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Killing is Fun

Posted on 21st Apr 2009 at 18:41 by Alex Watson with 12 comments

Konami’s recently announced Six Days in Fallujah rolls into town at the head of a of convoy of outrage over the fact it’s based on a very real and very contemporary battle of an ongoing war.

In a well-weighted editorial on Eurogamer, Rob Fahey nails why this outrage is nonsensical, and why it’s particularly unpalatable when it comes from the tabloid press:

“It's not just the fact that the [Daily] Mail and others are essentially calling for the worst form of censorship, the blocking off of an entire event and saying ‘this is off limits, and may not be portrayed’ - something which would stab to the very heart of the freedom of expression our media should be championing... the thing that rankles most about this situation is the fact that this is a tabloid newspaper telling another medium that the way in which it's handling current events is insensitive. I won't need to remind any reader who walks past a news stand on the way to work, or flicks on Sky News or CNN in the evening, just how ‘sensitive’ the news media is in its coverage of war.”

The whole piece is worth a read as it eloquently defends the right of games to portray reality. Fahey’s defence of games isn’t totally blind though – indeed, he challenges those making games such as Six Days in Fallujah to engage more fully with their subject material:

“If a game like Six Days in Fallujah is to have any value, it must come from adding something to that discussion [of the war]. This isn't about taking a pro-war or an anti-war stance - although both are valid starting points, there are countless others. It's about making people think, informing them through their entertainment experiences, and commenting, as creators, on the media we create and the events we portray.”

Killing is Fun

Games based on real combat aren’t uncommon – the Call of Duty series has been at it for longer than the duration of World War 2 – and Call of Duty 4 is the most notable depiction of combat in Iraq gaming has seen so far (although, bless its little corporate socks, Activision has decided to tell players it was actually set it in unnamed MiddleEastistan). What makes Six Days in Fallujah interesting is that unlike other ‘real war’ games, it’s not an FPS, or an RTS. Instead, it’s a third person ‘action’ game.

The problem previous ‘real war’ games have had is that none has managed to rise to Rob Fahey’s challenge. This is because of the problem of fun, namely that war games – and FPS war games in particular – make killing people fun. This is because killing is the central mechanic of the game. If there was no killing in CoD 4, for instance, there wouldn’t really be any game left. You’d be able to run, reload, crouch and open doors, but really, those actions are solely there to support you killing people.

It’s not unique to CoD 4. It’s there in every combat orientated FPS game because in every FPS you need to kill hundreds, if not thousands of people as you progress through the game. In fact, you’re not killing people: you’re removing obstacles, because single player games that aren’t primarily puzzle games or simulators are always about progress through the level.

To impede progress and to make it challenging for the player, you need obstacles. These can be puzzles, but since you’re not making a puzzle game, it’s better if these are enemies, and it’s better if these enemies can tax the player by fighting back. When you, as the player, eliminate the enemies, you’re granted power-ups, new weapons and keys to enable you to access more of the game (and in turn cope with more powerful enemies). It’s such a simple and recursive formula that it needs to be jazzed up – it needs to be made fun, because you need to do it over and over and over again. It’s work.

As such, while these enemies might take on a human form – two legs, two arms, toting an AK and a couple of lines of dialogue – there’s nothing actually human about them, which is why you as a player (and also you as a character) are able to kill them by the bus load. You never pause before you kill these people. You never wonder what their wife is going to say. You never wake up in the middle of the night bothered by the fact you killed them. They’re just ciphers. If your soldier from CoD 4 had actually killed the number of people you kill in progressing through the game, that frequently, that proficiently, they would surely go completely insane. That, or make themselves leader of the whole world.

You can argue that military commanders might look at the map and think about combat in this way – enemy soldiers are just there preventing progress, troops who have experienced combat are tougher, and commanders do make calls that result in hundreds of deaths – and so there’s an argument that this ‘killing is fun’ problem doesn’t affect RTS games. But you don’t have to read many memoirs or watch much documentary footage to know that frontline soldiers have quite a different perspective. To even come close to this experience now gives you an idea of how far removed from fun it is.

This is what makes it interesting that Six Days isn’t an FPS, and that in an interview, Peter Tamte, the president of Atomic Games, the developer of Six Days, gives the following answer to the question, is the game going to be fun?

“The words I would use to describe the game -- first of all, it's compelling. And another word I use -- insight. There are things that you can do in video games that you cannot do in other forms of media.”

As cynical as you might at first think (and I certainly did) Six Days was, Tamte is on to something here. Now, he might just be talking a good fight before preparing to roll over and make a crass cash-in. But he might be preparing to grasp one of the biggest issues in gaming.

