About 'Six Days In Fallujah
We're going to be discussing video games. A lot of boom boom pow.
The reveal of Fallujah in April '09 went about as well as a cholera outbreak. It was denounced by anti-war activists, pro-war pundits, Iraq War veterans, the families of soldiers killed in Iraq ... it united the political spectrum in hatred. The controversy forced publishing giant Konami to drop the title, and Six Days slid into obscurity until its abrupt February 2021 revival.
Very little was ever seen of Fallujah's first incarnation, but the pitch was gritty realism. Developer Atomic Games had been making training tools for the Marine Corps, and some of the soldiers they worked with were shipped to Iraq. According to Atomic's president, Peter Tamte, the idea for a game came from those marines' experiences in Fallujah.
Then marketing tweaked it, and it ultimately was released as Five Nights At Freddy's.
The ensuing game was described as "like survival-horror," and words like "compelling" and "insightful" were tossed around. Atomic noted that while they were interviewing marines, they also talked to civilians and insurgents. The goal, supposedly, was detailed realism that got players in the heads of people forced to make split-second decisions under harrowing conditions, while the question of why those conditions existed at all would be ignored.
Whether they would have achieved that goal is another matter, and Atomic shot their own foot a few times with comments like, "The challenge was how do you present the horrors of war in a game that is also entertaining." The concept of Funpocalypse Now was mocked as an oxymoron, and the developer's emphasis that "it's not about the politics of whether the US should have been there or not" didn't go over well either. How do you make an apolitical war game when you have business ties to the American military?
Even shooting Martians, we'd know what the writers were thinking about.
But regardless of how the game might have turned out, almost no one was in the mood for it. Not only was the Iraq War still dragging on, but Fallujah had been one of its bloodiest and war crimeiest battles. It killed 107 coalition soldiers, an estimated 1,500 insurgents, and 800 civilians and devastated the city. The American military used white phosphorus as a chemical weapon, refused to let men of fighting age flee the city, and was accused of summary executions. Years later, depleted uranium shells were linked to a massive rise in cancer and birth defects among residents.
Fallujah also foreshadowed the fact that Iraq was doomed to become a quagmire, not the walk in the park the government had promised. By 2009, hundreds of thousands were dead, and the war felt endless, so the thought of seeing virtual soldiers killed or the mounting civilian body count get shoved aside in a whole new medium didn't exactly make people reach for their Xbox controllers.
image from Wii Sports Resort
We played Call of Duty that year, but played way more Wii Sports.
When the war began in 2003, about 72% of Americans said it was the right decision, and 88% said the early days were going well (and 85% had bought the "weapons of mass destruction" lie used to justify it). By 2009, "right decision" was down to 43%, and America has been split ever since. Many bitter arguments about the game became a proxy for the war itself, and those arguments were delivered with all the thoughtful nuance you've come to expect of internet comments. Contemporaneous arguments were mostly, to use the technical term, stupid.
Some supporters cited First Amendment rights (the First Amendment, of course, famously protects video games from criticism) or wanted Six Days to stick it to "bleeding heart crybabies." Six Days' biggest defenders were people who saw an opportunity to stand up for gaming as a hobby, so most arguments weren't about playing it but rather the idea of it, no matter how divorced it got from reality. In responding to the criticism of Six Days from a decorated British soldier, one commenter said the soldier was "essentially the same as the tyrants [he] sought to overthrow" because his refusal to take video games "seriously" denied the commenter's right to play them.
"If not for this, then what's even the point of war?! Actually, don't answer that."
Yeah, that's the other thing; 2009 was the tail end of the great "Do video games cause violence?" culture war. Gamers would win that war and celebrate their vindication by launching an even stupider one, but early 2009 alone saw one man murder another after arguing about a video game, six teenagers cite Grand Theft Auto as inspiration for committing multiple armed robberies, and the sentencing of a teenager who unsuccessfully argued that Mortal Kombat made him and his girlfriend beat a seven-year-old to death.
So gamers were defensive about how the media was covering games, and much of the support of Six Days began from the assumption that critics just didn't "get" it. It wasn't as though portraying Iraq was forbidden; The Hurt Locker came out in 2009, and the lesser criticism it faced didn't stop it from winning six Oscars.
Pop culture had already spent years capitalizing on America's renewed ability to find Iraq on a map. Jarhead's 2005 release used the Gulf War as a mirror for the times, 2007's Redacted tried to tackle the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family by five American soldiers, 2006's Home of the Brave thought we needed an Iraq War movie starring 50 Cent for some reason, 2007's Grace is Gone and In the Valley of Elah explored the consequences of the war back home, Generation Kill won three Emmys ... there was a clear demand to create, consume, and reward Iraq War media.
But gaming still held the short end of the cultural stick. And hell, I love video games, but maybe it deserved to; one 2009 commenter suggested, "If anything [Six Days] can look at the situation more critically than most war movies do" before citing Call of Duty 4 -- a game that sees badass western heroes shoot several thousand evil foreigners -- as one that "doesn't glamorize modern war."
