The Second Battle of Fallujah, which took place in 2004 during the Iraq War, resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of Iraqi civilians — at the time estimated around 800 but likely many more — as well as over 100 US and British troops.
The battle was violent, tragic, and has been extremely controversial, in no small part due to the US’s motivations for being in Iraq at all, most notably around the now thoroughly discredited rationale of “weapons of mass destruction.” But in particular, the Second Battle of Fallujah was criticized for numerous civilian casualties, as well as the US military’s attested use of white phosphorus against civilians and other alleged violent acts by the military forces against non-combatants. Though the US military has denied violence against civilians, numerous accounts appear to contradict their claims [Warning: Link includes graphic content].
Nearly two decades later, there’s a video game being made about the battle, and a number of people with connections to the event — through family, culture, heritage, or experience — are frustrated and angry about the way in which its creators appear to be approaching this painful subject.
That should come as no surprise. When Six Days in Fallujah was first announced back in 2009, it was met with widespread criticism — ultimately causing then-publisher Konami to ditch the project. Now, it’s resurfaced and is meeting renewed resistance.
IGN spoke with a number of Arab and Iraqi game developers and members of the video game community about their perspectives surrounding the revival of Six Days in Fallujah. Five agreed to speak on the record, as did one US military veteran. Many of those we reached out to declined to comment officially for various reasons: for some it was a very personal topic that they found challenging to talk about, while others were concerned that speaking critically about either the US military or the real-world events in Fallujah would result in repercussions to either their careers or their livelihoods.
The general sentiment that emerged from those talks — among much else — was a mistrust of Seattle-based developer Highwire’s ability to represent a truthful human experience of the events. Alongside that came worries about the game’s representation of Iraqi citizens (and Middle Eastern cultures in general), and a wider concern about the responsibility of trying to turn a real-life war — particularly such a recent, bloody, and controversial one — into an interactive entertainment experience.
The Intentions of Six Days in Fallujah
First, a bit of history. Six Days in Fallujah was initially announced in 2009 by Atomic Games, under Konami’s publishing umbrella. Konami’s first response to criticisms at that time was that it simply wanted “to bring a compelling entertainment experience,” and that the product was “just a game.”
Not a month later, Konami dropped the project, saying it was in response to the public’s reaction. In its official statement, however, Konami seemed to offer a very different take from its prior messaging about wanting to make an entertainment-first product.
In direct contrast to previous comments, a representative of the company at the time said, “We had intended to convey the reality of the battles to players so that they could feel what it was like to be there,” foreshadowing the game’s future struggles to explain what it was trying to make. Without Konami’s support, Atomic shut down shortly after.
Seven years later in 2016, former Atomic Games CEO Peter Tamte formed his own publishing studio, Victura, to support the game’s 2021 reemergence with developer Highwire Games at the helm. Today’s Six Days in Fallujah is, per the game’s own website, “a first-person tactical military shooter that recreates true stories of Marines, Soldiers, and Iraqi civilians who fought Al Qaeda during the toughest urban battle since 1968.”
More marketing, taken from the official website, attests that its creators interviewed over 100 Marines, soldiers, and Iraqi civilians to shape “real-life scenarios” played through the eyes of real people, who narrate what happened during the battle. Details are still hazy but, based on interviews and press materials, it appears that the majority of the game will be portrayed through the eyes of military members. It is also said to include at least one mission where players follow an unarmed Iraqi civilian. The publisher adds that no section will allow you to play as an insurgent.
The website goes on to say that while the Iraq War was controversial, that “doesn’t mean it wasn’t filled with remarkable stories of sacrifice and courage.” Six Days in Fallujah promises to embrace the capacity for video games to “connect us in ways other media cannot”, and explain “not just what happened, but why it happened the way it did.” [Emphasis Victura’s]
“Based on their stories, we’ve invested more than three years building technologies to explore specific parts of the combat experience more realistically than other games have so far,” the website continues. “We hope that participating in these real-life ‘moments of truth’ will give each of us a new perspective into events that have already shaped so much of our century.”
But even putting aside that the subject matter itself is inherently a deeply sensitive part of US and Iraq history that would be tough for anyone to grapple with responsibly — especially companies that traditionally make entertainment products — Victura’s statements and marketing materials on its official site have thus far failed to inspire confidence in the game’s direction from many with ties to the Second Battle of Fallujah.
