Can games get too close?

…to reality?

Such a question might seem counterintuitive, as “realism” has been a much desired goal in the games industry for decades. As technology has evolved, we have seen attempt after attempt to closely mirror the real world – in visual style, that is.

Now games (can) look more and more like the real deal, and consequently many examples have surfaced, where games were considered “too close”.

Resistance: Fall of Man - misuse of Manchester Cathedral?

When the PS3 game “Resistance: Fall of Man” were prone to be released, Church of England considered suing Sony due to the depiction of Manchester Cathedral in the game. BBC wrote that “they will ask the technology firm to remove images of the building from the game”. It seemingly didn’t matter to the Church of England, that, as Ian Bogost writes, “the cathedral serves a purpose in the game consonant with its role in the world: that of reprieve for the weary and steadfastness in the face of devastation”. The Bishop of Manchester was outraged that the game featured an accurate representation of the cathedral, wherein guns would be fired:

For a global manufacturer to recreate one of our great cathedrals with photo-realistic quality and then encourage people to have gun battles in the building is beyond belief and highly irresponsible.

The second battle of Fallujah - Marines rescuing a wounded soldier

Another game which has caused even more controversy is “Six Days in Fallujah”, a game depicting the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq late 2004. The game is developed by Atomic Games, who has a history of developing training systems for the US military. It was when several U.S. Marines returned home from the battlefields of Iraq, that they contacted Atomic and suggested making a game based on their own experiences.

President of Atomic Games, Peter Tamte, expressed the motivation behind the game:

For us, the challenge was how do you present the horrors of war in a game that is also entertaining, but also gives people insight into a historical situation in a way that only a video game can provide? Our goal is to give people that insight, of what it’s like to be a Marine during that event, what it’s like to be a civilian in the city and what it’s like to be an insurgent.

Due to these aspirations, the game is frequently labelled a “documentary-style video game” or a “game-amentary”, offering players a possibility to play the battle, and feel what the soldiers felt. Sort of.

Six Days in Fallujah - too close to reality?

It soon became clear, however, that such a game was not at all unproblematic. Heavy criticism surfaced, both from soldiers, family and relatives to soldiers killed in Fallujah and from peacegroups. This tough opposition resulted in the publisher, Konami, to cut their support to Atomic Games and “Six Days in Fallujah”, leaving the entire project in an uncertain situation.

Newsweek did a rather extensive and balanced piece with the fitting title “The Battle Over the Battle of Fallujah: A videogame so real it hurts“, which I would recommend for further reading on the controversy caused by this particular game. From this and many other articles, it becomes clear just how tender this subject is – not least to relatives:

Though parents often want to know the precise details of a child’s death, seeing the circumstances even loosely replicated in a videogame—where a player can affect the outcome—might be painful. It potentially raises agonizing questions for the parents, not just about how a tragedy unfolded, but how, with the tiniest shift in circumstances, it might have been avoided.

Now another unreleased game is creating a fuzz by (possibly) getting too close to “the real world”. Before going into detail, I would like you to consider, what this trailer for the sci-fi shooter “Crysis 2” remind you of:

Yes, it is probably hard not to think about 9/11 and the terrible terrorist attack on the the World Trade Center in New York. As such, the game – Crysis 2 – taps into our collective consciousness, and uses the destruction and killings as a frame of reference, a backdrop, to a video game, where aliens are invading New York.

Is this a problem? Or is it a sign that we are moving on from the catastrophy?

Video game journalist Leigh Alexander is wondering why no one seemed to make the connection between Crysis 2 and 9/11, and asks if it is “no longer too soon” to depict – and take part in – the destruction of New York in a video game:

Does this mean it’s not “too soon” anymore? Does this mean we’ve “healed”, if we can look at this and just see a video game?

She’s not judging or neglecting, just pondering about this emotionally charged issue. The comments, however, is what really got me thinking. I am – for obvious reasons – somewhat at a distance from 9/11, but several commenters clearly are not:

It is hard to say. For those of us that lost loved ones that day it will always be too soon. […] For me personally, I can look at a game or film or read a book that leverages that emotion without feeling disturbed. Of course, if this came out the day after then I would feel differently. No longer to soon? I think not. How long is long enough? I don’t think anyone can say.

Crysis 2 - too close to 9/11?

It is completely understandable, that for people having lost people they love, watching popular culture replay similar events is probably always going to be painful. But should this result in a reluctance to deal with these issues? Should we close our eyes and try to forget? Another comment touches upon just this:

The fact that some people still see this sort of twist on the imagery presented in the Crysis 2 trailer show’s that people aren’t past it yet. The people that aren’t yet probably never will be. Which is ok. It’s a big moment in history. Like dropping the big one on Japan, it’s always going to be an issue for some. But I’m incredibly happy that someone can create something like this without worrying about it possibly being seen as insensitive. New York is such an amazing place, I don’t want to constantly feel like I should feel bad when someone makes a disaster movie/game, or a horror movie/game, or a post-apocalyptic landscape featuring the Big Apple. As qualifying information, I’m from Northern Ireland, where my home town has been blown up several times. Laughing about it and taking the piss out of it all has helped more than dwelling on it.

I generally recommend Daniel Floyd’s series “Talking About These” on video games, as they are both entertaining and insightful. One of them are about the controversies discussed here, and he even draws on “Six Days in Fallujah” as his primary example:

One question remains in my head: why should all of this be a problem? Books, songs, television and movies have been depicting painful events for years on end, and they all caused quite a commotion; at least in the beginning. Why are games not allowed to follow suit?

Is it just the fear of interactivity? The idea that killing virtual soldiers is somehow dangerous and may lead to a mental disorder? Regarding “Six Days in Fallujah”, many critics were concerned with exactly the ability of games to respectfully and precisely portray the characters and events in question, and it is also frequently mentioned, that games are entertainment – war is not. Is it, as said in the video above, simply caused by the fact, that games are games, toys, entertainment – not a serious medium? Or have we just not yet gotten use to the idea, that games can convey perspectives on sensitive issues – just as old media?

Or where’s the beef?