If war is hell, then should war games really be entertaining? That’s the question surrounding “Six Days in Fallujah,” a title based on the 2004 battle of Fallujah that was supposed to be published by Konami later this year. On April 28th, the industry titan dropped the project amidst cries from vets that the game would exploit the war for vicarious thrills and, in doing so, disrespect all of those who lost their lives in the battle. But in interviews, development studio Atomic Games made it clear that “Six Days in Fallujah,” which was created with the input of Marines who fought in Fallujah (and who, according to a Joystiq interview, were to be featured as avatars), was driven by a desire for realism. The aim was to recreate harrowing true-life events with as much fidelity as possible, the result being a hybrid of a military simulation and a conventional third-person shooter. That uneasy balance between presenting the horrors of war and delivering what Atomic president Peter Tamte referred to as a “compelling” experience seems to have spurred the backlash that scared Konami off.
With the media having been shown only scant gameplay footage of “Six Days in Fallujah,” it’s impossible to gauge how successfully Atomic Games achieved its objectives. But the title’s cancellation raises a larger issue of representations of warfare. The video game industry makes a mint on war games, whether they be of the sci-fi variety like “Halo” and “Gears of War” or, more pertinently, of the reality-based sort best embodied by Activision’s lucrative “Call of Duty” series. The “Call of Duty” franchise has plundered past conflicts for more than they’re worth, so thoroughly strip-mining WWII for first-person-shooter action that the thought of reenlisting for another violent European tour against Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan makes me want to flee for the soothing pastures of “Little Big Planet.” And WWII hasn’t just served as a general setting for “Call of Duty”: concrete key events, from Pearl Harbor to Normandy Beach, have been meticulously reconstructed to provide gamers with ripped-from-the-history-books experiences.
Given the controversy-free “Call of Duty” games’ enduring popularity, not to mention that of so many other like-minded military series, the howls of disapproval generated by “Six Days in Fallujah” can’t simply be about its realistic portrayal of war. With each successive console cycle, certain genres take leaps and bounds towards greater photorealism, and in the case of war games, that authenticity is crucial to immersing players in the proceedings. And the fact that Atomic Games enlisted (by their count) dozens of Marines to consult on getting the details right — whether it be the way the battle progressed or the means by which enemy combatants used civilians as human shields — strikes me as a reasonable way to ensure that crass exploitation be avoided. Not to mention, of course, that the army itself has no fundamental qualms with the video game medium, as evidenced most recently by the “Army Experience Center” in Philadelphia’s Franklin Mills Mall, where a gaming arena featuring networked Xboxes and PCs actively entices visitors to enjoy some “Halo” while considering enlisting.