So far, ‘real war’ games have always taken the easy route. Call of Duty: World at War is a great example of this. Some of its levels are set on Peleliu, a tiny island in the Pacific, which in 1944, was the site of a ferocious three month battle between US and Japanese forces. 11,000 Japanese were defending the island; only 202 were captured alive, while close to 1,800 Americans lost their lives.

Killing is Fun

In October last year, I had the chance to visit Peleliu, and it was a very moving experience. A lot of the WW2 stuff is still out in the jungle. I visited with a Japanese tour group, and we saw caves that still had scorch marks on the wall from where they were cleared with flamethrowers, and we saw places where groups of soldiers had committed ritual suicide rather than be captured alive.

After I wrote about it on my blog, someone recommended I read a book called ‘With The Old Breed’, by Eugene Sledge, a marine’s memoir of the Pacific war that included fighting on Peleliu. I’ve only just ordered it from Amazon, but here’s the Wikipedia write-up – and as warning, it’s not pleasant:

“Sledge writes honestly of the brutality displayed by United States Marines and Japanese soldiers during the battles, and of the hatred that both sides harboured for each other. In Sledge's words, ‘this was a brutish, primitive hatred, as characteristic of the horror of war in the Pacific as the palm trees and the islands.’ Sledge describes one instance in which he and a comrade came across the mutilated bodies of three Marines... He also describes the behaviour of some Marines towards dead Japanese, including the removal of gold teeth from Japanese corpses (and, in one case, a severely wounded but still living Japanese soldier), as well as other disturbing trophy-taking. Distinguishing the book from most other war memoirs is Sledge's description of the sheer physical struggle of living in a combat zone and the debilitating effects of constant fear, fatigue, and filth.”

None of what Sledge describes is fun, but it very clearly has value as history and as media - the book is widely praised. Likewise, I wouldn’t say Peleliu was exactly fun place to visit, but it is interesting, challenging and enlightening.

With The Old Breed has been optioned for use as source material for a new HBO series on the war (called The Pacific) from the makers of Band of Brothers. I can’t imagine the makers of Call of Duty read it, and if they did, it didn’t really do much other than get reduced to the same old, same old of WASD and Mouse 1.

What this points out is that other forms of media – books, TV, films – have found that being fun isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite to being successful, both commercial and artistically.

Again, here Six Days might break with the past. Tamte (and Konami) has also been keen to point out how many Marines, and apparently, Iraqi civilians and even insurgents have helped them make the game. It’s clear however, that their impulse to get close to reality is tempered by a degree of political correctness:

“Q: Will players encounter situations like friendly fire or accidentally shooting civilians?

Tamte: Yes.

[Creative Director] Benito: We wanted to recreate the pressures and conditions the Marines faced and that includes adhering to the proper rules of engagement. So for example, as you may have seen in the demo, there's an unarmed individual at the start and the Marines didn't fire on him because he was unarmed and that was in accord to the rules of engagement at the time.

Q: Will there be portrayals of women being raped or dead children or are you just sticking to the combat?

Tamte: Well, what we're trying to do is recreate the stories of the Marines that we've spoken with and that are involved in the creation. And we're telling the stories of those particular Marines. None of the items that you've mentioned have come up in any of those stories.”


The portrayal of the conduct of the armed forces in a current war is obviously a sensitive issue, but it will be a shame if Six Days insists on showing the Marines and the rules of engagement as being perfect. It also makes you wonder why, if the time is right for Six Days, no-one has yet optioned Generation Kill (HBO’s excellent series on the invasion of Iraq, based on the equally brilliant book) for the basis of a game.

I’m going to be very keen to play Six Days; the chances are it won’t live up to its billing, but the game described by its makers could be, even if only in a small way, rather radical.

12 Comments

Discuss in the forums Reply
thehippoz 21st April 2009, 19:06 Quote
it's too sensitive a subject, people have family members over there right now..
speak_easy 21st April 2009, 19:36 Quote
I had a relative killed on Peleliu. it certainly felt wrong playing a game based on the place where he lost his life.
Skiddywinks 21st April 2009, 22:08 Quote
Don't get me wrong, it is a very sensitive subject, but come on. It is a game.

Hell, my cousin's husband is out in Afghanistan right now, and while it does offer some unsettling thoughts that he might not make it back, what difference does someone making a game about it make? He is there because he is doing a job he enjoys and he is doing it out of his own free will. No one is forcing him to go. He knows full well he might not make it to tomorrow morning. Is a game like this REALLY going to upset him? or bother him?

I see this sort of thing all the time. The reality is that the only people who ever get bothered by things like this are the people that have no business with it anyway. It is always the people that are so worried about upsetting others. The PC crowd, if you will. The even larger reality is that no one currently fighting out in Iraq or Afghanistan is going to give a flying ****!

