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War Games

Games have every right to explore modern wars - but they must tread with care

It's difficult to sympathise with the positions of those leading the calls for Konami's forthcoming Iraq War game, Six Days in Fallujah, to be banned. Newspapers like the Daily Mail, which is leading the charge in Britain, have a lengthy and unpleasant history of building support for censorship and authoritarianism through reporting which is biased at best, and utterly ignorant or dishonest at worst - with this week's piece on the Konami game tipping precariously into the latter camp.

It's not just the fact that the Mail and others are essentially calling for the worst form of censorship, the blocking off of an entire event and saying "this is off limits, and may not be portrayed" - something which would stab to the very heart of the freedom of expression our media should be championing. Nor is it even the strong impression that some of those quoted in the article were duped by the Mail's journalists, with their reactions being based on inaccurate and biased information about the game provided by the writers themselves.

No, the thing that rankles most about this situation is the fact that this is a tabloid newspaper telling another medium that the way in which it's handling current events is insensitive. I won't need to remind any reader who walks past a newsstand on the way to work, or flicks on Sky News or CNN in the evening, just how "sensitive" the news media is in its coverage of war.

The absurd, adolescent delight in footage and pictures of battles and bombing, the huge print headlines filled with action-movie soundbites like "Shock and Awe" or "Mission Accomplished". At the invasion of Iraq, 24-hour rolling news breathlessly reported on the latest bombardments, piping live feeds of the green-tinged sky over Baghdad filled with smoke and explosions into every living room in the western world. Reporters can barely conceal their glee when machineguns rattle and bombs drop. This isn't news. It's pornography. War porn, on every TV screen and splashed on every front page with garish colour photography and three inch high headlines.

And the same organisations, the very same people who produce this extraordinary deluge of crass sensationalism, who feed the baser instincts of their viewers with violence and slaughter dressed up as something sexy, exciting and empowering - these same people have the gall to turn to a videogame which they almost certainly haven't even seen in action, shake their heads and go, "oh no, that's terribly insensitive"?

None of which, of course, is to say that Six Days in Fallujah deserves to be entirely free of criticism - it may, indeed, be perceived as insensitive in some quarters. However, it is but a product of our times - and if we've come to perceive war as entertainment, well, look no further than the news media for the pioneers of capitalising on that perception.

Looking beyond the astonishing hypocrisy of the Daily Mail and other such outlets, however, one aspect of the controversy surrounding Six Days in Fallujah leaps out at me as being particularly saddening.

I refer to the comments made by Konami's VP of marketing, Anthony Crouts, when speaking about the game to the Wall Street Journal. "We're not trying to make a social commentary," he told the paper. "We're not pro-war. We're not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience. At the end of the day, it's just a game."

What a thoroughly depressing attitude for a senior executive in our industry to hold. At its most basic level, it raises questions about how well some people in this market actually understand the concept of a "compelling entertainment experience". Compelling entertainment is compelling exactly because it does make people uncomfortable - because it challenges their perceptions in intelligent ways, because it makes them think, placing them in unfamiliar situations in which their day to day morality and rules don't apply.

Compelling entertainment is something which you're still thinking about hours or days after the experience. Shy away from that, as Mr Crouts seems so keen to do, and you're left with nothing but popcorn - shallow, disposable, forgettable. In their desperation to avoid taking a stance or offending anyone, executives who think in these ways relegate creativity to bland mediocrity.

However, there's something else I find disquieting about Crouts' statement. There is a great deal of media about war, even about wars of the recent past and those still ongoing now. Books, films, music and TV shows which deal with the topics emerging from the War on Terror abound. Even those which don't directly address the war address the issues it has raised - the recently completed Battlestar Galactica, for example, has won widespread acclaim for its nuanced and intelligent handling of issues which mirror those of the War on Terror.

If a game like Six Days in Fallujah is to have any value, it must come from adding something to that discussion. This isn't about taking a pro-war or an anti-war stance - although both are valid starting points, there are countless others. It's about making people think, informing them through their entertainment experiences, and commenting, as creators, on the media we create and the events we portray.

The alternative is that we simply beat our chests and declare that our latest simulation of war is the most accurate yet - championing beautiful graphics, realistic sound, lifelike physics, carefully researched weaponry and uniforms. If we go down this road alone, we are inviting players to turn off their brains and just enjoy the lovely war - and at that point, any moral high ground we may aspire to in debates with the likes of the Daily Mail is lost.

Game developers working on war games need to take a lesson from the creators of books and films on modern warfare. They always have a stance, something to say, a lesson they want the public to learn. This is what makes their work valid and relevant - and what separates it from the shameless war pornography peddled so often by newspapers and TV networks.

If we're just going to get lost in an orgy of tech specs and polygon counts, slapping ourselves on the back over realism without ever considering reality, then perhaps, for all its hypocrisy, the Daily Mail has a point in the end. The "it's just a game" described by Anthony Crouts, which lets people experience war without feeling "uncomfortable", sounds like the most horrific thing I can imagine - the worst variety of war pornography we've yet created.

I don't believe that Six Days in Fallujah will turn out to be remotely as deplorable, nihilistic and pointless as its marketing boss seems to want the world to believe - but if we continue to treat war games as popcorn entertainment which should aspire to nothing greater than giving people a comfy ride through a shattered warzone, it won't be long before we reach those depths. Attitudes need to change in the games industry before we can start changing minds outside.

Author

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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