This article was written in order (except for this disclaimer), from when I started investigating Six Days in Fallujah until the time I hopefully stopped for a long time. It’s kind of a wild ride because, it turns out, I went into this with a lot of preconceived notions and second-hand information.
In many ways, this is an exploration of the moral obligations of a gamer, a game developer, or a game critic. It all starts with a Twitter petition going around asking people to sign and retweet. I liked the petition tweet but I didn’t do the other things it asked. Why? On the very surface of it all, I hesitate to sign my name to petitions for various reasons: I feel like I should know what I’m signing, and I don’t want my name/money being used against me if I do sign something.
The petition called for the publisher of Six Days in Fallujah to pull the game, and that brought up a whole chain of other questions for me, and the tweets I saw involved other game developers, Arab people, and Muslims who I trust.
When I first saw the petition, I knew almost nothing about Six Days in Fallujah other than the title. Is it bad? Sounds like it. Could it be misinterpreted before it’s release? Absolutely. As a game developer, I don’t want to put other game developers out of their jobs, considering how often people try to crucify game developers without justification. Again, I follow multiple prominent Arab and Muslim people in the game dev scene who have been quite vocal about this “glorification of war crimes,” to paraphrase them. I respect their opinions, I think they’re valid, and I think people should listen to them. Do go and read their opinions (for example: https://twitter.com/tha_rami/status/1374448997876736011) before reading this.
In fact, as a white American citizen, do I even have a place to speak about this game? Yes, in a certain context. A different context than an Arab or especially an Iraqi person who experienced the war, but still a valid one for a couple reasons. First, I’m not writing this to them; I’m writing it to other Westerners to ask that they carefully consider the morality of their art in context. Second, without getting too personal, my life has been directly affected by the horrors of the Iraq War. Specifically, I am close to soldiers who have suffered PTSD.
And that, I argue, is one reason a game about the Iraq War could still be good and valuable while only focusing on the invading soldiers. Fullmetal Jacket and Apocalypse Now are deeply meaningful explorations of the Vietnam War from the point of view of the American soldiers, and I think we lack anything that approaches that level of art with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I want to see a game illustrate that American military chauvinism colonizes us all, and is destructive to us all, including American citizens. It’s not about giving the benefit of the doubt, it’s about demanding context in an era of zero context, and holding out hope that meaningful games can actually exist (although, again, this might not be one of them).
The second reason I didn’t sign is because I only have so much bandwidth for social issues. You have to pick your battles when you can, and I spend a lot of time doing research and writing academic articles on depressing things like Internet hate groups, lynching, and my most recent research which coincidentally covers the relationship between Islamophobia in media and arms sales. I simply didn’t have it in me to investigate Six Days in Fallujah without a specific reason.
But despite that initial reluctance, I decided I needed to dig deeper. From that delicate and strange starting point, I am now going to examine what can be known before the release of Six Days in Fallujah from the angle of social critique knowing literally nothing about the game beforehand.
Well Not Nothing
I do know the title, I know a bit about Fallujah, and I know Peter Tamte, the head of the game’s publisher, made the ridiculous claim that this game wasn’t “trying to make a political commentary.” That old chestnut. So, let’s get that out of the way first thing.
I know from the title alone that Six Days in Fallujah is political. In fact, everything is political. Everything. But in a more grounded aspect, art is political, games are literally performance and participation, and rooting a game in one of the most influential wars of our times cannot be anything but political. Saying something isn’t political is political. It serves the narrative that the US was simply reacting in the only way they could against the evils of Saddam Hussein, proxy symbol of jihadist aggression. It erases the false claims of WMDs and Western interference in the nation-states and borders of the region going back to World War I and beyond. But one man’s claim that it isn’t political also doesn’t necessarily speak for each designer and artist involved in the project. Aside from the fact that the publisher doesn’t make the game (the developers do), games are not made by one person, and subversive messages can exist even when art is ordered up by an authority as propaganda (see the many WWII-era Japanese (anti)war “propaganda” films that exist).
And with that third disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into this in the order I actually investigated it — starting with a brush-up on some facts about the battle.
The Second Battle of Fallujah
As the title indicates, Six Days in Fallujah covers six days of the Second Battle of Fallujah from the point of view of a squad of US marines fighting against Iraqi insurgents. Being the bloodiest battle of the war at the height of conflict, and since the game claims to follow true stories, there is potential for gripping drama at the very least and deep political commentary despite the publisher’s statements.
The battle kicked off because four members of Blackwater were killed in Fallujah and images of their mutilated bodies were broadcast internationally. Rather than go after the perpetrators specifically, the US decided to make a show of retaliation as was the nature of US foreign policy at the time. The fact that it was US contractors who were killed and the fact that the US wanted to wage a battle to purge the city of insurgents and make a statement are again topics ripe for political commentary — I can’t even imagine how including these facts just as facts in a game could be stripped of a political message one way or another (because it’s not possible).
