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Well, April was a pretty blog-unfriendly month, but fun. Moved into a new apartment with the g/f, game-jammed (will put that up soon, hopefully), missed out on contributing to another excellent Blogs of the Round Table (seriously, I should at the very least finish writing my January entry on Catch-22).

So, in order to satisfy my blogging guilt, I’m going to resort to what the internet was made for – taking apart a quote out of context. Well, not so much out of context in the light of all the press on Six Days in Fallujah. Anthony Krouts, VP of marketing for Konami said, shortly after the game was announced:

“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.”

The disconnect from this statement and the notion that Atomic Games would be interviewing insurgents for their perspective is kind of amazing, and, I’m just guessing here, probably some of the reasoning behind why Konami dropped the game like a hot potato with a IED stuck in it.

No matter how often it happens (and it does) it always suprises me when I’m told a pitch about a sensive topic that the pitcher is using for their game because they know it’s timely, but insists they won’t make a statement about it in their game.

The notion that you can make a game set in modern day Iraq without making a political statement is complete nonsense. You can’t even make a game set in ancient Iraq without making a political statement.

So even if you set out with that as a conscious goal, by not saying anything, YOU ARE STILL SAYING SOMETHING. Soldiers didn’t have rechargeable, HALO-style health in Iraq. They didn’t respawn, and I highly doubt they had fun.

Still, I suppose some credit should be given to both the Konami and Atomic Games folks for not mentioning the word fun, and coming the realization that a piece of entertainment need not absolutely and totally dispense with all seriousness in order to be compelling. That doesn’t really sound like the Gears of War clone described in the previews, but hey - the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.

If you set out to avoid commenting on the war, in the best case you’d end up with a theme closer to Black Hawk Down, that the horrors of war are survived only through the brotherhood shared between the men fighting. The notion of humanizing the war to highlight the fact that, whatever politics caused it, people are still losing lives, is a useful theme for people to see because of how easy it is to lose sight of that.

Such a theme can still influence someone’s political opinion. Perhaps people interpret it as highlighting the need to support our troops more with better resources, or temporarily increasing their numbers. Or perhaps it is interpreted that the toll on human lives is unacceptable and must be stopped no matter the ramifications. You can’t control what interpretation people are going to take away from a work focused on such an emotional topic that you better take very careful thought as to what you do and don’t include in it.

Ridley Scott can navigate that political minefield to bring us that perspective, but if you’re not Ridley Scott your chances are much slimmer. It’s actually easier to make a statement about the politics of the war than it is to create that kind of empathy.

If you set out to be as unbiased as possible and truly include all perspectives, that is also making a hefty statement in American political culture. The idea that you would actually talk to insurgents to get their perspective is fascinating to me for two reasons – because of the total disconnect people in western culture have with the notion of risking your life for a religious worldview thereby potentially increasing people’s cultural understanding, and pushing on the notion of games as a form of documentary.

Sadly, that perspective is absolutely untenable as being apolitical in modern America. I’d like for it to be otherwise, but it’s obviously unrealistic in a world where you couldn’t even mention a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq with being screamed at by the talking heads (albeit not The Talking Heads, although I’d rather live in that world).

Regardless of all of the above, I actually hope Atomic gets Six Days in Fallujah made. Whether it deals with these issues or avoids them, through the discussion around it we take one step closer to people accepting that they can be dealt with in the form of a videogame.

8 Responses to a space political

  • Dave Mark says:

    Excellent observations as usual, Borut. What I find amazing (and mildly ironic) is that you managed to remain completely neutral about the subject while you discussed the near impossibility of remaining neutral. :-)

  • steve says:

    Don’t you think it might conversely take people one step further AWAY from accepting that serious issues can be dealt with in the form of a video game?

    I can see the cable news story now: an anchor (perhaps Keith Olbermann?) takes a couple minutes to describe the real-life horrors of the siege on Fallujah, then says, “Here’s the video game version.” Footage of 6 Days plays, showing, well, a run-of-the-mill, frenetic shoot-em-up video game. He goes on to express his disbelief at video games’ ability to trivialize any subject, even one of the gravest battles involving American troops in recent history, one that still stings with the fresh grief of lost sons and daughters, etc. etc. This is the respect that video games have for the dead and wounded of our armed forces. For shame.

