Early next year, Kuma Reality Games plans to launch a service that will allow players to re-enact contemporary news events. Kuma’s first product-centered on the war in Iraq-will brief players with information derived from real-world news reporting, and then allow them to play out missions based on actual troop deployments. On its Web site, Kuma claims that the new game “presents our soldiers’ acts of patriotism and bravery as never before possible.” And then, the kicker: “In a world being torn apart by international conflict, one thing is on everyone’s mind as they finish watching the nightly news: ‘Man, this would make a great game.’”Whoa!
How dare we play-act the Iraq War when American G.I.s are still in harm’s way? Whatever views we may have about the war, surely we have more important things on our minds than whether or not it will make a kickass game!
That, at least, is my initial reaction. But, then, upon further reflection, I realized that, despite their inflammatory tone, these guys are right. Ever since the September 11 attacks, there has been a persistent desire to transform this conflict into a game-and an almost equally persistent distaste over the idea. This debate tells us a great deal about the ways our culture thinks about games-and the way we think about war.
Last year, a federal judge ruled that games did not enjoy First Amendment protection because they did not express ideas. This past summer, a higher court overruled that decision. The political importance of games has been demonstrated again and again as groups struggle over how-and whether-the Iraq War should be represented through games. The military uses games to recruit and train soldiers; the antiwar movement uses games to express the futility of the current conflict; the pro-war movement uses games to express its anger against the terrorists; the news media use games to explain military strategy; and the commercial games industry wants to test the waters to see if we are going to play war games the same way other generations watched war movies.
No sooner did the Bush administration identify Osama bin Laden as the likely culprit than a wave of amateur games popped up across the Internet, giving players the chance to maim and manhandle the terrorist leader. The Palestinian Liberation Organization created international controversy when it released a Web-based game, Under Ash, which it argued showed their perspective on the Middle Eastern conflict. The night the bombs fell on Baghdad, Sony trademarked “shock and awe” with the idea of using it as the title for a (since abandoned) Iraq War game. A few months later, the U.S. Department of Defense came under attack for developing a futures market where people could place bets on the likely location of the next terrorist attacks-a plan that was quickly scuttled once it was made public. The most recent controversy centers around a CIA proposal to develop a game, working with the University of Southern California-based Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), which would allow operatives to “think outside the box” by adopting the role of a member of a terrorist cell.
In his 2001 essay, “Ephemeral Games: Is It Barbaric to Design Games After Auschwitz?” videogame designer and theorist Gonzalo Frasca argued that today’s games are an inappropriate medium for dealing with such serious matters. He cites two reasons: first, video games focus on winning and losing but not the deeper ethical implications of modern warfare. Second, games are infinitely reversible which makes it impossible for them to sustain a tragic tone or to deal with the real life consequences of such events. Ever since the essay appeared on Frasca’s Web site, many game designers (Frasca among them) have set out to prove him wrong-and in the process, to refine the language through which games express political ideas.