This article discusses the Iraq War and the Second Battle of Fallujah and may be uncomfortable for some readers.
One of the bloodiest and most controversial battles of the Iraq War was the Second Battle of Fallujah, which took place in November 2004. The battle saw coalition forces – most of whom were American, but there were a number of Iraqi and British troops who took part as well – capture the city from al-Qaeda and other insurgent forces. The Iraq War is controversial and its history complicated, and I’m simplifying the events of the battle and the war to avoid making this article about a video game too long. Suffice to say that even now, eighteen years since the United States led a coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein, and more than sixteen years since the Battle of Fallujah, the events are controversial, disputed, and the consequences of military action are still being felt in Iraq, the wider Middle East, and indeed the whole world.
Six Days In Fallujah is a video game depicting the battle from the American side, and when it was initially in development in the late 2000s it became incredibly controversial in the United States, with politicians and Iraq War veterans’ groups expressing opposition and disgust. The idea of recreating for fun any aspect of one of the most divisive conflicts of the last few decades was considered obscene, and the idea of encouraging gamers to play through a battle that took place, at that time, a mere five years earlier was too much for many people to countenance.
After the controversy boiled over and saw media personalities and politicians get involved in 2009, Six Days In Fallujah disappeared, and by 2010 or 2011 the project was effectively shelved. The critics moved on, the developers moved on, and that appeared to be the end of the matter.
Last month, however, there came the announcement from a studio called Highwire Games – which is said to consist of developers who worked on games in the Halo and Destiny franchises at Bungie – that Six Days In Fallujah was back. The game is now scheduled for a late 2021 release date, and plans to retain the original focus that was the cause of such controversy a decade ago. Cue outrage from the expected sources.
What took me by surprise was not the strength of feeling expressed by some veterans of the battle, nor the criticism by largely self-serving politicians. That was to be expected, and the announcement of Six Days In Fallujah went out of its way to highlight how Highwire Games has worked with veterans in particular – clearly anticipating this kind of reaction and trying to pre-empt some of the criticism. Instead what genuinely surprised me was the reaction from some games industry insiders and commentators, who appear to be taking an equally aggressive stance in opposition to Six Days In Fallujah.
Politicians, particularly those to the right-of-centre, have long campaigned against video gaming as a hobby. Initially games were derided as being wastes of time or childish, but some time in the 1990s the tactic switched to accusing games of inspiring or encouraging violence; equating in-game actions with real-world events. Numerous studies have looked into this issue, by the way, and found it to be without merit. But we’re off-topic.
Advocates of video gaming as a hobby – in which category I must include myself, both as someone who used to work in the industry and as an independent media critic who frequently discusses gaming – have long tried to push back against this narrative and these attacks. “Video games can be art” is a frequently heard refrain from those of us who support the idea of interactive media having merit that extends beyond simple entertainment, and there are many games to which I would direct an opponent to see for themselves that games can be just as valid as works of cinema and literature.
To see folks I would consider allies in the fight for gaming in general to be taken more seriously calling out Six Days In Fallujah because of its controversial subject matter was disappointing. Art, particularly art that deals with controversial current and historical events, can be difficult and challenging for its audience – and it’s meant to be. A painting, photograph, novel, or film depicting something like war is sometimes going to challenge our preconceptions and ask us to consider different points of view. That’s what makes art of this kind worthwhile. It’s what makes everything from war photography to protest songs to the entire genre of war in cinema incredibly important.
Documentaries and news reports only cover events in one way. The way we as a society come to understand events is partly factual but also is, in part, informed by the art those events inspire. The First World War is covered very well in history textbooks and newsreels produced at the time, but another side of the conflict – a more intimate, personal side – is seen in the poetry of people like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The poems that they wrote about their wartime experiences were not pure depictions of fact, they were written to both inform and entertain – and perhaps to inform through entertainment.
If we relegate the Iraq War to contemporary news broadcasts and documentaries by the likes of Michael Moore we will miss something important, and so will future generations who want to look back and understand what happened. There are many works of fiction and non-fiction which attempt to show the big picture of what happened in Iraq, from the lies about “weapons of mass destruction” through to the use of banned weapons. Those works absolutely need to exist. But in a way, so does Six Days In Fallujah. It aims to depict, in as realistic a manner as game engines in 2021 will allow, one of America’s most controversial battles of recent decades – an event which will be seen in future, perhaps, as one of the American military’s darkest hours of the entire 21st Century due to their alleged use of illegal white phosphorus.
Getting as many perspectives as possible across as broad an array of media as possible about such an important event seems worthwhile, at least to me. Six Days In Fallujah may ultimately turn out to depict the event poorly, or be a game plagued by technical issues. It might be flat-out crap. But it really does surprise me to hear serious commentators and critics suggest that it shouldn’t be made at all, perhaps because of their own biases and preconceptions about the war and the game’s possible depiction of it.
There is value in art, and if video games are to ever be taken seriously as artistic expression, we need to make sure we allow difficult and challenging works of art to exist in the medium. That doesn’t mean we support them or the messages they want to convey, but rather that we should wait and judge them on merit when they’ve been made. As I said, Six Days In Fallujah may be a dud; an easily-forgotten piece of fluff not worth the energy of all this controversy. But maybe it will be a significant work that aids our understanding of the history of this battle, and the entire Iraq War.
It feels odd, as someone who lived through the Iraq War and all its controversy, to be considering it as an historical event, especially considering its continued relevance. I actually attended a huge anti-war march in London that took place a few weeks before British forces joined the US-led coalition and attacked Iraq. But the beginning of the Iraq War is now almost two decades in the past, and even as the world struggles with the aftermath of those events, we need to create works like Six Days In Fallujah if we’re ever to come to terms with what happened and begin to understand it. We also need to consider future generations – are we leaving them enough information and enough art to understand the mistakes our leaders made in 2003? If we don’t leave that legacy, we risk a future George W. Bush or Tony Blair making the same kind of mistake. I don’t know if Six Days In Fallujah will even be relevant to the conversation, but it’s incredibly important that we find out.
Six Days In Fallujah is the copyright of Highwire Games and Victura. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.