    And you know what? He’d be right. We need to have common sense and decency. We need to tell people who would make a game that callously trivializes current events that we aren’t interested. I know Konami didn’t can the title for any high-minded reasons, but good on them anyhow.

    Really what’s interesting about this to me is that 6 Days isn’t new or novel, it simply shines a light on a common trend through the lens of “too soon.” Are Call of Duty, Medal of Honor or Battlefield 1942 any different? How about Battlefield Vietnam or Shellshock or Men of Valor? No, but they’re about “okay wars,” ones that have been cooled off and dissected enough to be “fair game” for pure entertainment. It means people don’t bat an eye, but it also speaks no more highly of what video games do in the mass market space– turn complex, dirty issues into good clean fun.

    I think we’ll already look back at a whole swath of games with embarrassment over how we turned serious topics into shooting galleries. One more egregious example won’t do any of us any good.

  • Reid says:

    I agree with Steve. If the game doesn’t treat the subject respectfully then it’s better not to have it at all due to the likely backlash from the public and mainstream media.

  • Borut says:

    Ok, so I should clarify my last statement above – by people whose opinions need changing I really mean game developers.

    The thing is, the news is going to have those sentionalist stories no matter what. It could be about the next GTA DLC, or it could be about Six Days in Fallujah. If they can turn Mass Effect 2 into pornography, it’s clear to me the media doesn’t even have an opinion about the seriousness or dangers of games, they’re simply being sensationalistic to produce news. Will one more blip in all that noise make any difference? We’ve already had many state laws attempt to regulate games unconstitutionally and fail, so I think at some point these stories reach their saturation of signal to noise.

    The problem is not that the general public or media doesn’t believe we can create a game that tackled such a serious topic. It’s that we as an industry don’t believe it. Game developers on average either think we can’t do it, or it’s not worth it. At least being able to see someone else having tackled it, even poorly, we can then say “Oh yeah, but if they did x, y, or z, that might have worked.”

    That level of clarity hasn’t yet been acheived with games like the Call of Duty series, even though they have had their serious moments – but they’re still completely fictional, or about “ok wars”. Having someone else fail *further* in that light is going to be useful to some developers. I think being able to deal with something “too soon” is a critical aspect of any art form, and in and of itself you can’t dismiss that aspect of it.

    So I should hope it goes without saying that I don’t wish a game like that to hurt people involved, like the families of fallen soldiers, not to mention Iraqi citizens. It’s just that having such a game come out and piss developers off is going to move more people to go out and do it better, in a way that doesn’t trivialize it. And I think it’s going to take something of that magnitude to get that to happen on a larger level.

  • Dave Mark says:

    Don’t put all the blame on the (admittedly) sensationalist media. Not only is the general public addicted to anything outside the 2nd standard deviation of normalcy, people these days are also almost desperate to be offended by something. Even if they have to invent a twisted, obscure, and entirely baseless inference in order to get their little dopamine-via-victimization fix.

  • Borut says:

    This is true, although that also lends itself to the notion that the whole viscious news cycle is better off ignored.

  • Gerald says:

    @ steve & Reid: Why the assumption that the game will trivialize and treat the subject with disrespect? By all reports, the game was initially undertaken upon the request of members of a marine battalion that served in Fallujah. See, for instance, http://www.gamepro.com/article/previews/209654/six-days-in-fallujah-revealed-pc/

    @Borut: I couldn’t agree more that the developer’s ability to present a neutral account of the Battle of Fallujah is impossible. But, I would contend that this is because different people with different points of view will make the game mean what they want it to, even though they’d be sharing the same expereince. I hope that developers and publishers will heed you clarion call and make games that people care to make meaningful.

  • Reid says:

    @Gerald
    I’ve read several quotes from Atomic execs saying they don’t want to make a comment or put forth an opinion through the game. Journalists have seen video playthroughs and the mechanics are no different than CoD. They’ve also said they want the game to depict the horrors of war, but have it be fun.

    Doesn’t make any sense and they seem to be completely clueless as to what their goals are.

    @Borut: I see your point… if our industry had articulate spokespeople who represented us on talk shows, I’d be more confident we could survive with fewer scars if Six Days turned out to be a horrendous train wreck.

    But you are right, the industry does need more attempts so we can learn from them.