Gamers Can Experience Battle Of Fallujah

A new video game has upset the families of some Iraq war veterans. "Six Days in Fallujah" takes gamers into a simulation of the 2004 battle. The creators say this is entertainment with substance. Critics say war is not for the amusement of others.

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Some images of war inspired a new video game, which has upset some families of troops killed in Iraq. NPR's Laura Sydell looks at how that video game takes on issues of life and death.

LAURA SYDELL: The game is called "Six Days in Fallujah." It's based on the actual battle for that Iraqi city in the fall of 2004.

Mr. PETER TAMTE (President, Atomic Games): The battle for Fallujah is one of the most historic battles that the Marines were involved in.

SYDELL: That's Peter Tamte, the president of Atomic Games. Tamte learned about the Battle of Fallujah from friends who were there. Military analysts consider it a pivotal moment in the Iraqi conflict. As a video game maker, he saw an opportunity to use a game to inform.

Mr. TAMTE: By dealing with these issues in an interactive format, we can provide a different and perhaps unique set of information to complement what people already understand.

SYDELL: What's unique, says Tamte, is the way video games totally immerse players in an environment. Retired Marine Captain Read Omohundro agrees with him. That's why he's a consultant on the game.

Captain READ OMOHUNDRO (U.S. Marine Corps, Retired): As a result of this particular format, having to make decisions in a quick manner in order to increase your survivability, hopefully that'll explain more to people in a manner that helps them associate why war is not a game.

SYDELL: The game is still in development, but Atomic agreed to provide NPR with a few glimpses of it. The first part of the game is a short documentary with testimony from Marines, such as Corporal Dane Thompson.

Corporal DANE THOMPSON (U.S. Marine Corps): And you would go in the house, it'd be all quiet and then they would open up on you. He was trying to lure us into the house. He kept saying, Come here, mister, come here. Like that.

SYDELL: The game has actual graphic reenactments of those moments.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SYDELL: "Six Days in Fallujah" recreates the feel and look of the city, as well as actual events in the battle. A group of Marines occupies a candy store overnight. When they wake up, insurgents have blocked all the exits. Developer Tamte says the game presents players with the same challenge that faced those Marines.

Mr. TAMTE: But we're not telling players ahead of time that the way you need to solve that challenge is by blowing a hole in the back of the store. They have to solve that challenge for themselves in the experience.

(Soundbite of game)

Unidentified Man #1: We can't stay here, man.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SYDELL: Players must also make difficult moral choices. Faced with civilian and insurgents, they must decide which is which. Retired Marine Captain Omohundro says there will be consequences if a player actually hits a civilian.

Capt. OMOHUNDRO: If you just inadvertently or purposely shoot him, then, you know, that may be it for you. You've made a poor ethical decision, and that scenario for you may be over.

Ms. KAREN MEREDITH (Gold Star Families Speak Out): The war is not a game, and neither was the Battle of Fallujah.

SYDELL: Karen Meredith is with Gold Star Families Speak Out, a group made up of families of veterans who died in Iraq. The group is trying to stop the game from being published. They already succeeded in getting the Japanese game publisher, Konami, to pull its support from the game. Meredith's son, Lieutenant Ken Ballard, was killed in Iraq. She says a game is no way to take on such a serious subject.

Ms. MEREDITH: Because it's a game, because there can be different endings, because Ken did not get that opportunity to reset and start over in the battle where he was killed. And neither did any of these other young men.

SYDELL: Meredith says she was also offended by the marketing campaign for "Six Days in Fallujah," which talked about the challenge of presenting the horrors of war in a way that was entertaining. Meredith says she's more comfortable with portrayals of the war in books, and even movies. In fact, "The Hurt Locker" - a movie about the harrowing experiences of a bomb squad in Iraq -just opened to critical praise.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hurt Locker")

Unidentified Man #1: Burn the (unintelligible). Burn the house.

Unidentified Man #2: Put down the cell phone.

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible) Get out of the way.

Unidentified Man #2: Drop your phone.

SYDELL: "The Hurt Locker" is based on the experiences of journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a bomb squad. He wrote the screenplay.

Mr. MARK BOAL (Journalist; Screenwriter, "The Hurt Locker"): I don't think people go to the movies for a civics lesson, and this is not intended to be one. This isn't my 12-point plan for what to do about the situation in Iraq or anything. But I also hope that it's entertainment with some substance.

SYDELL: And that's essentially what Atomic Games says it's trying to do with "Six Days in Fallujah," but it's obviously meeting with more resistance. Susanna Ruiz is a game developer and scholar who's been trying to create serious games. She says video games have a lot of baggage to overcome.

Ms. SUSANNA RUIZ (Game Developer): Game makers haven't quite demonstrated this willingness and accountability to serve as sort of arbiters or commentators or interpreters of the human condition, or of the cultural psyche around these very important moments in history.

SYDELL: Ruiz firmly believes this can change. She created a game called "Darfur is Dying." The game puts players in the shoes of a refugee trying to survive in Darfur. It got largely positive reviews. Former Marine Sergeant Michael Ergo, who worked on "Six Days in Fallujah," says video games reach an audience that doesn't pay as much attention to other forms of entertainment.

Sergeant MICHAEL ERGO (U.S. Marines Corps, Retired): A lot of young people view history as something that's time in a classroom, names and dates and facts that are irrelevant to them today. But when they see it through this media, I believe it's something that can make them interested in learning about what's going on with our country.

SYDELL: Film director Guillermo del Toro, who was nominated for an Academy award for "Pan's Labyrinth," famously said that he believes in 10 years someone will make the "Citizen Kane" of video games. He and other game lovers say this new medium will make an impact in a way that will be unique to the form. We'll find out if "Six Days in Fallujah" hits that high bar sometime next year when Atomic plans to release the game.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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