Despite real-world locales and arsenals, realistic first- and third-person shooters tend to shy away from too much realism. Shooters set in modern times, such as “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” or “Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas,” steer clear of the headlines and revolve around fictional stories of terrorists threatening to topple unstable regimes in often unnamed third-world nations. It’s up to the player, often taking on the role of an American soldier or Marine, to clean up the mess.
These fictional scenarios can still give us new appreciation for the world we live in. Despite a “what-if” storyline, “Call of Duty 4” took gamers to Pripyat, Ukraine, near the epicenter of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Touches like this go a long way, but if you want your military-themed shooters to give you perspective on more recent conflict, you’re likely to be disappointed. When it comes to games based on historical conflicts, World War II dominates, and the past 50 years of global warfare go virtually untouched.
We got a taste of why that is this week, when publisher Konami dropped “Six Days in Fallujah,” a game based on a battle in the Iraqi city in late 2004. “Six Days,” announced a few weeks ago, touched off a near-immediate controversy from veterans, families of service members and anti-war activists, and, looking at the circumstances, it’s not hard to see why. The second battle for Fallujah, upon which the game is based, resulted in heavy casualties among insurgents, U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians alike. Disputes over just how many Iraqi civilians were killed continue to this day, as does debate about the United States’ use of white phosphorous, which many regard as a chemical weapon, to attack Iraqi targets.
In other words, like many engagements in the Vietnam War, the battle depicted in “Six Days” is one in which the “good guys” might operate in a moral gray area. Going from door to door in search of insurgents, occasionally opening fire on the wrong people, is a far cry from liberating Dachau and Auschwitz. To try to capture the nuances of the Fallujah battle, the game’s developer, Atomic Games, had talked to American soldiers, Iraqi civilians and, reportedly, former insurgents, another point of controversy.
As a champion of video games as a storytelling medium with the power to rival film, I have no problem commending the game’s developer, Atomic Games, for tackling such a weighty subject. Indeed, you don’t even need to ask whether “Six Days” would prompt the same level of outrage if it were a book or a PBS documentary. But Atomic’s aim to make the game a new lens through which to view the war in Iraq, rather than a mere entertainment product, wasn’t enough to get Konami to rally behind the game when it came under fire. It probably won’t be enough to assuage other jittery, controversy-shy publishers who might seize the baton.
This may be just as well. First- and third-person shooters have a reputation as being the popcorn action movies of the video game world, and it’s fair to wonder whether the foul-mouthed kids who play “Call of Duty 4” on Xbox Live would see “Six Days in Fallujah” for what it aims to be or simply view it as a fun way to kill Iraqis. Furthermore, it’s worth asking whether a major commercial video game that potentially casts U.S. troops in an unfavorable light should center around a battle less than 5 years old from a war that’s still ongoing.
Rather than navigate Fallujah’s political minefield, Atomic could explore many of the issues that have cropped up in Iraq by making a Vietnam War title that includes the torture of American prisoners of war, the massacre at My Lai or the CIA’s alleged role in trafficking heroin to finance the secret war in Laos or Cambodia. For an idea of how this could work, you need look no further than “M*A*S*H,” a movie and TV show set during the Korean War that offered poignant commentary on Vietnam as that conflict drew to a close.