Where War Video Games Could Go Post 9/11

By Rich Shivener in Unraveling Yarns
Monday, September 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm
We lost Six Days in Fallujah.
Yesterday Joystick Division's own Mitch Krpata offered a thought-provoking piece on Gears of War functioning as an artistic response to 9/11. Simply put, the third-person shooter chronicles a gun-loaded, adrenaline-pumped team against an overwhelming, underground enemy known as Locust.

Gears of War can be viewed as an allegory of American affairs post 9/11, and like many popular war video games, it does not tackle 9/11 head on. However controversial, it's time for a commercial video game that doesn't hold back, offering a rich narrative that explicitly reflects on the atrocious attacks and what our country is doing in their wake. Other media has been doing just that for a decade.

Also posting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Matt Reed of Pixelitis wrote about "Gaming post-9/11: The virtual war on terror." His analysis, as well as others, makes clear that popular publishers and developers have been sensitive about the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent conflicts, and rightly so. The same isn't true for the indie community. He notes that Kuma Games, a freeware developer, released first-person shooter The Death of Osama Bin Laden just six days after U.S. Navy SEALS took down the eponymous leader in Abbottabad, Pakistan. "Since 2001, both Western developers and jihadi upstarts have used games to advance their causes," writes Reed. "Meanwhile, commercial developers have borrowed from the conflict's iconography and focused on themes related to it, resulting in a parallel universe that's allergic to reality but still fun to play."

As Reed points out, EA's 2010 shooter Metal of Honor stirred controversy because its narrative chronicles wartime in modern-day Afghanistan and, for a brief stint, allowed its multiplayer community to play as the Taliban, later renamed to "Opposing Force." It's an example of a game developer surrendering after taking too much fire from opponents (read: those who have experienced the conflicts or felt a direct impact). It should be noted that this is one of the most accurate depictions of American goings-on in Afghanistan.

Though it took too much fire before its release date, Six Days in Fallujah is another prime -- and perhaps greater -- example of war video games struggling in a post-9/11 world. "Dropped by Konami in 2009," as Reed writes, "the game faithfully recreated Operation Phantom Fury, one of the bloodiest battles following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Atomic Games' third-person shooter was unique when compared to the emotional and historical sterility of its peers. Developers called it a non-traditional 'survival horror' game that replaced monsters and zombies with battlefield dangers."

Certainly, Atomic Games was prepared to tackle post-9/11 conflicts head on. Six Days' gameplay is documented on the always-reliable YouTube, but it's not clear if its narrative would have provided a deep understanding of why the soldiers went there in the first place. Imagine the first level taking place from the point of view of an emergency response team at Ground Zero. To this author, it could parallel Medal of Honor: Rising Sun's opening level, "Day of Infamy." Scholar Marc A. Ouellette examines it critically in "'I Hope You Never See Another Day Like This': Pedagogy & Allegory in 'Post 9/11' Video Games."  He writes:

The first level, "Day of Infamy," takes the player through the opening moments of the war [Pearl Harbor]. Many video games have preliminary "training" levels, but the designers of Medal of Honor: Rising Sun included this function in the first level. Thus, "Day of Infamy" has two pedagogical functions: first, to teach the player the controls of the game; second, to teach the player the history of World War II. The trip from the depths of the Oklahoma to the deck adds to the history lesson through game play and through a reward for that game play. . . .

The pan of Pearl Harbor and one last shot of the plumes of smoke rising from the Hawaiian islands again evokes the terror attacks of 11 Sept. 2001. Continuing the parallel must then include the 'just war' which inevitably follows. This is the ultimate lesson of the game.

It's no secret, and quite understandable, that some audiences aren't prepared for a commercial video game with more direct depictions of 9/11 and the (ongoing) aftermath. The same likely weren't ready for Oliver Stone's film World Trade Center or Paul Greengrass' United 93, which debuted in 2006. But without a blockbuster video game, opportunities -- history lessons -- are missing. Reed might say that allergies aren't being treated.

"Gaming's great advantage as a storytelling device is the participation it demands," he writes. "For too long, too much computing power has been invested in explosions and gimmicks. As Americans reflect on ten years of global conflict, it's time we reconsider the Virtual War on Terror and challenge younger players who cannot connect with today's conflict or even remember September 11."

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.

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