What controversies over Six Days in Fallujah, Modern Warfare 2 and Medal of Honor tell us about ethics and realism in the gaming industry.
SPEED, AUTOMATION, AND virtualization are concepts regularly applied to future-of-warfare thinking, but contemporary fetishisation of the virtual battlefield sometimes overlooks the fact that military strategy has always been an exercise in abstraction. While the technological evolution from iron sights to digital heads-up display (HUD) systems has profoundly changed conflict, the complexity of troop and resource coordination across space and time is fundamentally about managing information and uncertainty – the ultimate game of skill.
Arts writer and cultural critic Ed Halter tackled the interplay between war and gaming at length in his 2006 book From Sun Tzu to Xbox. He explained, among other things, how many of the earliest examples of board games and games of chance from China, India, Egypt and the Middle East, were in fact crude metaphors for war. Drawing on this tradition, chess, for example, distills interactions down to a telegraphic style of brutal choreography—rook at A8 takes pawn at A4, checkmate—in a contest where opponents compete to build a lethal position that offers no possibility of escape.
In contemporary military vernacular, such a sequence of events is known as a “kill chain” – the process by which a target is identified, forces are dispatched, commands are issued and the target is destroyed. Military tactics involve the careful calibration of a series of discrete actions to ensure the efficient elimination of hostile forces while protecting friendly units. At an organizational level, violence is algorithmic and military training is an elaborate game: individual grunts practice drills to reprogram their instincts and sublimate the self, and battalions of them participate in exercises that simulate plausible scenarios.
A number of related controversies in the gaming industry over the last two years have centered on “realistic” first- and third-person shooters. Several games have ignited public debate about representations of the military by focusing on operations that are still fresh in the public memory. Given the conceptual overlap between war and gaming, what can we learn about ethics and entertainment by studying these recent cases? By considering how they depict and frame conflict we might be able to draw some conclusions about what’s permissible and what’s taboo – at least as far as gameplay is concerned.
Operation Phantom Fury was the second major military operation to occur in the city of Fallujah in 2004. This US and UK-led offensive was launched to squash several thousand insurgents who had turned the city into a fortified, booby-trapped stronghold. Tens of thousands of civilians fled Fallujah in advance of the attack and the entire city was transformed into a bloody warzone for seven weeks. When the dust cleared, approximately 100 American, three British and 11 Iraqi soldiers had been killed as well as 1500 insurgents and an estimated 800 civilians. The fighting in Fallujah since been described as some of the most intense in Marine Corps history, so it’s no surprise that the narrative of this episode promptly migrated into the world of popular culture and entertainment.. On 6 April 2009, a Los Angeles Times article announced Six Days in Fallujah, a third-person shooter that would portray “the intimate and harrowing experiences of three dozen U.S. Marines from Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.”
The project was an initiative of Atomic Games, whose president described it as a way to gain insight into what “it was like to be a Marine, civilian or insurgent” during the drawn-out battle. Atomic Games brought several Marines who fought in Fallujah into the development process, and the storyline was to have incorporated numerous biographical anecdotes and incidents experienced by these individuals. Within days of the L.A. Times announcement, Six Days in Fallujah was being condemned by anti-war activists, military families and veterans organizations. Gold Star Families issued a blistering press release in which Joanna Polisena, who lost a brother in Iraq, lamented that “when our loved one's 'health meter' dropped to '0', they didn't get to 'retry' the mission.” Stop the War Coalition’s Tansy E. Hoskins described the project as reprehensible and accused Atomic Games of making light of military occupation and war crimes.
The complaints came from only a few vocal groups, but media coverage of the controversy made prospective publisher Konami, which had committed funding to the project, nervous enough to pull the plug. Comments from a Konami PR rep were ambiguous, suggesting the company was backing away from a bad sell rather than expressing an ideological position on the controversy. Soldiers who participated in Operation Phantom Fury, concerned stakeholders and the gaming community were never given the opportunity to evaluate Six Days in Fallujah on its own merits.
