Controversial Videogame on the Battle of Fallujah

Peter Tamte was months away from completing his dream project—turning the largest urban battle of the Iraq War into a videogame—when it all seemed to fall apart. The 75 employees of one of his companies, Atomic Games, had worked on the endeavor for nearly four years. They'd toiled to make Six Days in Fallujah as realistic as possible, weaving in real war footage and interviews with Marines who had fought there. But now relatives of dead Marines were angry, and the game's distributor and partial underwriter had pulled out of Tamte's project. On May 26, he got on the phone to Tracy Miller, whose son was killed by a sniper in Fallujah, and tried to win her over by arguing that the game honors the Marines. Miller listened politely, but remained skeptical. "By making it something people play for fun, they are trivializing the battle," she told NEWSWEEK.

Tamte is not above triviality. A second company he runs, Destineer, makes games with titles like Indy 500 and Fantasy Aquarium. But the 41-year-old executive says he's now attempting something more serious: a documentary-style reconstruction that will be so true to the original battle, gamers will almost feel what it was like to fight in Fallujah in November 2004. At his studio in Raleigh, N.C., Tamte has been helped by dozens of Fallujah vets who have advised him on the smallest details, from the look of the town to the operation of the weapons. And he's staked the fate of his company on the success of the $20 million project. "If for some reason it doesn't work, we'll have to think about making some very significant changes to the studio," he says.

Can something as weighty and complex as war be conveyed by the same medium that produced Mario Brothers and Grand Theft Auto? Mostly, videogames are associated with mindless entertainment or gratuitous violence or both. For Tracy Miller and other skeptics, the idea that animated shooters can communicate the heroism and sacrifice of Fallujah is deeply misguided.

But efforts to document war in new ways have always garnered skepticism and controversy. The first published photographs of dead American servicemen—including a 1943 shot showing three bodies sprawled out on Buna Beach in New Guinea—prompted a public outcry. The effect of television footage beamed from Vietnam directly to the living rooms of Americans was hotly debated throughout the war. Miguel Sicart, an expert on videogames at the IT University of Copenhagen, says it took decades for people in television and film to figure out how to convey the experience of war (and for audiences to get accustomed to the new media). If videogames can overcome stigmas, he says, their interactive technology gives them an advantage. "You can almost occupy the actual space of Fallujah and explore the environment in a videogame," Sicart says. "For someone interested in the events there, that can be very powerful."

Tamte says he got the idea to make a videogame of the Fallujah battle from Marines who fought there. Starting in 2003, he worked closely with members of the Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment, to make training simulators based on games he'd helped develop. A year later, those same Marines ended up at the center of the Fallujah battle, code-named Operation Phantom Fury. When they came home, Tamte says, several were already contemplating how they could turn their experience into the kind of game they themselves would want to play.

One of those Marines was Eddie Garcia, a sergeant from the Bronx who had suffered shrapnel wounds on the first day of the fighting. He says even before he left the hospital, he was e-mailing Tamte about Fallujah. "I mentioned that since we'd already made one game together, why not make another?" After he recovered, Garcia began regular brainstorming sessions with Tamte and his designers, showing them unclassified maps and photos from his deployment. Garcia had been stationed just outside Fallujah for months before the battle. Notes he kept about every meeting and mission helped bring the experience to life for Tamte and Atomic creative director Juan Benito. The vision of a game that would reenact the first days of Fallujah began to take shape.

Atomic's sprawling office feels almost like a shrine to Phantom Fury, with photos of the fighting pinned to walls and scattered on desks. Graphic designers, still trying to perfect the game, study the posters to help re-create the precise look of Fallujah: the pockmarked cinder blocks and the sagging electric lines. On a recent day, in a studio attached to the entry hall, an Atomic employee was interviewing Jason Arellano, a former Marine sergeant who had been clearing insurgents in a home when a grenade exploded near him and a bullet struck his groin. "As we pushed further and further into the city, we became aware of a more well-trained or disciplined fighter," he said into the camera for a clip that might be inserted in the game. It's not unusual to hear Atomic employees talking about something as technical as the specific properties of an AT-4 shoulder-fired rocket.

Capt. Read Omohundro, who led a Marine company in Fallujah and lost 13 men there, acts as a kind of quality-control manager for Six Days. "I'll say to them, no, that guy has to be facing the other way. This piece of ammunition doesn't blow up so fast, it only detonates this much. You can't be standing next to it when it goes off or you'll become a casualty." In Atomic's conference room, Omohundro recently described to artists and designers what Fallujah looked like when tanks kicked up dust and debris. "It's not sand like at the beach," he said. "It's that talcum-powder crap. It gets into everything. It just hangs around and you're waiting forever for it to go away."

