The Ryan Lambie Column: Konami controversy

Konami is releasing a game based around events in Iraq in 2004. Is this one step too far?

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

While first-person shooters set in historical conflicts like World War II are pretty run-of-the-mill these days, Konami have stirred up a potential hornets’ nest by announcing their intention to publish Six Days In Fallujah, a third-person shooter based on a real-life battle that took place in Iraq in 2004.

Unsurprisingly, those cheerful souls over at the Daily Mail aren’t too happy about Six Days, and recently ran an article in which Reg Keys, the father of a Red Cap soldier killed in the Iraq conflict, said, “It’s much too soon to start making video games about a war that’s still going on, and an extremely flippant response to one of the most important events in modern history.”

While it’s easy to dismiss the Daily Mail’s reaction to Six Days as yet more evidence of their ill-researched antipathy towards video games, Atomic Games (the US-based dev team behind Six Days) haven’t helped matters with their oddly contradictory press releases; while they have argued that their game is a respectful take on a real-life event (“[It] combines the action of a military shooter with the realism of a documentary film to create a new kind of experience that is both historical and engaging,”) and the involvement of ex-Marines and Iraq war veterans in its production suggests that not everyone in the military finds the concept offensive, Atomic have also reportedly described their project as ‘just a game’.

Early previews of Six Days appear to show a decidedly unrealistic Gears Of War-inspired experience rather than the documentary-style combat simulation hinted at in earlier press releases – Shacknews said, “We didn’t see any of the moral choices or ‘survival horror’-esque situations that the developers have mentioned. All I saw were scenes straight out of a Battlefield game.”

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There’s nothing wrong with the type of gameplay found in Gears Of War, of course, but it’s the type of game that revels in violence rather than showing the grim reality of it, as a ‘respectful’ game surely must.

It’s an inherent problem with video games in 2009 – they’re little more than a playground where you can kill people and destroy things without the dangers and ramifications of real life. In a racing game, you can drive far more recklessly than you ever could in reality, because you know that a crash won’t injure or kill you – the only cost will be a poor lap time. Similarly, a first- or third-person shooter allows you not only to blunder about the battlefield without fear of death or injury, it allows you to kill without conscience. Whether we like it or not, war-themed video games appeal to our darker instincts – they speak to the hunter-gatherer in all of us.

Generally speaking, the alternate reality the video game creates is essentially a sociopathic one, a place where the player is unfettered from moral constraints or real world fears. In Grand Theft Auto IV, for example, you can walk up to a random passer-by and beat them to the ground with little fear of recrimination. Is it possible – or even desirable – to attempt to reintroduce moral consequences, to attempt to simulate the real horror of killing, back into this environment?

(A note in passing: I’m not, in any way, saying that we gamers are ourselves sociopathic – merely that games allow us to do things we would never even consider in real life, whether it be a drive-by shooting or taking control of a fighter jet.)

Other media such as cinema, art or literature can represent the complex nature of war because they’re presenting a single perspective to a passive viewer; the interactive nature of video games means that the player is actively participating in killing people – albeit in a simulated environment. As an example, consider the difference between watching the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, which depicts the Normandy Landings with terrifying immediacy, and compare the scene to its digital analogue in Medal Of Honor – the latter entirely lacks the gut-wrenching impact – and humanity – of Spielberg’s film.

And if it were possible to make a genuinely realistic and ‘respectful’ simulation of war, would we really want to play it? If it could instill in us the feelings of dread, pain, and the horror we would surely feel if our comrades were killed all around us, could we bear to play more than five minutes of it?

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The things that make war futile, horrible and tragic – the suffering, the dehumanisation, the needless loss of life – are difficult things to simulate in a medium where actions rarely have a serious consequence. And without consequences, you don’t provide a true, respectful depiction of war; you merely create another battle-themed shooting gallery.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.