What’s more, its official messaging — and the contradictions it poses — is one of Six Days in Fallujah’s biggest problems.
The message, purpose, and marketing of Six Days in Fallujah were by far the biggest, most common criticisms of the game from everyone we spoke to. Much of the concern stems from the fact that while the marketing speak on the website says one thing, Tamte himself has given multiple interviews about Six Days in Fallujah that contrast starkly with that direction.
“[We’re] not trying to make a political commentary.” Tamte said just over a month ago. This comment — notably similar to the same statements that arose during the game’s first announcement years ago — is the focal point of the controversy around the game’s re-announcement. It’s also the remark that drew the most skepticism and anger from many of those we spoke to.
However, following our initial interviews with the people quoted in this piece, Victura issued a follow up statement saying that the events in the game were “inseparable from politics,” despite Tamte’s earlier comments to the contrary. The statement continued to say that Six Days in Fallujah discusses “many tough topics, including the events and political decisions that led to the Fallujah battles as well as their aftermath.”
Tamte himself subsequently told IGN that he was aware of the political ramifications of the game, but that the team is focused on the Battle of Fallujah itself, rather than the wider circumstances of the Iraq War, despite the obvious connections between the two. But even with this shift in messaging, those we spoke to were still concerned that Tamte had so reflexively reached for “it’s not political” as a response to begin with.
“[‘It’s not political’] is used primarily by creators who are resistant to calls for a more representative video game landscape,” said Anita Sarkeesian, media critic and executive director of Feminist Frequency, in her initial statement to IGN. “[It’s] a defense most often used to push the most regressive, conservative, and oppressive narratives.”
She and many other developers we interviewed remained unconvinced after Victura’s corrective statement.
“The recent statement from Victura articulating that they understand that Six Days in Fallujah is in fact a political game is nothing more than crisis management, whether they actually understand the problems or not,” she said. “It doesn’t change that the developers who worked on the game for many years worked on it while believing they were not making a political game…It doesn’t change the fact that this game is perpetuating the status quo of American imperialism and the incredible harm it causes to the rest of the world, and in this case to Iraqis, and Arabs more broadly.
Alex, a Lebanese-Arab game developer, agreed, saying they saw this as a deliberate attempt to disguise military propaganda in response to controversy. “Any time you make a war game and you have to [say it’s not] political, all it says is, ‘Hey, if you’re pro-military, we’re not questioning your beliefs. We’re not going to make you think about it.’”
One Muslim game developer we spoke to with family ties in the Middle East (who wished to remain anonymous) said that Six Days in Fallujah’s marketing thus far, as well as Tamte’s statements, was one of the main reasons they were skeptical about the game’s ability to tell the story it intends with any sensitivity or careful consideration.
“There is an entire possibility that they did their due diligence,” they said. “Really made an effort to take a wide set of accounts and then build around it. However, given the comments of [Tamte], as in, if their opening gambit is, ‘We’re not making a political game,’ that doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence in their ability to do something nuanced. When the whole idea is that you can take an event from the Iraq War, and just somehow absolve it of any of the political elements, or not engage with or discuss any of the political elements.”
Empathy — But With Whom?
But the mixed messages of Six Days in Fallujah are far from the only problem those we spoke to have with the game. Many take issue with the game’s other, largely consistent aims, including Tamte’s stated goal: to teach players empathy. Tamte said he wants players to empathize with the US soldiers involved in the battle, through whose eyes players will experience the majority of the game.
That empathy, Alex said, isn’t correctly placed. They say that a game like this inherently presents a point of view and set of values, and that those values historically reinforce the status quo and empathize with one side over the other. Tamte’s comments certainly seem to confirm that in this case.
“He said you’re supposed to empathize with the Marines and what they went through. The Marines went into that city and fucking killed everybody. What am I supposed to empathize with?”
As Sarkeesian has said, by asking players to empathize with US soldiers in the Iraq War, Six Days in Fallujah runs the risk of adding to a greater, ongoing culture of generalizing and dehumanizing Middle Eastern cultures in media, especially video games, and especially since 9/11. Numerous studies and articles have been published about how 9/11 caused a spike in racist anti-Muslim and anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in the US that hasn’t gone away even two decades later, and continues to be a problem in media depictions as well.
