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Backlash to reality: Should war games be based on real events?

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'Medal of Honor: Warfighter' screenshot

© EA


While researching a feature on why more games are not set in the First World War in 2010, we conducted an interview with a university professor who said something that stuck with me. He asserted, initially at least, that he had a problem with someone drawing entertainment from a video game based on a conflict in which millions of people had died. He said that it was just not right - but is it?

Many games, including titles that have made a big splash and ones that have not even made it out of the studio, take inspiration from real-world events, sometimes involving death or great suffering. In doing so, they tread a fine line in providing entertainment while also avoiding a 'backlash to reality' - the accusation of being inappropriate or insensitive to real life.

Jay Bahadur is a journalist and author based in Kenya, who has been tracking pirate activity in the Somalia region for the past five years. Bahadur has been used as an outside advisor on EA's Medal of Honor Warfighter, the second installment in the long-running first person shooter's reboot to modern conflicts from World War II.

He has been shown a level in the game based in Somalia - playing as part of a Navy SEAL team landing near Mogadishu and attempting to restore order in Pirate Town - and commented on the authenticity of the sequence.

'Medal of Honor: Warfighter' screenshot

© EA



Somalian pirates in Medal of Honor Warfighter

Recent crackdowns on piracy in Somalia have upped the stakes for those still involved, leading to an increase in violence and deaths, but also the shifting of activity from the seas to inland, said Bahadur. Local authorities often find themselves outgunned by the well-funded pirates, meaning only the elite special ops forces of wealthy governments can really take them on.

And even then success is not guaranteed, particularly when taking on the fearsome Al Shabaab group. Only last year, four American hostages were shot and killed by Somali pirates, which Bahadur said was down to inexperienced FBI negotiators naive about the threat they were facing.

But despite such grave subject matter, Bahadur feels that movies and games have an important role in raising awareness of piracy.

"Any movie or a game that shows the country, and the events that are happening here, can spur interest. This is an important area of the world, but it does not get as much attention as Iraq or Afghanistan," he told us.

"We have to keep focus on what is going on here, because Al Shabaab have an active PR wing that tries to portray them as fighters for the rights of fishermen. But they are the bad guys, they do the torture, the beatings, the savagery. And it is often far, far away from fishing routes."

Bahadur continued: "It is interesting that the same criticism that is often levelled against games is not applied to movies. If a movie featured deaths caused by Somali pirates, it would not get the same attention as a game depicting the violence. I don't think that is right."

'Medal of Honor: Warfighter' screenshot

© EA



"The implications are that we absolutely must do it right"

All levels in Medal of Honor: Warfighter are based on real-world locations and events, harnessing a number of sources, including local experts and real special ops fighters. Greg Goodrich, the producer of Medal of Honor: Warfighter, said that the team also used online imagery to ensure the Somalia mission was authentic.

"The missions in the game are inspired by many different things - real warriors, real locations and real threats. The 'dotted line' simply means that every mission has a connective tissue to one of these things in the real world," Goodrich told us.

"In some instances, it's an actual operation that was conducted by Operators, and in other cases, the events are a combination of things pertaining to a specific location, enemy or threat. That said, Medal of Honor Warfighter is still a fictional story woven into the historical context as it has always been."

He continued: "The implications are that we absolutely must do it right, with respect, and in the proper tone. We take great care when portraying these events. Our intent is to pay tribute to not only the sacrifices that have been made by these individuals overseas, but by their families as well.

"We have been in the longest military engagement in the history of our nation and it has taken a toll on the lives of every individual who serves on behalf of others. We simply want to shine a brief light on this fact and simply say, 'Thank you'."

'Medal of Honor: Warfighter' screenshot

© EA



Goodrich said that "countless" people have reported learning "historical tidbits about conflicts, people and places by playing Medal of Honor games over the years", suggesting some educational value beyond the entertainment.

"But when it comes to the harsh realities of war and combat, no-one is going to learn what it is like to engage the enemy by slinging virtual lead in a video game," he noted.