Six Days in Fallujah wasn’t the first such game to prompt a public discussion about the ethics of play and representation. Modern Warfare 2 (MW2) was the 2009 follow-up to developer Infinity Ward’s runaway 2007 hit Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Infinity Ward’s primary contribution to the Call of Duty franchise was to shift the focus from WWII-themed campaigns to heavy-handed geopolitical narratives for the 24 demographic. The storyline in MW2 tracks the onset of a war and bounces the player between the perspective of several characters in elite anti-terrorism units operating in Afghanistan, Brazil, Russia and Washington.
A level entitled “No Russian” places the player in the role of an undercover CIA operative who, after infiltrating a group of Russian ultranationalists, is forced to participate in a false flag attack on a Moscow airport in order to maintain his cover. A video walkthrough of the level reveals how the player has to move beyond conventional friend vs. foe scenarios, and is charged, instead, with massacring unarmed civilians. This sequence generated considerable buzz in advance of the game’s release, and its publisher, Activision, included an in-game warning that some players may find the level “disturbing and offensive”, and built in an option to skip the mission entirely, essentially creating a possible “alternate cut” of the game.
The most recent edition of Medal of Honor (MOH) generated publicity in advance of its mid-October release for allowing players to assume the role of Taliban soldiers in online multiplayer mode. In a narrative set in 2002 Afghanistan and loosely based on Operation Anaconda, the single-player campaign has the player assume a variety of special ops roles against the backdrop of the first year of the war. Given the context of the single-player mode, it’s perfectly logical to assume that multiplayer competition would draw on and recontextualize the characters and settings from the game narrative – who other than the Taliban as adversaries? The same complaints that plagued Six Days in Fallujah were levied against MOH, and publisher Electronic Arts (EA) ultimately caved and renamed the enemies in multiplayer-mode, from “Taliban” to “opposing force”. Like Six Days in Fallujah, a number of military consultants were part of the project, but a key distinction was that MOH had institutional support from the US Army’s Public Affairs office (who also liaise with Hollywood). The lack of communication between EA and the military regarding this relatively minor detail of the game led to the Army and Air Force Exchange Service refusing to stock MOH at stores on bases, even after the revision was made.
Was the MOH Taliban/opposing force controversy blown out of proportion? Undoubtedly, as the offending detail and EA’s concession are both completely unrelated to the actual experience of playing the game. British gaming journalist John Walker succinctly described, on the gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun, how fundamentally ridiculous moral outrage at a multiplayer deathmatch really is: “…it is multiplayer, and the rules definitely are different there. You’re not engaged in a narrative, and they’re unlikely to be attempting any notion of recreating the horrors of war. You’re in a respawning frag-fest of noise and homophobic slurs, where the colours of the uniform, and the colours of the skin, may as well be blue and red.”
Which brings this conversation full circle. It’s important to remember that all forms of wargaming are ultimately simulations, and that the parameters of these “models” shouldn’t be confused with actual conflict. Perhaps any attempt to adequately frame the sociocultural and ideological complexities of wars-in-progress within an immersive mass market medium are doomed. So with this in mind, what are the rules of (entertainment) engagement that can we surmise from the reactions to Six Days in Fallujah, MW2 and MOH that we’ve catalogued?
I’d say we’ve learned that the gaming industry is fundamentally uninterested in exploring gaming as a documentary medium – sticking to predefined genre templates is the easiest way to produce content without offending anyone. A related question, glibly posed by game studies scholar Ian Bogost: “Will commercial video games ever care enough about the world they share with war and sex and crime and brutality to want to speak about those issues in earnest?” And while experienced gamers are well versed in the nuances of role-playing, the general public is not - and it’s acutely sensitive to the visual representation of cultures that are (rightly or wrongly) perceived to be hostile. Mass slaughter and atrocities are also difficult to pass off as entertainment – in fact (horror movies notwithstanding) they’re downright unsettling and bad for business. If Six Days in Fallujah ever does see the light of day, chances are it probably won’t feature depleted uranium as a power-up.