Having talked at length before about the harmful portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in the media, Sarkeesian spoke to us both as a critic and as a person connected to Fallujah via her family, with parents born and raised in Iraq and other relatives who were working in Fallujah during the war. She called the homogenization of Arab culture in Western media “shameful.”
“It is extremely well documented at this point that Arabs in American media have overwhelmingly been portrayed as unhinged terrorists who hate ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy'”, Sarkeesian said. She pointed to the fact there is rarely an attempt to build empathy toward Arabs in media, which encourages a lack of empathy from those who consume it. “Talk about building empathy? Where are the stories about Arabs living their lives, loving sports, mastering a musical instrument, falling in love, finding comfort in their religious or spiritual faith, rebelling against their parents, cooking with their grandparents? Where are the stories that show the very wide array of cultures and countries that we lump into the word Arab?
“In tandem with narrative media villainizing Arabs, the news media spent decades justifying attacks on the Middle East, so much so that Americans were already primed to accept the 2003 invasion of Iraq as if it was a just, moral, and inevitable action to take.”
Most of our sources pointed out that video games’ tendency to portray inaccurate depictions of Middle Eastern individuals and groups as faceless bad guys in game after game has not helped matters. One Arab-Lebanese game developer, Lee Hammoud, said that the trend of media that takes place in the Middle East “almost makes me feel we’re just a bunch of NPCs to a lot of [people].”
Alex agreed. “Post-9/11, it became really clear to me that there was a trend of dehumanizing Arabs in media,” they said. “You never actually realize it’s you that they mean because they’re such ridiculous caricatures that look nothing like you.” For example, Alex mentioned the depictions of terrorists in Army of Two, a game they enjoyed playing with their brother as a teenager. It’s a common connection that highlights how media frequently chooses to identify Arabs as inherently evil. Alex recalled “the Arab bad guys that were supposed to be us.”
“In my head I’m like, ‘No, it’s those other terrorists,'” they said. “And as me and my brother are dropping in Army of Two into a mission and then the pseudo-terrorists are coming at us, they started speaking my dialect of Arabic…I just kind of went, ‘Oh.'”
The Middle East became an easy setting to galvanize a base against, Alex said, because Americans didn’t have to think too hard about it. “You just turn on a game, you see some terrorists, and you start shooting at them.”
A Military Story and a Conflict of Interest
None of this is helped by the fact that, as many of those we spoke to said, the group making Six Days in Fallujah seems very far removed from the reality of the situation they’re exploring. Highwire Games, they say, is a Western studio, and at least in appearances doesn’t seem to have much Iraqi representation in its ranks — or doesn’t care to put that representation forward to lend itself authenticity.
That would be concerning enough, they say, but the driving force behind the project, Tamte himself, used to build training systems for the US Marines. Though his publisher Victura has denied official US military involvement in the current version of the game, the people I spoke to remained skeptical.
“I’m not quite sure why, all of a sudden, someone who would spend their time creating simulation tools for the Military — and I understand that’s an industry in and of itself, that’s a whole separate thing,” said the anonymous game developer we spoke to. “But, the idea that somehow, on some level, that experience, or their potential connections were not involved in any manner, it seems incredibly odd…the bottom line is, I’m not quite sure someone can outright say that their previous experience, or previous connections, or that even this game’s previous connections, somehow do not tie to the Military in some way.”
At best, those we spoke to worry that a group of people with sympathy and vested interest in the US military will inherently be biased toward it, and may consciously or otherwise tell an inaccurate story that portrays the military in a more favorable light while casting those who lived in the country it invaded as villains. That worry has already born out somewhat, given that Victura has done little in the way of actively disclosing its previous military connections as a potential conflict of interest, and has in fact actively tried to separate itself from them despite clear evidence the game was, at least at one point, clearly wrapped up in them.
At worst, they suspect it could even be a deliberate attempt to tell the story of Fallujah in a way that erases the harm that the US military caused in favor of a heroic tale of sacrifice that makes the US look purely brave, moral, and justified. While this concern would be understandable regardless, given the history of how conflicts such as these have been portrayed in the past, the numerous red flags and mixed messages throughout Six Days in Fallujah’s marketing have only caused more confusion and cast more doubt.
Yifat Shaik, an Iraqi-Jewish game development professor, specifically called out the game’s marketing for resembling military propaganda, analyzing this tweet from Victura as an example.