"Combat is combat and games are games. But what we can do is introduce our fans to a community of individuals, place them in their boots, and let them experience the types of things they may be faced with overseas. And do so in an authentic, honorable way."

Games based on real-world events and aspects tread a fine line in offering entertainment while trying not to be insensitive to their subject. Last year's Medal of Honor reboot, set in Afghanistan, was beset by controversy itself after one side of the multiplayer mode was given the name Taliban. This was later switched to Opposing Force, and the quandary over the decision almost prompted Goodrich to quit the project.


The backlash against Six Days in Fallujah

One of the most notable games to fall foul of the 'reality backlash' is Six Days in Fallujah. Atomic Games' third-person shooter was to be the first game based on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, taking inspiration from the Second Battle of Fallujah, which ran from November 7 to December 23, 2004 and resulted in 1,500 insurgents and 38 US troops reportedly losing their lives.

Shortly after it was announced in 2009 - initially billed, rather unwisely, as a 'survival horror game' - Six Days in Fallujah almost immediately attracted criticism. Iraq war veterans in the UK and campaign group Stop the War Coalition slammed the project as being inappropriate. Decorated former British Army colonel Tim Collins told a newspaper at the time that the game should be banned entirely.

"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," he said in 2009. "It's particularly insensitive given what happened in Fallujah, and I will certainly oppose the release of this game."

Reg Keys, whose son was killed in the Iraq War, also said: "Considering the enormous loss of life in the Iraq War, glorifying it in a video game demonstrates very poor judgement and bad taste. These horrific events should be confined to the annals of history, not trivialised and rendered for thrill-seekers to play out.

'Six Days in Fallujah' screenshot


"It's entirely possible that Muslim families will buy the game, and for them it may prove particularly harrowing. Even worse, it could end up in the hands of a fanatical young Muslim and incite him to consider some form of retaliation or retribution."

The slew of criticism of the game, some deserved and others undeserved, resulted in a statement on April 28, 2009, from the intended publisher Konami that it would not longer back the game.

Peter Tamte, the president of Atomic Games, had previously said the intention with Six Days in Fallujah was to show the horrors of war and the dilemmas facing the US Marines on the ground in Iraq.

Tamte told us this month that Konami's decision to pull out of publishing Six Days in Fallujah cost Atomic "many millions of dollars". This, twinned with a "rapid decline" in the market for packaged games, caused "many distributors that owed us money not to pay and virtually eliminating our ability to attract new investors for a packaged video game".

He noted that consumers also began moving towards digital platforms and free games "much faster than most of us anticipated". But despite all the controversies around Six Days in Fallujah, Tamte hopes one day that it will be released.

"Six Days in Fallujah is definitely not canceled. It is very important to us for reasons far beyond just making a product that we finish Six Days," he said. "But, it will require time and persistence."



An unfair divide between games and film?

The experience around Six Days in Fallujah is interesting, because it taps into the central issue of this 'backlash to reality'. The same year that the game was announced, movie The Hurt Locker was also released.

The film went on to win six Oscars, and its only controversy was a failed lawsuit from a US army officer who claimed that the producers had used his likeness without permission. There was no public debate over whether the film should be made, and no question over whether it was appropriate.

Of course, films can be controversial, hugely so, but as Bahadur noted earlier in this feature, if a film was released in 2009 about the Battle of Fallujah, would it have been canceled under a flood of criticism? Probably not.



Yet Six Days in Fallujah had that very fate, albeit for a variety of reasons. This suggests that there is still some way to go before games are truly viewed as worthy tools to interpret our world, even at its blackest, just as films do now.

It may be best to end with a quote from our university professor from the introduction, who after we had talked for a while saw that there could be value in a game being based on a real event, such as the First World War.

"I think that if these games serve a purpose then it's getting people thinking about the Great War in ways that they didn't before," he said. "It certainly surprises me that a lot of my undergraduates have played Call Of Duty and that is their reference point when we start talking about operations in the Second World War."

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