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Is It OK To Commemorate One Of Iraq's Bloodiest Battles In A Video Game?

Jun 23, 2021
Originally published on June 25, 2021 3:22 pm

A video game changed Peter Tamte's life. And forever altered his view of military service.

In the early 2000s the U.S. Marine Corps recruited the developer to help design video training programs. Tamte, who had never served, befriended a bunch of the grunts who were testing his product. Then came the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq, the heaviest urban fighting for U.S. troops since Vietnam.

"I got an email from a U.S. Marine who had just been medivaced out," Tamte says. "He started telling me all these stories from the battle that I had not heard. I was blown away by the things that he had said."

This was 2004, and the war in Iraq had transformed from "mission accomplished," to a quagmire with a daily death toll and no end date. Tamte had been watching it on the news, but, in talking to the convalescing Marine, he realized the story was much more complex.

"It was that conversation where he said, 'You know, Peter, our generation plays video games. We don't read books or even watch movies so much, we play video games.' And I was like, 'Yeah, I know.' And he said, 'Would you be interested in creating a video game to tell the stories of the battle for Fallujah?'"

Tamte said yes. Seventeen years later, he's still trying to keep that commitment.

The game

He named the video game "Six Days in Fallujah," based on six battle scenarios the Marines told him about. In between play are documentary style interviews with Americans, but also Iraqis. While most of the civilians had left Fallujah by the time of the battle, there were still thousands stuck in the city. It's estimated that hundreds of them died in the U.S.-led assault.

Tamte says the Marines he interviewed had no illusions about what they did taking that city.

"One of the Marines articulated it," says Tamte, "He said, 'What happened to the people of Fallujah is tragic, is tragic. And it wasn't their fault. At the same time, not my fault either.'"

An image from the video game 'Six Days In Fallujah.'
Victura

By 2009, one of the world's largest video game makers, Konami, had partnered with Tamte's company, and was poised to release the game. But the Iraq war was still raging, with around 140,000 U.S. troops occupying the country. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians had died. Fallujah was still a combat zone. A first-person shooter video game about Iraq stirred controversy, including from a group of Gold Star mothers.

"This war is going on. And it's not a game," says Keren Meredith, whose son Ken Ballard died in Iraq.

"Ken never got the chance to put another quarter in it and play another game." she says, "I just didn't think that it was right — the armchair warriors, the keyboard warriors who were so, you know, 'Let's play a game. Oops. I got killed. Okay. Let's start over.'"

After outraged Gold Star mothers went on cable news, the big corporate sponsor, Konami, dumped the game.

Peter Tamte says he'd been consumed by the project, and suddenly no one would touch it. He wasn't sure if it was because the Iraq war was unpopular, or that video games weren't considered a serious form of storytelling.

"Honestly, I was crushed," he says.

Tamte put all the interviews and footage filmed in Iraq on hard drives, and he left the video game businesses.

Beyond entertainment

Since that time, several games have tried to take a meaningful look at war.

Destiny's Sword seems like another multiplayer shootout, but the game makes players go through a difficult healing process, including psychological wounds.

Another combat game, Spec Ops: The Line, puts players through a Heart of Darkness set in Dubai, where the cost of winning is moral transgression. Other "serious" video games have looked at issues from genocide to global warming to mental health.

The sheer popularity of video games has pushed the U.S. military to take them seriously. America's Army was designed by the Army in 2002 for recruitment, but also vetting of potential soldiers. Just last year, the Army stirred controversy with its live-streamed video gaming on Twitch, where it was accused of using misleading ads that linked to a recruiting site and trying to censor anti-war speech on the platform.

Then this year, Peter Tampte announced that he will be releasing "Six Days in Fallujah" after a decade-long hiatus.

"People had trusted me to tell their stories," Tamte says "and I kept getting encouragement from people off and on through those years."

Reaction to the announcement has been just as passionate as last time. Not only Gold Star parents, but critics of the Iraq war have condemned the game, and even called it Islamophobic.

"It's simply irredeemable," says Scott Simpson, with the group Muslim Advocates. "There is no way to release a game that glorifies the killing that happened."

"Is it enough to have an interview of a soldier beforehand justifying their actions? Simpson adds. "I don't think so."

Simpson says he thinks the game could even promote anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence.

Peter Tamte says none of that is his intention, that he only wants to reach an audience that won't otherwise know anything about Fallujah.

