We’ve seen a petition to have the game banned by the US and UN and calls from Muslim advocacy group CAIR to have Steam, Microsoft and Sony deplatform the title. Some game devs and game journalists have supported these efforts at censorship, falling victim to three follies: First, that we should judge a book by its cover; second, that we can fight bad ideas through censorship and that it’s okay when we do it because we are on the side of justice; and third, that unintended consequences do not occur.
The problem everyone has with the game is its content. It takes place during the Second Battle of Fallujah, one of the bloodiest battles American troops have been involved in since Vietnam. Many people—soldiers, insurgents and civilians—died in the battle, which took place in 2004. I can understand why people might find this content offensive or disturbing. This is recent history. Iraqi people certainly have every right to be concerned about how this game—which also features a documentary portion—will portray their country and people.
Of course, the battle itself was not against Iraqis for the most part. Saddam Hussein was already deposed. Iraqi forces were part of the battle—alongside American and British troops. The enemy combatants were insurgents, largely from other countries, including many members of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups, filling the power vacuum left after we toppled the Baath regime. To suggest otherwise is dishonest. To call it an “Arab murder simulator” is absurd—though that’s exactly what Houston Press writer Jef Rouner calls it in a piece that is short on facts and long on opinions.
“Games where American soldiers kill endless waves of Arab enemy combatants are nothing new,” Rouner writers, “and even make up some major franchises like Call of Duty. In a lot of games, “just shoot the Arab” is as ubiquitous as “just jump over the pit.” The popularity of this sub-genre has deteriorated over the last decade due to public backlash regarding Islamophobia.”
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Actually, games where American soldiers kill endless waves of Arab enemies are not particularly common. In Call Of Duty there are certainly times when you fight against Arabs, but you also fight against Russians and Germans and other rivals. You’re more likely to shoot aliens than Arabs in video games.
I also don’t believe that video games lead to real world violence or bad behavior. I don’t think that playing this game will make people Islamophobic or pro-war.
What about the politics?
After Victura chief Peter Tamte said that Six Days In Fallujah would not focus on whether or not the Iraq War was right or wrong, but rather on the experiences of those in the battle—soldiers and civilians alike—people started claiming that the game was dodging politics.
In this very long piece at The Sixth Axis. Harry Gowland argues that politics can make games better and he’s not wrong—depending on how you include politics in games of course. A game with a political message is not the same as a game that taps into modern political trends. Disco Elysium, he argues, is effective in many ways because it is such a political game. The game “doesn’t even need to say “fascism is wrong” to get its point across. You learn it by experiencing it,” Gowland writes.
But if Disco Elysium had said “fascism is wrong” it would risk coming across as too on the nose, too obvious. A game can, for instance, show the horrors of war without explicitly stating that war is bad—just like a game can show that fascism is bad without saying so.
Six Days In Fallujah may or may not convey that war is bad without explicitly saying so. If we read the developer’s own words we can find some clues.
From the Polygon article where all these claims are being made, here’s Tamte explaining this game’s approach to politics:
“I think reasonable people can disagree with that,” he told Polygon of his narrative strategy. “For us as a team, it is really about helping players understand the complexity of urban combat. It’s about the experiences of that individual that is now there because of political decisions. And we do want to show how choices that are made by policymakers affect the choices that [a Marine] needs to make on the battlefield. Just as that [Marine] cannot second-guess the choices by the policymakers, we’re not trying to make a political commentary about whether or not the war itself was a good or a bad idea.”
And here’s Tamte on whether the game glorifies war:
“I don’t think players are going to be confused about the cost [of war],” Tamte said. “I just don’t think that they’re going to walk away from this experience going, ‘We need more war.’ I don’t think that’s something that the Marines and soldiers want as a message. I don’t think that’s something that the Iraqi civilians want as a message. I think people do need to understand the human cost of war.”
Tamte continued, “Perhaps playing the game will make them curious and they’ll want to learn more about all the things that have happened in Fallujah since the 2004 battle, and that will lead them to their own conclusions from doing the research. But right now, simply ignoring the battle is not going to cause them to think about all of its consequences.”
Tamte on concerns that a game about a real-world battle would trivialize the deaths of loved ones:
“The reality is that most people are not aware of the battle for Fallujah,” Tamte continued. “And so, by talking about this battle in a game, we are helping people remember the sacrifice of some very specific people. So that’s number one. We share the same objective they have, which is, we don’t want their son’s sacrifice to be forgotten. But do I understand their caution about it? Absolutely. Absolutely. Because for most of those people, their only idea of a video game is watching somebody else play Call of Duty. Call of Duty is a sport, and if somebody made a sport out of the killing of my son, I’d be pretty upset. Our job now is to show people that we’re not making Call of Duty.”
These types of statements make me question why so many of the game’s critics are so certain that this game will only tell one side of the story, that it is going to make Arab and Iraqi people look bad, that it will glorify war crimes and amount to little more than pro-US military propaganda. Many people seem entirely sure that this is what Six Days In Fallujah will do despite not having played it and despite the developers’ own words—including the publisher’s other statement that I wrote about previously.
That statement has been described by many in the gaming press and community as a “walking back” of Tamte’s earlier comments. In it, Victura says that the events in the game are “inseparable from politics.” But Tamte never suggested the game would be entirely apolitical. He simply described its focus on the battle itself rather than the larger questions of whether or not the Iraq War was right or wrong.
People latch onto the Polygon interview’s rather misleading headline—Six Days in Fallujah ‘not trying to make a political commentary,’ creator says—ignoring everything else Tamte said. It’s baffling, though not altogether surprising.
It’s strange that this game, which includes a documentary portion with both marines and Iraqi civilians, is getting this much blowback. The certainty people have is puzzling. I personally have no idea. I can only make judgments based on what the devs have said and by watching the trailer.
How do we square Tamte’s words—telling Polygon the game would not glorify war whatsoever—with Rouner’s claim that “Frankly, the world does not need another Arab murder simulator that, intentionally or not, further dehumanizes a marginalized group in America and makes a violent war based on government lies look badass.”
This does not read like serious criticism to me.
Setting aside calls to have the game censored or deplatformed (terrible ideas that have almost no chance of succeeding) it just doesn’t seem like people are interested in having an honest discussion. Glibly calling it an “Arab murder simulator” or a “war crimes game” is hardly useful. It’s neither insightful nor accurate.
I originally wrote the title of this post without the word “probably” but it occurred to me that it’s entirely possible that the game will be an Arab murder simulator. I doubt it, but it’s possible. We don’t know!
That doesn’t stop the game’s critics from making stuff up out of thin air, misrepresenting the developer, making bogus claims, arguing in bad faith and passing around silly petitions to have it banned.
I welcome honest criticism of all art—games, movies, books whatever—but what we are seeing is not honest criticism, or at least much of it isn’t. I couldn’t get on board with all the angry denunciations of The Last Of Us 2 prior to its release, either. I wrote a long review after it came out instead. You can discuss games before they come out, obviously, but you can’t pretend to know everything about them.
Hopefully once it’s released we can have a real conversation about what Six Days In Fallujah actually says or doesn’t say. We can write and read reviews and watch streams and play it ourselves. It’s fine to speculate some now also, or to dissect the trailer or question the dev team’s statements, but you can’t make these strident claims with all this certainty beforehand. Not yet. It’s all guess work for now. Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something and it sure isn’t the truth.