The city was bombarded for weeks and then attacked. Almost 800 civilians were killed according to the Red Cross, and hundreds more wounded, along with as many as 2,000 insurgents and a hundred US soldiers. These numbers are more than just statistics — they’re human lives.
So then, how does Six Days in Fallujah portray all of this? I started looking into just that, beginning with a basic read of the game’s Wikipedia page. According to the same Peter Tamte from above, it was portrayed as realistically as possible. He claims the marines in Six Days were consulting on another game when they were deployed, and when they returned home, they requested a game be created about their experience. So far, it seemed I still couldn’t glean anything conclusive from all this.
It was at this point that everything changed and things started to get very complicated. I found out that the original studio developing Six Days, Atomic Games, had basically collapsed after Konami said they wouldn’t publish it due to controversy. But for the next decade, Peter Tamte kept claiming that the project was not dead until he became the head of Victura and published it himself. See, one of the twists in this tale is that Peter Tamte was actually the original head of Atomic Games, so his tone-deaf statements are more an issue than I had originally thought.
But on the other hand, the wiki claims Atomic Games interviewed over 70 people, and not just soldiers but also civilians involved in the battle. They leaned on historians and the game became a psychological horror, discovering “that there was an emotional, psychological arc to the Battle of Fallujah,” according to the game director.
At this point, I wondered whether people simply did not trust the medium of games to tell this story; are movies the only “acceptable” medium for explorations of war in pop culture? Is it inconceivable for a game to handle war in a meaningful way due to the long track record of ridiculous and thinly-veiled propaganda titles? Despite these thoughts, I held out hope.
But so far, I hadn’t seen any anti-war angle (not that an exploration of a quintessentially human experience such as war needs to have a normative or moralistic angle to be meaningful). I decided that the controversy over the game both a decade ago and now must be rooted in something more, so my next stop was the game’s website.
There, I found two videos, one about the game’s procedurally generated maps and one trailer, both of which predominantly featured US marines telling horror stories about urban warfare. The procedurally generated rooms mechanic is something I could at this point only describe as fascinating (in neither a positive nor negative sense without further context), because that design choice was made to simulate the uncertainty of clearing households. According to the marines’ accounts, each building could either hold nothing at all, or unseen enemies waiting to ambush and kill them. The idea of randomized layouts for the buildings to simulate this uncertainty is something that I have to respect from a game design standpoint, but it also makes me nervous as a human. Gamifying tragedy is, well, risky. I wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t.
The trailer also began with famous footage of Saddam Hussein’s statue being pulled down and then more footage of jihadist terrorists taking over Fallujah. This imagery is not neutral, and is clearly meant to justify the battle. Yes, the battle was about taking out a prominent insurgent, but let’s not forget the strange vindictive context of making a show about the deaths of four contractors (and Blackwater and their war crimes are important to that context too). Score one for those saying this game is tone deaf.
But then I found an interesting statement on the website called “A Word About Politics.” It’s short enough that I’m just going to quote it in full here:
“We understand the events recreated in Six Days in Fallujah are inseparable from politics. Here’s how the game gives voice to a variety of perspectives.
The stories in Six Days in Fallujah are told through gameplay and documentary footage featuring service members and civilians with diverse experiences and opinions about the Iraq War. So far, 26 Iraqi civilians and dozens of service members have shared the most difficult moments of their lives with us, so we can share them with you, in their words.
The documentary segments discuss many tough topics, including the events and political decisions that led to the Fallujah battles as well as their aftermath. While we do not allow players to use white phosphorous as a weapon during gameplay, its use is described during the documentary segments.
During gameplay players will participate in stories that are given context through the documentary segments. Each mission challenges players to solve real military and civilian scenarios from the battle interactively, offering a perspective into urban warfare not possible through any other media.
We believe the stories of this generation’s sacrifices deserve to be told by the Marines, Soldiers and civilians who were there.
We trust you will find the game — like the events it recreates — to be complex.”
I had expected to just find some gameplay footage or something where the devs had portrayed Iraq in a racist way and tie up my investigation in a neat little bow. Now I had the official website making statements in the same language I’d been using to complicate this article. I had no choice but to go deeper.
I found more of the same defenses of the project on the other parts of the website. There’s an FAQ with questions like “Why are you making this game?” and “Does the game tackle the controversial aspects of the battle?” and “How are Iraqi people portrayed in the game?” These questions seemed like they were more frequently asked by critical journalists than potential customers, and it created a weird atmosphere. As I read on, the website seemed to take on the purpose of damage control more than marketing.