Omohundro says many of his troops would play shooter games on their Xboxes or other consoles after patrolling all day in Iraq. "It seems pretty natural to me that these guys would want to have their war documented in a videogame." But on April 9, when Atomic showed a 30-second promotional clip at a publicity event put on by the game's distributor, Konami, Fallujah relatives responded immediately. "The war is not a game, and neither was the Battle of Fallujah," the group Gold Star Families Speak Out said in a statement. "For Konami and Atomic Games to minimize the reality of an ongoing war and at the same time profit off the deaths of people close to us by making it entertaining is despicable."

Konami is a Japanese company that distributes and underwrites mostly family-oriented games with names like DanceDanceRevolution and Karaoke Revolution. Two weeks after the publicity event, Konami's Los Angeles–based executives told Tamte in a conference call that the company was ending its involvement with Six Days. Atomic would have to find a new distributor. (Konami would not return newsweek's calls.)

Tracy Miller, whose son, Cpl. Nicholas Ziolkowski, was killed Nov. 14, was among the Gold Star family members behind the letter. Ziolkowski had been attached to Omohundro's Bravo Company. He and other snipers had taken up position at the Grand Mosque in downtown Fallujah that morning. Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter who embedded with Bravo Company, wrote that Ziolkowski had removed his helmet to get a better look in his scope when a bullet caught him in the head.

Miller, an academic adviser at Maryland's Towson University, believes Atomic genuinely wants to honor the Marines who fought in Fallujah. She thinks Six Days is the kind of game her son would have liked to play. Still, Miller says any game about the battle would be distasteful. "I think they're bending over backwards to contact people to make sure what they do isn't going to offend anyone," she told NEWSWEEK. "But I think that it's probably impossible not to offend people with a game." Miller teaches a popular course on the 1960s, including the antiwar movement. She worries that Six Days, precisely because it aims to re-create the Fallujah battle so realistically, will further desensitize youngsters to the horrors of war. And she's concerned that insurgents will learn about the operational procedures of American troops.

There's another aspect of the game that could be troubling 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. To ease these concerns, Atomic has vowed not to use the Marines who died in Fallujah as characters in the game (though the circumstances of their deaths might be portrayed). In an e-mail to the Fallujah families dated May 22, John Farnsworth, Atomic's studio director and an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, wrote: "I have the highest regard for our troops in uniform and their families, for their brave willingness to sacrifice for liberty, country, family and friends. Out of respect, we have not included any fallen Marine in the interactive reenactments."

That gesture is significant to the families. For documentarians, it's where Six Days begins to fall short. How can a game document a battle if it doesn't identify the fallen? And how can the portrayal be accurate if a player can manipulate the events? David Waddington, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University in Montreal who has written articles about the ethics of videogames, says they cannot convey important aspects of real life, including complex characters. "You do have characters in a videogame in some sense, but ... character development isn't very robust. So you don't sympathize with characters very much." Though he hasn't previewed Six Days, Waddington thinks Atomic might have generated unrealistic expectations by billing it as something more than a game. "I'm not convinced Six Days in Fallujah as a first-person shooter game is a legitimate form of documentation."

But since videogames are a relatively new medium, the debate about what they can and can't get across is still open. Sicart in Copenhagen also writes about the ethics of videogames. He concedes that games don't do a good job of accurately portraying a sequence of actual events. But he says they can convey the feeling of being there—of occupying the space and having to make decisions—better than television and maybe even movies. "The real goal is not to document the action sequentially but to understand how and why it unfolds and how it felt to the people who were there," he says. "If players understand the emotions of a serviceman in combat, then they are already understanding the real power of Fallujah."

Tamte is now negotiating with a few other potential investors. He says Atomic needs several million dollars to complete the game and millions more to market and distribute it. "We have a lot of people who are interested in the project," he says. "But I'll feel better when we sign something and the checks start coming." Tamte concedes he had not given enough thought to the feelings of the Fallujah families and should have reached out to them earlier in the process. But he says their perceptions have been shaped mostly by the word "game"—which doesn't quite do justice to his project. "We're trying to do something that hasn't been done before, and naturally people use the points of reference they understand," Tamte says. "It's hard for anyone to envision it until it's actually created." Opponents of the project hope that time never comes.