— Victura (@VicturaGG) February 15, 2021
“This image is selling you the idea that the soldiers are brave and are going to fight the bad guy, or are going to encounter something dangerous. It does not show the fact that it’s a house and it is very likely that the people on the other side are civilians and are very likely going to be killed.
“It sells you the idea that the soldiers are brave and that their cause is just without showing you if their fear is justified or not. We do not see what they are encountering, the enemy is faceless and voiceless…It’s propaganda because it is telling you (and this is true for all the gifs and images they have on Twitter) that they are the good guys and that they are fighting a nameless enemy. It is there to sell you the idea of war being just and that the US Army [are] the good guys in this case. If I reverse this, and those would have been Iraqi soldiers or insurgents, our reaction would be a lot different.
“Basically when we look at a piece of media we have to ask ourselves: What is it trying to tell us? Who is it serving? Who will have the most to gain from the acceptance of this media is the truth?…I would argue that it is not the Iraqi civilians.”
Tamte has attempted to counter concerns that the story will be solely focused on the US military perspective by noting that in at least one mission in Six Days in Fallujah, players will be in the shoes of an Iraqi civilian trying to flee the city. But many of those we spoke to mistrust this framing, including Alex.
“Given your [previous military connections and] bias, I do not trust you to tell that story…I’ve seen it a million times before. I’ve seen the narrative. There’s a playbook to this stuff and people are scary good at it. Every time someone goes, ‘Oh, this is a movie about empathizing with X marginalized person,’ you have to look at two things. Who made it? Is that person from that community? Okay, maybe I’ll listen. If not, then what is the underlying message? What is this trying to sell me under the guise of empathy?”
Sarkeesian shared a similar criticism, pointing at the game’s marketing — almost entirely focused on the US perspective thus far — as evidence that the game would not take the time and care it needed with the Iraqi side of the story.
“The developer statements very carefully acknowledge the Iraqi casualties but they are not providing any context about the fact that the heroes of this story are murdering people who are defending themselves and their homeland, a people who have been targeted repeatedly over the years by world powers, including the US.”
Realities of Combat
But criticism of Six Days in Fallujah doesn’t stem only from those with connections to the Arab and Iraqi communities. John Phipps, a veteran involved in the Second Battle of Fallujah, expressed similar worries about the messaging surrounding the game, agreeing that a Western, military perspective on Fallujah was not a trustworthy one.
“There is a massive unwillingness on the part of American media, no matter what form of media it is, to portray US soldiers as the antagonists or the bad guys, which, in that instance, we were,” he said.
Phipps added that he also felt the Six Days in Fallujah team’s promises to portray war in an especially realistic way could not reasonably be fulfilled, regardless of which side the battle was shown from.
“Somebody asked me a little while back what the difference was between something like Six Days in Fallujah and something like Saving Private Ryan,” he said. “Of course, Saving Private Ryan was a really stark look at World War II, specifically Europe and Normandy and going into France. My answer to that was: One, in movies versus games you are a passive observer as opposed to an active participant. Two, Saving Private Ryan never promised to deliver you to the battlefield and make you experience firsthand what those soldiers did. It was a movie about something that was completely fictional. The backdrop was World War II of course, but the actual story of the squad that went to go save Private James Ryan was fictional.
“What they’re doing in Six Days in Fallujah is actually using the [stories] of Marines…and having the player act out scenarios in which real Marines were actually involved. So now, you’ve made a promise, which is something that films don’t do, certainly not something that Saving Private Ryan did. You’re making a promise to transport people to the battlefield. You’re making a promise to gamers to let them experience what it was like in Fallujah. It doesn’t matter what the battlefield is — that’s empty, that’s a hollow promise. You can’t do that. There is no way you are going to portray anywhere near what it’s like to be on a battlefield digitally. And if you somehow figure out a way to do that, you need to get rid of it because it’s, quite frankly, a product that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Shaik, who is also an Israeli military veteran, believes that military games frequently tend to gloss over the true horrors of war as well as the often mundane realities of most military jobs. It’s a purposeful move used as a tool for military recruitment, she said. She offers America’s Army (with its tagline “The Official Game of the US Army”) as an example of this, while others we spoke to pointed out various partnerships between the US military and games like Call of Duty over the years to generally promote and portray the military in a positive, heroic light, all from the safety and comfort of a player’s living room.