Another thing, is people feel sorry for members of the armed forces all the time, and family members often blame the government when their sons, husbands and brothers don't come home. Is it right for a game to show people dying?

As much as you may disagree with being forced into a war as a country, no one is forced into it as an individual. Obviously, loss is a horrible event, I even lost my dad at 7 years old. But the fact of the matter is that no one should ever feel sad for someone dying doing something they chose to do and likely enjoyed. Everyone knows the risks, and everyone takes the chance.
bridgesentry 22nd April 2009, 03:45 Quote
Killing is not fun. The fun part is what people are killing for. And the game's addicting effect will be neutralized when gamer doesn't know if he is doing right or wrong. The sweet motivation of COD series is the homeland 's call, which is right from the beginning.
If "Six Days in Fallujah" doesn't have a level in which you have only ten minutes to save the world, or something like that, I doubt if it can survive in top ... 200
DougEdey 22nd April 2009, 07:19 Quote
What I think people are up in arms about is that the developers went to get the view points of the insurgents as well.

Surely, if anything, the game could be classed as "Patriotic" as you see what the soldiers are doing on the front lines?
Nedsbeds 22nd April 2009, 07:54 Quote
The only thing tabloids such as the daily mail believe in is selling as many rags as possible.
FeRaL 22nd April 2009, 19:09 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Skiddywinks
Don't get me wrong, it is a very sensitive subject, but come on. It is a game.

Hell, my cousin's husband is out in Afghanistan right now, and while it does offer some unsettling thoughts that he might not make it back, what difference does someone making a game about it make? He is there because he is doing a job he enjoys and he is doing it out of his own free will. No one is forcing him to go. He knows full well he might not make it to tomorrow morning. Is a game like this REALLY going to upset him? or bother him?

I see this sort of thing all the time. The reality is that the only people who ever get bothered by things like this are the people that have no business with it anyway. It is always the people that are so worried about upsetting others. The PC crowd, if you will. The even larger reality is that no one currently fighting out in Iraq or Afghanistan is going to give a flying ****!

Another thing, is people feel sorry for members of the armed forces all the time, and family members often blame the government when their sons, husbands and brothers don't come home. Is it right for a game to show people dying?

As much as you may disagree with being forced into a war as a country, no one is forced into it as an individual. Obviously, loss is a horrible event, I even lost my dad at 7 years old. But the fact of the matter is that no one should ever feel sad for someone dying doing something they chose to do and likely enjoyed. Everyone knows the risks, and everyone takes the chance.

True, True... One other thing is that we in the 21st Century in general live in "softer" times... We complain/cry/weep/pout, etc... about 4724 soldiers dying since the war started http://www.antiwar.com/casualties/. Now, I'm not saying that having soldiers/people getting killed is a good thing, but you all need to look at the overall context of the numbers in relation to "other" wars... The History Channel is coming out with a new series that claims that an estimated 70,000 soldiers died in a six hour period in some of the battles in the "good old days" of warfare where it was face to face, your hand on a blade in someones guts... Hell, look up the numbers for Vietnam or WWII. Those wars had large death tolls as well.

I'm not trying to marginalize our soldiers and the deaths in Iraq, I'm a veteran myself and have a lot of respect and emotions invested in them. What I'm trying to say is that it seems like a majority of people nowadays are insulated in their little bubble worlds and say "oh, my that's horrible" but then go about their merry way because it's so far disconnected from them and their consumerist lemming lives...
thehippoz 22nd April 2009, 20:59 Quote
well with me.. I had a cousin who was over there in the marines for quite some time.. he's back home now.. we were all worried about him especially where he was located- the guys in afganistan had it alot harder from what I've heard talking with a former classmate whos brother is a medic.. guess he lost a couple in his platoon

all I can say to someone without family over there is.. that's great for you! you can't relate what the family goes through.. and I doubt anyone with family over there will be picking up this game.. just the way it is.. let the war run it's course

now I wouldn't mind a bush game where bush flys off the carrier after mission accomplished and you try to shoot his plane down.. that would be comical :D
Skiddywinks 22nd April 2009, 21:32 Quote
But not to the Bush family!
thehippoz 22nd April 2009, 21:52 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Skiddywinks
But not to the Bush family!

XD
Hugo 24th April 2009, 11:28 Quote
tl;dr

But really, great point(s) Alex, but you should have made this a 'proper' article, not a blog post!
Sifter3000 24th April 2009, 17:27 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by HugoB
tl;dr

But really, great point(s) Alex, but you should have made this a 'proper' article, not a blog post!

Thanks! :)
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