"I worry that if media collectively or games specifically don't deal with the topic of the Iraq war, that millions of people will forget its cost," Tamte says. "War is a very abstract thing to most of us. And the longer we get distanced from it, the more we're likely to forget the sacrifice that comes with war, but that's a really important thing for a democracy to understand."

"Six Days in Fallujah" is scheduled for release by the end of this year.

Rough Translation's Home/Front is telling stories like this one across the civilian-military divide. Listen wherever you get your podcasts, including NPR One, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and RSS.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Can a civilian understand what it means to be in combat? Can a video game even come close to portraying that experience? The controversial new game Six Days In Fallujah attempts to do that. And as the so-called forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to an end, NPR's Quil Lawrence reports some worry that this will trivialize the battle. And a warning - this story includes the sound of gunfire.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Combat and storytelling are two very different skills. Elliot Ackerman has both. He's a decorated veteran and a novelist. He fought in the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, the biggest battle of the Iraq War. Ackerman's platoon got out ahead of the front line.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: We go even deeper into the city than we'd planned.

LAWRENCE: They didn't want to turn back, so they hide in an empty building.

ACKERMAN: And that building wound up being, like, a convenience store. We call it the candy store.

LAWRENCE: They're low on food, so they pig out on warm Coca-Cola and Pringles. It doesn't take long for the insurgents to figure out where Ackerman's men are. The Marines pop smoke grenades for cover.

ACKERMAN: You're standing in this, like, cloud of, you know, purple and yellow smoke. And you can hear the bullet snaps through the smoke because the insurgents see the smoke. And they can't see you, but they're shooting at the smoke.

LAWRENCE: By dawn, they're surrounded, trapped in the store. Two men are down, and the medics have them.

ACKERMAN: And I go and I kind of, like, stick my head out the door just to, like, see like, can we get out this way? And there is a RPK, which is, like, a light machine, and it just goes - gah (ph) - like that right down the alleyway, like, soon as I poked my head out. And I bump into Banotai. He was one of the squad leaders. And I remember I looked at him, and I was like, it's suicide if we go out that way. I just kind of blurted that out to him. And he later told me, it's like, you know, the time I was the most afraid was when you said that to me.

LAWRENCE: That kind of fear and adrenaline, how the Marines escape the candy store, it's something only they experienced. But Ackerman rejects the idea that civilians can't possibly relate.

ACKERMAN: You know, you ever been involved something tragic? Ever been in a car accident, crisis? It's the same thing, totally the same thing.

LAWRENCE: Most people know trauma or loss. This past year, it seems global. Ackerman says both civilians and veterans have to try harder.

ACKERMAN: So I think that to say, I can't imagine it, is a cop-out. It's basically telling a whole group of people, meaning veterans, that they can never come home.

LAWRENCE: Because home is mostly just feeling understood, feeling at home. So how do you build that understanding about the past 20 years of war? Plenty of novels and essays and movies have tried.

PETER TAMTE: I got a phone call...

LAWRENCE: And there are less traditional ways...

TAMTE: ...Or email, actually...

LAWRENCE: ...Like what Peter Tamte does.

TAMTE: ...At first from a Marine who I'd gotten to know quite well who had been medevaced out of the battle for Fallujah. And he started telling me all these stories from the battle that I had not heard.

LAWRENCE: Tamte is not a Marine, never served. He got to know a lot of Marines, though, when he was designing video training simulations for the military. One of those Marines called him back in 2004 straight from Fallujah.

TAMTE: I was blown away by the things that he had said. And it was that conversation where he said, you know, Peter, our generation plays video games.

LAWRENCE: He says, we don't read books or even watch movies so much. We play video games.

TAMTE: I was like, yeah, I know. He said, would you be interested in creating a video game to tell the stories of the battle for Fallujah? And so - and I - immediately, I said yes. And I didn't really understand fully what I was getting myself into.

LAWRENCE: Tamte called it Six Days In Fallujah, based on scenarios the Marines told him about. Then he spent the next five years working on it. The game included interviews with Americans but also Iraqis, documentary-style. While most of the civilians had left Fallujah, there were some stuck there during the battle. Tamte says American troops know what they did taking that city.