And in some areas the defensiveness seemed to get sanctimonious. Why are they making the game? To respect all the brave soldiers who went into the battle of course, so let’s “set politics aside and experience one of the most important events in a generation.”
But then on the other hand, the FAQs promised that Iraqi civilians’ interviews will be featured in the documentary footage and you will play as an unarmed Iraqi father trying to evacuate his family during certain missions. They even claimed that part of the proceeds will go to veterans and Iraqi civilians.
So this all left me more uncertain than ever. The team seemed to be trying hard to address the controversy surrounding their game, but almost too hard. Were the interviews, missions, and donations for Iraqi civilians included before or after the latest wave of protests?
It seemed that the only way I could truly find out if this game was mishandling a tragic event was to look at actual gameplay.
The Gameplay Trailer
The gameplay trailer basically maxed me out on conflicting thoughts and imagery. It begins with a marine describing a tense moment in battle with voice quavering as if he is about to cry. Then, the gameplay footage shows the shooty part and has the developer commentary guy we know from other gameplay trailers explaining the cool new squad commands that are “as easy as firing your gun.” That’s followed up by the same bragging about procedurally generated buildings as I discussed before, and it all comes off as “you should think this is badass.” This all put me back into tone-deaf territory, but I was simultaneously wondering if the time spent on squad dynamics was meant to give the game’s relationships weight.
As if to feed into that thought, the same marine from before describes how he wrote a birthday message to his son and gives a chilling line about how all he could think about was dying on his son’s birthday. Then, back to the gameplay where the marines go deeper and deeper into a house. A woman calls out down some dark stairs, they turn the corner, and there is a civilian family. This frankly horrifying sequence is topped off by interviews with anonymous Iraqis about how they just weren’t willing to leave the city for their homes to be occupied, so they stayed.
Needless to say, this was one of the heaviest gameplay trailers I’d ever watched. And, I have to say it’s definitely nothing like what I expected from how people had been talking about this game for the past month…
I will say two definitive things about Six Days in Fallujah: First, they are actually making an honest attempt at a meaningful piece of art, misguided or not. Second, and equally important, I just don’t feel the reverence for the subject during the segments where the player is gunning down insurgents.
I think it has to do with our genre vocabulary surrounding war FPS’s. The Call of Duty franchise dominates here, and their war propaganda and mishandling of the subject have muddied the waters for any would-be serious attempts. It means that good games have to take other approaches, like Wolfenstein’s over-the-top aesthetic. When I see a realistic Call of Duty style shooter, I just can’t help but imagine tea-bagging-racial-slur-slinging-thirteen-year-olds. That’s an unfortunate challenge for Six Days in Fallujah, but a very real one.
But deeper than that, this has to do with the philosophy and purpose of games. Are games fun? Seriously. Is “fun” a core element in the definition of games. I’ve read game design books that begin with the premise that games are fun and make a good case for it being true. But I’m not so certain. Some games are meant to be depressing, serious, or touching. But then again, these are almost always fun anyway (A Long Hike or Undertale come to mind off the top of my head). But can the horror of humanity that is the Second Battle of Fallujah be fun? Or should it? And why would anyone play Six Days if it wasn’t? Part of me thinks that it would actually be an excellent game if it could somehow keep you playing (think about that verb) and hate each and every time you pulled that trigger. But on the other hand, there were fun and funny parts of Fullmetal Jacket and Apocalypse Now between all the horror. Maybe fun — or entertainment — is required to get us to look at our worst flaws.
Overall, I think Six Days in Fallujah will end up with a very confused tone at best, and be a disaster at worst. I now believe that their hearts are for the most part in the right place, although I do suspect they come from a place of thinking that battle and that war were justified (unlike virtually everyone else in the world). But, I don’t have proof of that, only little hints, and from everything they’ve claimed and shown they are just trying to tell the human side of the battle. That’s literally what I said I wanted before I started my investigation, so can I complain at an honest attempt?
At the same time, I once again encourage people to listen to Arab people and Muslims about their feelings on this game. They have strong feelings and suspicions for good reason, not least of which is the hundreds of innocent Iraqi civilians killed in the battle.
But one final thing I would like to point out is that it became clear through my investigation that it isn’t just Arab people and Muslims who are angry about this game. The original outcry was from war veterans, and the website therefore attempts to defend from both sides. This is both a strange paradox and basically the perfect representation of modern culture.
I can’t be conclusive about how the game will turn out except to say art attempting to portray tragedy is treading delicate ground at best. I would argue it’s important ground to tread, and I still don’t believe tragedies such as the Battle of Fallujah are off-limits for video games any more than I believe they’re off-limits for memoirs and documentaries. So, I’m not categorically opposed to the game being released (although the makers should seriously consider whether it should be). Though I’m open to being surprised, I am skeptical it’ll be executed well in this case.