Just announced on Monday, Konami's upcoming Iraq War game Six Days in Fallujah is already into its third day of controversy.
Yesterday, GamePolitics reported on concerns expressed by several critics in the U.K., including a decorated former army colonel and the father of a Royal Marine who was killed in Iraq.
Today's interview with Dan Rosenthal is a little closer to home. Actually, make that a lot closer to home.
Dan (left) is a veteran of the Iraq War. He's a longtime gamer. He's also a law student and edits the excellent gameslaw.net blog, which we cite with regularity here on GamePolitics. I first met Dan at PAX 08. He attended GDC last month on on IGDA scholarship. So when he speaks from the heart about his war experience and his feelings about Six Days in Fallujah, I listen. As it happened, yesterday Dan and I interacted on Twitter about Konami's controversial game. Afterward, Dan was gracious enough to consent to this interview:
GP: Dan, when were you in Iraq? What unit did you serve with?
DR: I served in the U.S. Army, 3rd Battalion 124th Infantry Regiment... Our unit was based out of Florida with the Florida National Guard, but during our time in Iraq we were attached to several units... I arrived in Kuwait in February 2003, participated in the invasion of Iraq in March, and left around a year later.
GP: Where were you stationed for the bulk of your Iraq tour?
DR: During the invasion, we drove upwards through southern Iraq, helped secure the area around Nasiriyah, then moved northward and conducted operations out of Baghdad for the remainder of the time... If you've ever seen the movie Gunner Palace, that base was a few hundred meters away from our compound, a former Republican Guard general officer's quarters.
GP: Did you see any combat?
DR: Well, we were an infantry unit, so that's pretty much what we were designed for. During the invasion we were assigned as security for various elements... and helped to screen and cover the advance northward. Once we were in Baghdad, we did security patrols in the city, as well as provided escort security for other units as needed. So, as you can expect, we found ourselves in trouble a fair bit of the time.
GP: When did you return from Iraq?
DR: March 2004. When I left, I was midway through my sophomore year at Florida State University, and when I returned, I found that the university had removed us from the university roster, and that we'd all have to re-take the SAT and reapply in order to come back. I had to fight with the university, all the way up to the president and the Adjutant General of the state, before we were allowed back. That's when I first became involved with the Iraq War Veterans Organization, which I was a board member of for several years.
GP: And you jumped into law school when? Which school?
DR: Not until after I graduated and was out of the military, at American University, Washington College of Law in D.C.
GP: What are your gaming preferences? Have they changed since your tour?
DR: My gaming preferences have always been FPS games. I was a member of the development team for the Firearms mod for Half-Life, which eventually was acquired by Valve. I've always liked RTS games but I'm god-awful at them because I like to turtle and tech up, which never wins. I also like flight sims... and the Ace Combat series are still some of my favorite games. Since my tour in Iraq, I don't think my preferences have changed much, except for hating the Metal Gear Solid series, especially the 4th installment which I feel paints PMCs [private military contractors] in an unrealistically negative light.
GP: What are your thoughts on Six Days in Fallujah?
DR: A "realistic" war game is not going to be fun -- who wants to play a game where you sit around doing nothing, punctuated by raiding the wrong house and tearing apart the home of an irate Iraqi family, or sitting around on a convoy until your vehicle gets hit by an IED and your character dies, with no clear enemy in sight? Who wants to play that? In order to make the game fun (it's a "game" after all), it simply has to sacrifice some amount of realism for fun factor. When you do that with a war game based on a real war, with real people, you run the risk of dishonoring their memories and sacrifices, and I think that this game has a dangerous potential to do that.
I have worries that Konami, whose war game track record includes Boot Camp, Top Gun, Rush'n Attack/Green Beret, and of course, the wonderfully inaccurate Metal Gear series, cannot give the game the level of respect that it deserves. The war in Iraq is an incredibly complex topic; the Middle East is an incredibly complex location, and I have major doubts that a company like Konami understands it enough to honor the memories of the soldiers around the world who have fought and died in Iraq. It's not a great start that the Creative Director at Atomic Games is on the one hand talking about trying to "present the horrors of war" and on the other hand make "entertainment". His own words. Or that the VP of marketing thinks that soldiers weren't "men" before the war.
Will this game recreate what I felt watching one of my close friends die less than 10 feet away from me? Will this game recreate my experience of being shot at by children? Will this game recreate the positive experiences of Iraq, the endless hours spent with community leaders to rebuild schools and hospitals? ...The questioning of the reasons for getting into the war? Probably not. And let's be honest, who would want to play that anyway, even if you could?
But for a developer who claims to want to "tell the stories" of soldiers, there's a lot that they're going to leave out. They're certainly not telling my story. They're not telling the background to the story. They're not talking about how we got into Fallujah in the first place. They're not talking about Scott Helvenston, who was pulled from his car, beaten, lit on fire, and his corpse hung from a bridge, which prompted the first battle of Fallujah. So what stories are they telling? Just another war game?
One of the things COD 4 did really well, is it used war as a backdrop. The real story in COD 4 was the hunt for Zakhaev... It didn't reference the actual Iraq war, and didn't need to get into the politics behind it, and Infinity Ward was able to tell a story without getting bogged down. This issue is unavoidable in Six Days. The game isn't set in some unnamed country, it's in Iraq, and it's not some "unnamed city", it's Fallujah. There's no way for them to avoid that they chose to place this game in a location where 20,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, reportedly over 6,000 civilians were killed, and over 150,000 displaced. Who is going to tell those stories?
One thing I'd like to make clear is that this is NOT an issue of censorship. I will fight to the death to defend Konami's right to make this game... At the same time, I strongly protest their decision to actually do it. I think it is foolish, I think it's inappropriate, and I don't have very high hopes that they're going to do a good job of it. I'd love to be proven wrong. I'd love for this game to be a Medal of Honor, or Call of Duty. Hey, I'd even love for it to be Operation Flashpoint or Armed Assault (two of my favorite games). But I'm not holding out hope.
GP: Thanks, Dan.