“The reality portrayed in video games is not the reality of war or combat itself,” Shaik said. “You can take a game like Six Days in Fallujah and [portray the player as] a hero, a soldier fighting there. But it’s probably not what was really there, and…you don’t come out of battle happy or safe or feeling comfortable.”
Who Can Make Six Days in Fallujah?
Not everyone we spoke to believed that the very idea of Six Days in Fallujah as a game was a completely lost cause. Hammoud, for example, mistrusts the game because of two primary reasons: concern that the game’s creators would be constrained by the industry-wide pressure to make something that would sell well over prioritizing the necessity for sensitivity in its storytelling, and the sheer recency of the Second Battle of Fallujah. As an example, Hammoud suggested no one would make a mass-marketed game about 9/11 because it was too recent, and too personally traumatic for so many people. The Second Battle of Fallujah — where repercussions are still being felt today — could evoke similar feelings in people who are connected to the city or the region.
But he did acknowledge that there was a possibility it could end up being a helpful portrayal — if it managed to center the experiences of the victims rather than the perpetrators.
“How are you going to depict it?” Hammoud said. “Are you going to depict it in a way where it’s just exactly how it happened? Are you trying to raise awareness about what happened? Are you trying not to make a heroic story out of it? What are you trying to do exactly? If what you’re trying to do is just to describe the battle in the heroic cinematic dramatic way…that’s just going to make it worse.
“But if you’re doing it in the sense of, for example, This War of Mine. They have portrayed the idea that victims go through this and even if they survive they still have very long, life-changing effects. Sort of like what Spec Ops[: The Line] did as well. That could definitely help in sort of solidifying the idea that the victims over there are humans like everyone else and they’re not just numbers on Wikipedia.”
Others, like Sarkeesian, felt that Six Days in Fallujah’s very nature was a contradiction that inherently cannot accomplish its goals.
“Every now and again a video game comes along that claims it is trying to challenge the glamorization of violence, but the problem is that these games are asking the player to do violence; they are building amusement and entertainment into the act of violence,” she said. “So what’s the actual challenge? That players might feel bad about a choice they have to make? That the game may turn one killing the player commits into a moment of regrettable necessity or grim character development for a protagonist, before they go on to slaughter hundreds more nameless NPCs?
“I don’t want to say we can never have games about war or violence but I think we really need to reckon with how we are telling those stories. From whose perspective is the story being told? What tools and mechanics are being used to tell those stories?”
Alex, meanwhile, said that a story like the Second Battle of Fallujah would ideally be told from an Iraqi perspective — but added that making this kind of game should never be something audiences should simply expect or demand marginalized developers to do in the first place.
“A lot of marginalized people are expected to make ’empathy games’, basically so that the boot on our neck or the people who are profiting from that boot on our neck can empathize with us a little bit and just kind of be like, ‘Oh, shit. Actually massacring an entire city, that was wrong.'”
Ultimately, Alex and several of the others I spoke to wish that the games already being made by Arab game developers — regardless of whether or not they cover deeply traumatic events — received the same kind of mainstream attention and consideration as Six Days in Fallujah. If games are to be used to build empathy, they said, it is better to uplift the art already being made by those who have been harmed by the Iraq War and its widespread consequences for Arabs and Muslims globally. Better, certainly, than making yet another war game with stories, true or otherwise, told through the intermediary of a Western, military-connected studio.
“Coming up as an artist, I did not want to touch the Lebanese war,” Alex said. “Being a young artist in Lebanon, most of the people in school we knew…what white people wanted to see from us, what the people with the money wanted to see from us, was a hand-wringing narrative about death and war and despair. And just basically circling everything back to our civil war and our wars with Israel and all of that. That was the only way they could relate to us. And I just always wanted to make happy media just as a way to fight that.
“But there’s always a part of you that’s like, ‘Well, I have this platform now. Shouldn’t I be countering stuff like Six Days in Fallujah? Shouldn’t I be telling our story, even though I’m just a tiny, very specific facet of that relationship that many Arabs have and Muslims have with US imperialism?’ I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is. I just don’t know. It’s really hard to walk that line between feeling like a race traitor for not absorbing the trauma of my people every day and trying to fix it every waking moment and also just trying to make the things that I want to make. And I think a lot of other Arab devs feel the same way, probably.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.