Six Days in Fallujah: Another shooter game that refuses to question US militarism?
In 2009, gaming heavyweight Konami announced it would publish Six Days in Fallujah, a first-person shooter game set during the second Battle of Fallujah - a gruelling struggle between American-led forces and Iraqi armed groups, which lasted six weeks in the winter of 2004.
The offensive involving US and British troops, who eventually captured the city, left at least 800 civilians dead, according to the International Red Cross, making it one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War. Even five years after the battle, plans to release a game centred around the memories of the events created huge controversy, which resulted in Konami dropping the title.
With the local and regional fallout of the Iraq invasion now spanning nearly two decades, the entire episode is seen by many analysts as an unmitigated disaster. It’s therefore even more shocking to see the game return from the dead.
Now in the hands of Highwire Games, a studio made up of the developers behind the popular Halo and Destiny franchises, new publisher Victura announced in February that the game would be released at some point this year.
Given the soul-searching that followed the start of the war and the fact that there is a genealogy linking the invasion and the later development of the Islamic State (IS) group, you would think the creators of the game would have used the decade since it was dropped for some introspection. Instead of going back to the drawing board or dropping the game entirely, however, Victura and Highwire decided to awaken Six Days in Fallujah from its 11-year slumber.
There are many reasons to place a permanently suspicious side-eye to this spectacle. Peter Tamte, head of Victura, gave some worrying answers to pop culture and gaming site Polygon in response to the collective scepticism gaming aficionados such as this author have.
“We do want to show how choices that are made by policymakers affect the choices that [a marine] needs to make on the battlefield,” he said, showing some signs of the required self-awareness needed to demonstrate the complexity of warfare. However, he continued: “Just as that [marine] cannot second-guess the choices by the policymakers, we’re not trying to make a political commentary about whether or not the war itself was a good or a bad idea.”
It’s this second bit that immediately dissolves all of Victura’s credibility, even more than the cop-out, dual-narrative set-up created by Highwire, where you follow an Iraqi family fleeing from the violence, alongside the shooting gallery offered to the player, through the eyes of an American soldier.
Too often there are people who use the smokescreen of "avoiding politics" to absolve their own political principles from receiving any sort of criticism. The mind bends trying to untangle the cognitive dissonance required to claim a game about an actual war, in which people are shot at and in which people have the choice to shoot, can be anything but political.
The widely condemned disaster of the Iraq War has created a perfect opportunity for an engaging narrative that could expose the flaws not just of the overall war, but specific episodes, such as that of Fallujah.
Instead, Six Days in Fallujah seems destined to fall into a genre of creative output, which compartmentalises, by virtue of its focus on the experience of the US soldier, aspects of war that can never be separated. Every bullet shot has a narrative attached to both the person doing the shooting and the person on the receiving end. Victura and Highwire, by putting players primarily in control of a marine, choose to prioritise one of those narratives over the other. It is therefore the narrative the player experiences - that of the marine - that matters, not anyone else’s.
Highwire’s attempts to placate this concern by pointing to the subplot about a fleeing Iraqi family is simply not enough, abdicating responsibility by creating a false sense of balance. The effect of the war on ordinary Iraqis was about more than just running away from fighting and the impact of this specific battle remains visibly present. In just one example, years after the battle, survivors were giving birth to children with hugely increased numbers of defects and pediatric cancers.
Faux-strategists sitting in armchairs and cheerleaders of the war, as well as those trying to remain "neutral", such as Tamte, aren’t particularly interested in those details. It has ended up making the stories of war they produce - whatever the medium - stale and futile. High-profile developers seem unable to focus on any retelling of the Iraq War solely from the perspective of the ordinary people affected by it.
Since the resurfacing of the controversy, Victura has said that the events portrayed in the game are "inseperable from politics" but added that it has worked to ensure it includes multiple perspectives.
An industry-wide problem
Sappy stories to elicit empathy for US troops have never been the best vehicle to understand the nuances of war, especially in the shooter genre. Back in 2005, Ubisoft brought Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 to the market to prove otherwise. The game was praised for its attention to detail and for allowing players to follow the actual missions of real-life soldiers in World War Two. However, support for the allies in that particular war is much easier to digest for most, principally due to the atrocities blamed on the people they were fighting and the eventual formation of repentant and renewed governments in both Germany and Japan.
Since that release, most big-name studios seemed to have doubled down on creating war-based shooters or military-themed games without any semblance of nuance. Splinter Cell: Double Agent included a storyline of a Pakistani nuclear scientist selling dangerous materials, and eventually having his assassination authorised by the National Security Agency. Spec Ops: The Line follows Afghan-war veterans fighting in a follow-up war in sandstorm-hit Dubai. There was even a Blackwater game, celebrating Erik Prince’s infamous mercenary outfit, which was notably (and mercifully) awarded Giant Bomb’s Worst Game of the Year accolade. And before Call of Duty decided to bring a wrinkly Ronald Reagan back to life in its most recent instalment, it gave players the opportunity to literally blast bullets indiscriminately at civilians in an airport.
Maybe we should be thankful they’re less on-the-nose than 2003’s America’s 10 Most Wanted, which had you capture figures such as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. This military-video game industrial complex has led to an absurdist Twitter account showing which video games allow you to violate the Geneva Conventions and in what ways.
The silver lining about the ever-increasing ubiquity and mainstream enjoyment of video games is that it has brought huge opportunities for some developers to take creative risks and challenge our views on a range of complex topics. Papers, Please remains one of the gold standards, where you control a border crossing in a fictional Eastern European country, balancing your personal finances and the faceless bureaucratic orders from above in order to survive. But such offerings are exceptions rather than the rule.
In their place, we’re left with games about Arabs, the Middle East or brown people in general where developers aren’t even bothered to get the language right. The most recent example of this has come from the latest Hitman game, with Arabic incorrectly displayed from left to right in nonsense-level translation. As a side note, a previous Hitman game depicted Sikhs being killed in the holy Golden Temple, a highly insensitive choice given the deaths of hundreds of Sikhs at the Amritsar temple in 1984. It goes to show how little of an afterthought non-western cultures are at many gaming studios, where repeated mistakes are often ignored.
The root problem to avoiding military whitewashing, continuous errors and displays of ignorance within the medium is the need for more prominent Arab, African and South Asian gaming studios. These are places that don’t currently have the necessary funding for developers to fulfil their creative dreams, compared to other parts of the world. And although Japan and Europe (especially the UK) have been at the forefront of game development since the beginning, it seems to be a fixation for US developers to continually share stories of heroic troops in combat.
The US army has taken note, attempting to recruit newcomers via Twitch. But the current stalemate of bland-but-popular military games isn’t sustainable in this growing market and eventually it’ll have to make way, hopefully for something original, inclusive and much more exciting.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.