TAMTE: One of the Marines articulated it. He said, you know, what happened to the people of Fallujah is tragic. It's tragic. And it wasn't their fault. They said at the same time, not my fault either.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LAWRENCE: This is a firefight I watched in Fallujah. Insurgents fired RPGs and mortars. Americans took out buildings with airstrikes.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LAWRENCE: Five years later, in 2009, Konami, one of the world's largest video game makers, had partnered with Tamte's company and was going to release the game. But the Iraq War was still raging. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians had died. Fallujah was still a combat zone.

KEREN MEREDITH: This war is going on, and it's not a game.

LAWRENCE: Keren Meredith lost her son, Ken Ballard, in Iraq.

MEREDITH: Ken never got the chance to put another quarter in and play another game. And I just didn't think that it was right - the armchair warriors, the keyboard warriors who were so, you know, let's play a game. Oops, I got killed. OK, let's start over.

LAWRENCE: After outraged Gold Star mothers got on cable news, the big corporate sponsor, Konami, just dumped the game.

TAMTE: Well, you know, honestly, I was crushed initially.

LAWRENCE: Peter Tamte says he'd been consumed by the project. And suddenly, no one would touch it.

TAMTE: I thought that somehow, someway, I cannot walk away from the trust that these Marine soldiers and Iraqis at that point had given us to tell their stories.

LAWRENCE: Tamte put the stories away on hard drives.

TAMTE: I made a couple of backups, and I put them in safe deposit boxes.

LAWRENCE: And that's where they sat for most of the decade. Tamte left the video game business altogether. Then this past February, he reached out - actually, his publicist did - with a trailer. They're making the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIX DAYS IN FALLUJAH - OFFICAL GAMEPLAY REVEAL TRAILER)

JASON KYLE: My son, he had his first birthday while we were in Fallujah.

LAWRENCE: The trailer's part documentary with Fallujah veterans like Marine Sergeant Jason Kyle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIX DAYS IN FALLUJAH - OFFICAL GAMEPLAY REVEAL TRAILER)

KYLE: That was the most difficult day I had there. It dawned on me. It's like, I can't die on my kid's birthday.

LAWRENCE: And it's part you-are-there shooter game.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIX DAYS IN FALLUJAH - OFFICAL GAMEPLAY REVEAL TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Pin enemies in place with suppressive fire while you flank.

LAWRENCE: Part of the game is played as an Iraqi family trying to escape the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIX DAYS IN FALLUJAH - OFFICAL GAMEPLAY REVEAL TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As soldier) What's that?

(SOUNDBITE OF WOMAN SCREAMING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As soldier) On our left. Who's there? Step out.

LAWRENCE: There are also interviews with Fallujah civilians...

(SOUNDBITE OF SIX DAYS IN FALLUJAH - OFFICAL GAMEPLAY REVEAL TRAILER)

KYLE: ...Kick that door down. And it's, like, a family of four. And I'm talking to the dad. I'm like, dude, like, why are you still here? And he's like...

LAWRENCE: ...Like this man whose father refused to leave his home in the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIX DAYS IN FALLUJAH - OFFICAL GAMEPLAY REVEAL TRAILER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

LAWRENCE: Still, many people doubt that video games can handle serious subjects. The game isn't released yet, but the Gold Star mothers I spoke with, they still think players will just see this as shoot-'em-up entertainment.

SCOTT SIMPSON: It's simply irredeemable.

LAWRENCE: Scott Simpson, with Muslim Advocates, says it's entertainment made from a battle where Americans killed many Iraqi civilians.

SIMPSON: There is no way to release a game that glorifies the killing that happened. Is it enough to have an interview of a soldier beforehand justifying their actions, actions that you're going to be taking, by the way? I don't think so.

LAWRENCE: Simpson says he thinks the game could promote anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence. Peter Tamte says none of that is his intention. He says he wants to reach an audience that won't otherwise know anything about Fallujah.

TAMTE: I worry that if media collectively or video games specifically don't deal with the topic of the Iraq War, that millions of people will forget it's cost.

LAWRENCE: And he's getting encouragement from some veterans of the battle.

ACKERMAN: I think one of the huge problems we have right now is that so many Americans are just totally disconnected from our wars and our military.

LAWRENCE: Elliot Ackerman, the novelist, was one of the Marines interviewed for Six Days In Fallujah. Gamers will actually play him trapped in that candy store he told us about. And he's OK with that.

ACKERMAN: And so if you can get people paying attention and engaging with the subject matter through a video game, great. Like, I'm all about that.

LAWRENCE: Six Days In Fallujah is slated for release this December, 17 years after the battle was fought.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.