But now it's 2021. Iraq is all better now as long as you don't dig too deep into the news. Countless indie games have made strong political statements, and if 2012's critically acclaimed Spec Ops: The Line was any more antiwar, it would have ordered players to go out and vandalize recruiting stations. Gaming is more mainstream and respected than ever. The Iraq War is increasingly viewed as the folly it always was, and the pro-war camp that still bombarded the airwaves in 2009 is too busy complaining that woke Ritz Crackers won't support regime change in Venezuela to get mad at a video game. Peter Tamte has had over a decade to think about Six Days. If it has anything at all to say, now's the time to say it.
In this modern context, Tamte boldly declared, "We're not trying to make a political commentary about whether or not the war itself was a good or a bad idea." Come on, what the shit, man? Saying that your Iraq War story is apolitical is like saying that your Vietnam War story is only about how stressful it is to camp out in the jungle. "Our game about guiding American soldiers from bombed house to bombed house, each one potentially occupied by murderous Arabs, is apolitical" is an incoherent statement. What are the heroes going to talk about, the weather?
Even weather talk can get pretty political though.
Tamte later admitted that Six Days is "inseparable from politics," but the game's website still declares, "It's time to set politics aside and experience one of the most important events in a generation." Well, Fallujah was important because it was political. The only time America destroys a foreign city without politics being involved is when spring break gets out of control.
Six Days does promise documentary segments that expound on the war's causes, the Iraqi perspective, and the use of white phosphorus, among other subjects. Maybe they'll be great, or maybe a game with a trailer that cuts to ethereal string music the moment someone started speaking Arabic won't have the most nuanced take. Either way, shoving all the controversy into documentaries is a confession that the game itself can't or won't tell a story beyond "Look at these heroic American soldiers, but please don't think about why they're there."
In the meantime, the arguments about Six Days have changed ... kind of. Plenty of veterans still hate it, and criticism from Arab-Americans exhausted from years of seeing shifty Middle Eastern terrorists as stock villains has understandably intensified. Fox News and their ilk don't really care now because video games aren't the conservative boogeyman they used to be. But its defenders still believe that it's 2009 and gaming itself is under siege, at least if this YouTuber complaining that the "game is getting cancelled by neolib Twitter checkmarks" is anything to go by.
Here's a video warning that critics of Six Days are responsible for the greatest backlash against video games yet, and another declaring that "psychological warfare [is] being waged against anyone who supports it." Here's one saying that Six Days "pushes back against a culture that wants to cancel it," and another screaming, "The Games Media Wants This Canceled!" Here's a writer complaining that "angry Twitter outrage warriors" will rehash the "video games cause violence" debate, like the horror villain returning after the credits.
Twitter war, unlike actual war, is inherently political.
Few of Six Days' defenders are saying, "I think this game could potentially be an important landmark in grappling with the trauma of the Iraq War," because Fallujah might as well be Hoth for all the real-world implications being considered here. Instead, it's an exhausting "Six Days will own the libs! Can you believe those losers are mad at a video game?" argument. It's the dull rehash of "Games are art, and if you disagree, you're committing a hate crime against the oppressed gamer minority" discourse; only no one standing up for it seems interested in what the art is saying. They're demanding that games be taken seriously, then throwing a tantrum when they are.
The new criticism of Six Days pales in comparison to 2009; gaming journalists and Twitter threads don't exactly stack up to primetime on Fox News. And yet, the argument is still over whether the very concept of gaming is under attack, like the cultural equivalent of the Japanese soldiers who kept fighting World War II until the '70s. Gaming won! It's a serious medium now! But that means you have to be willing to call it out when it screws up.
The irony is that America is as ready as it will ever be to examine what a flaming shitstorm the Iraq War was, and gaming hasn't matured enough to keep up with that need. Hell, we're only a couple of years removed from Call of Duty rewriting the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Gulf War's Highway of Death to be nefarious Russian schemes because they didn't want their games about globe-hopping American black-ops agents to be all political. Tamte said, "I don't think we need to portray the atrocities," but then why portray Fallujah at all? 2010's Medal of Honor was set in Afghanistan, but it survived its criticism because it invented battles instead of whitewashing real ones.
When a game like Six Days claims to be apolitical, the argument is "The war happened, and we're just showing it." But saying that wars naturally occur is a political statement. Shrugging and saying, "Yeah, every now and then America gets mired in a devastating foreign conflict that destabilizes the world, sets off a wave of foreign anti-Americanism and domestic xenophobia, gets our soldiers killed and decimates a generation of civilians, and inspires a huge spike in hate crimes, but eh, what are ya gonna do? At least it's fun to shoot through the wreckage, right?" is an uncritical acceptance of what happened.
One of those supportive comments from 2009 said that Six Days "Will give the children of the MARINES who lost their lives to see in some way what their dads went through and ... get revenge." 12 years later, some of those children instead went and actually served in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside their fathers. And if the best reason anyone can muster about the need for Six Days to exist without grappling over America's place in the world is logic that's devolved to "Well, it will piss off some people on Twitter I don't like," then maybe gaming hasn't matured all that much after all.