The Needles

The Six Day Surprise


Six Days in Fallujah developer Atomic Games recently claimed it was “caught by surprise” when publisher Konami decided to withdraw its support of the project. I was surprised too: Surprised that nobody foresaw the immediate and strong reaction to the game’s announcement, surprised that Atomic was surprised and surprised that Konami got itself wrapped up in this mess in the first place.

Konami said it chose to drop the project after “seeing the reaction to the videogame in the United States and hearing opinions sent through phone calls and email.” And maybe Konami, a developer and publisher based in Japan – the country that gave us RapeLay – honestly didn’t see what the big deal was when it revealed Six Days to the world. But surely somebody – maybe in the company’s U.S. offices – would have suggested that releasing a videogame based on a war that’s still being waged might arouse some passions among the American people, and not necessarily in a good way.

The Battle of Fallujah (technically speaking, I believe the game covers the Second Battle of Fallujah) took place in late 2004, an uncomfortable proximity for many that’s compounded by the fact that the war in Iraq is still being fought. The game has support among some members of the U.S. military, a few of whom are credited with the bringing the idea and supporting materials to the studio. But a great number of people have expressed opposition to the game, despite knowing virtually nothing about it beyond the subject matter and Atomic’s claim that it intends to present the subject in a “documentary style.”

Which should come as a big surprise to absolutely no one, least of all the people behind Six Days. Basing a game – not a “serious game,” which Atomic also develops, but a mass-market entertainment product – on an ongoing war, especially one so heavily shrouded in ambivalence and unpopularity, is just begging for controversy. And while controversy can be a fantastic marketing tool, it’s only of value if you’re willing to stand up to it.

This is where things get dicey for Konami. It’s a mainstream company; it does games like Metal Gear Solid, Pro Evolution Soccer, Castlevania and Dance Dance Revolution. It needs the furor surrounding Six Days in Fallujah like it needs a hole in the head and since the game isn’t much of a threat to become a lucrative hit franchise, there really isn’t any good reason to continue carrying the torch. Fighting the good fight and refusing to bend to howls of outrage and ignorance sounds great in press releases and might even be fun for awhile but from a corporate perspective, it’s a path fraught with impracticalities.

“Every form of media has grown by producing content about current events, content that’s powerful because it’s relevant,” Atomic Games CEO Peter Tamte said last week. “Movies, music and TV have helped people make sense of the complex issues of our times.”

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The trouble with that argument is that the perception of videogaming has kept it distinct from other forms of entertainment. Television rots our minds and we blithely laugh it off; the movie industry has become a barren wasteland of schlocky, special-effects-driven shit and we keep shoveling our money into its maw. But videogames are viewed with derision and suspicion, and the idea that the format could be used to take a serious or even merely informative look at a sensitive topic like the realities of fighting a dedicated guerrilla insurgency is almost impossible to process.

Like it or not, it’s hardly news that games are still considered kids’ stuff. So what made Konami decide to step into that milieu with a title that’s almost certainly doomed to failure anyway? Konami isn’t exactly known for being on the cutting edge of the art form; neither is Six Days in Fallujah an iron-clad bazillion-seller that’s going to make people rich a week after it hits the shelves. Eliminate principle and greed and what do you have left? Stupidity.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh. Call it ignorance, willful blindness, misestimation, whatever. No matter how you want to couch it, driving with your eyes closed makes it hard to avoid smashing headlong into trees. The specifics of why Konami failed to anticipate what would happen when they turned the deaths of good American boys fighting for freedom and democracy in Iraq into a videogame (“being Japanese” is awfully thin as an explanation although I maintain there’s still some relevance) are unclear, but it’s obvious the publisher did not expect opposition to the game’s release to run so high.

It would’ve been nice if Konami had weathered the storm, but only if it also managed to release a game that lived up to its high-minded promotion as a “documentary” game. That in itself was never terribly likely, of course; as numerous observers have pointed out, videogames about war are fun precisely because there’s no actual war involved. A videogame that accurately echoed the real thing would be a hellishly un-fun experience that nobody in his right mind would buy, let alone play, as anything more than a curiosity, not exactly the sort of game that’s likely to set the charts on fire.

Tamte sounds confident that videogames are ready to move beyond their current state. “Are we really just high-tech toymakers,” he asked, “or are we media companies capable of producing content that is as relevant as movies, music and television?” Unfortunately, his optimism is tempered by ignorance on both sides of the fence. The outrage against the game was entirely uninformed but also very predictable and regardless of the game’s merits, Konami was foolish to either miss or ignore the inevitable backlash against it. Someday videogames will be ready to take on such heady matters. But as Konami very quickly learned, that day isn’t here yet.

Andy Chalk prefers a healthy dose of zombies in his war games.

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