thunder Run, a journalist's narrative about the military's frenetic assault on Baghdad in the war's early days? What about In the Valley of Elah, an Iraq war film that touches on themes like prisoner abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder? That's acceptable? Because it takes the sort of somber, sober tone we're assuming a game like Six Days in Fallujah won't or can't?
I think what's happened here, is that some are seeing that word — game — and assuming a kind of intrinsic frivolity. If it's a game, it can't possibly treat with the material soberly. It's a game. It's mindless entertainment. It's obviously meant to appeal to kids who just want to shoot stuff.
Ever hear of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics? At the outset of his primer-cum-manifesto, McCloud makes a simple but powerful point. As he's outlining his thesis about what comics are capable of, he makes a crucial point about the power of embedded cultural tropes. In his example, one guy turns to another and declaims "Don't give me that comic book talk."
Comic book talk, an expression born of the notion that comics are frivolous. Silly. Stupid. Inane. Shallow. Add money and you can toss in adjectives like "opportunistic," "manipulative," and "exploitive," too.
Except — as many of us know, having played games like BioShock, or even Metal Gear Solid 4 — that's no more how a game has to be than a book or movie. Why assume that a game whose development team describes it as a documentary-style, politically-neutral historical simulation, is therefore, as Colonel Tim Collins put it, "an extremely flippant response to one of the most important events in modern history"?
All that tells me, is that games have a lot of rock-rolling to do before they're taken seriously, i.e. without the assumption that simply being a game is synonymous with superficiality.
I can't defend Six Days in Fallujah any more than I can condemn it. All I know is what the development team's told us. I've neither seen it in action nor played it.
Then again, neither have the folks who've decided to protest against it.
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