The marginalization of America's veterans continues. Their deaths and sacrifices, along with those of others who suffered and died in Iraq, are becoming the stuff of video games even while the war continues. Earlier this year, the game developer Atomic Games and game publisher Konami Digital Entertainment announced a new game called Six Days in Fallujah. The game will depict "Operation Phantom Fury," a 2004 battle in which 1,500 Iraqis and at least 38 Americans lost their lives, and many more were injured. But veterans of that conflict will soon be able to bury their woes under simulated mortar and rocket attacks — and we can, too.
The description of the game is surreal. Atomic's president Peter Tamte unabashedly calls Six Days in Fallujah a survival horror game. "For us, the challenge was how to present the horrors of war in a game that is entertaining, but also gives people insight into a historical situation in a way that only a video game can provide," he said. Atomic boasts that it "develops training systems for many of the world's leading military and intelligence organizations." This activity, the company claims, provides an authenticity to "the events, tactics, and stories at the heart of real military and espionage operations." Tamte added, "Our goal is to give people that insight, of what's it like to be a Marine during that event, what it's like to be a civilian in the city, and what it's like to be an insurgent."
Significantly, Atomic is partially owned by In-Q-Tel, a private venture capital firm funded by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. So the CIA is funding video games that glorify the fighting in Fallujah. Who could have guessed?
Angry reactions erupted to the announcement of the game. Iraq vets and their families were appalled. Reaction was especially strong in the United Kingdom among families of those killed in Iraq. The UK peace group Stop the War Now said, "The massacre carried out by American and British forces in Fallujah in 2004 is amongst the worst of the war crimes carried out in an illegal and immoral war. ... So many people were killed in Fallujah that the town's football stadium had to be turned into a cemetery to cope with all the dead bodies." The group also claims that phosphorus and thermobaric weapons were used along with large-scale aerial bombardment.
Gaming industry supporters have tried to reframe the issue. "Games deserve a chance to grapple with controversial, politically charged — and yes, even recent — subject matter," Matt Peckham wrote in the "Game On" blog on the PC World web site. "Just like any other creative medium, and without special exceptions made for one against another." He compares Six Days in Fallujah to artistic depictions of the war in Iraq on film and TV. Peckham says the controversy demonstrates 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."
Still, in response to the controversy, Konami announced in late April that it will not distribute the game. Atomic, however, will continue to complete the game, and is seeking another publisher.
Like millions of Americans, I enjoy video games. I enjoy World of Warcraft and have played around with Sim City, produced by Emeryville's Maxis Software. I agree with Peckham that the issue is not games, per se. It is the dangerous and growing disconnect between reality and fantasy in contemporary life.
Like the characters on South Park, I have found myself seduced by the pirates of Somalia. When I was young, I read of the dashing exploits of such watery Robin Hoods, and I wanted to be one. But, of course, the reality of Somali piracy is different. And that came home for me when I realized I felt embarrassed seeing the captain of the hijacked American ship standing with his family in Vermont. Through subconscious association, I had confused reality and fantasy.
Nearly every form of contemporary culture feeds off the gap between reality and fantasy. That is often what is enjoyable. But sometimes enough is enough; at a certain point sliding down that slippery slope, you fall off into an unpleasant place. Too many important societal issues are affected by this divide today. The tepid opposition to Bush's wars occurred partially because it is too easy for Americans to maintain a distance from the horrific reality of war. The shameful stance of our country on torture is partially supported by the anesthetizing effects of the popular television show 24. This doughnut hole of reality can be seen in the fantasy financial products that seemed so real and risk fee yet are costing taxpayers trillions today.
Six Days in Fallujah also exemplifies the disgusting propensity of American-style business to attempt to make money off of anything while hiding behind a gauzy shroud of apoliticalness. Before the company pulled out of the project, a Konami marketing official said, "We're not trying to make social commentary. We're not pro-war. We're not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience." But of course this game glorifies the war, and a number of veterans may enjoy playing it for just that reason. Like some who fought in Vietnam, a few Iraqi vets will no doubt gravitate to arguments or cultural artifacts that validate their military experiences.
Except for the game's CIA financiers, my guess is that most of those associated with the game are honest when they say they are not overtly political. For them it is all about the Benjamins. That is unseemly, too.
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