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Opinion: Six Days in Fallujah tramples over the human cost of the Iraq War

The surprise revival of Six Days in Fallujah risks justifying the violence against the Iraqi people in the name of entertainment, writes Bryant Francis.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

April 7, 2021

10 Min Read

It’s frankly kind of shocking that Six Days in Fallujah has returned to the public discourse. First revealed in 2009, Atomic Games promised to let players relive the Second Battle of Fallujah from November 2004, from the perspective of real United States Marines who waged the assault.

Controversy erupted. Konami, the game’s publisher, yanked its funding. Atomic Games collapsed. Six Days in Fallujah became an example of how public backlash could tank a game.

Now Six Days in Fallujah is back, with Highwire Games as its new developer, Victura as its new publisher, and brand-new technology and direction to try and valorize a battle that its creators feel hasn’t gotten due attention (despite numerous books, documentaries, Fox News recreations, and even an opera that all center the perspectives of U.S. Marines).

Its return has not been warmly welcomed by everyone in the video game community. IGN’s Rebekah Valentine spoke with Arab and Iraqi game developers exhausted and infuriated by the game. U.S. military veterans John Phipps and Tristan Greene have also spoken out against the game’s revival.

For all the attempts to avoid the controversy that tanked it the first time, Six Days in Fallujah’s developers are intent on using imaginative and innovative game tech for what is ultimately a vile end: sanding off the edges of an attack led by U.S. Marines that left hundreds of Iraqis dead, thousands of homes laid to waste, and long-lasting health consequences still impacting the city’s residents today.

Procedural Architecture – Real Homes

When it comes to the U.S. invasion of Fallujah, there’s a mutual understanding between reports out of the battle and Highwire Games: the homes and apartments of Fallujah made the invasion a nightmare.

The homes, mosques, and commercial buildings of the city became micro-battlegrounds as insurgent groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic Army of Iraq, and Army of the Mujahedeen used them as cover and fortification. In the attack on Fallujah in November 2004, the mission of the U.S. Marines involved clearing these buildings room by room, searching for traps and enemy forces while encountering non-combatants still residing in the city.

Six Days in Fallujah recreates the task U.S. Marines faced in clearing these real-life homes. In an eye-brow-raising marketing addition to this new version of the game, these homes are apparently procedurally generated by a process that Highwire Games has named “Procedural Architecture.”

As a narrator intones in a marketing video posted on IGN “Marines and soldiers never knew what was waiting for them behind the next door, and if you want a realistic experience, neither can you.”

Level designers have been virtually flattening the homes and businesses of fictional Middle-Easterners for years, but there’s something extra noxious to programming a machine specifically to recreate the homes of real people for the purposes of entertaining players.

Any level designer will tell you that real-world architecture makes for lousy level design, and any procedural game designer will tell you that making procedurally generated content feel fresh and interesting is a laborious process.

To complete the act of creating compelling levels, all sense of humanity in these spaces must be sanded away, with unsettling authentic details preserved to trick the human mind with that ever-vague sense of realism.

If you compare Six Days in Fallujah’s footage with video from the city itself, maybe the details will jump out to you too. The plastic chairs that dot balconies and courtyards, exposed wiring that powers lights, fridges and fans, rusted railings meant to keep occupants from stumbling or injuring themselves.

One of the many tragedies of the U.S. attack on Fallujah was the destruction of the Iraqi people’s homes and personal spaces--residences that were meant to convey safety, family, distorted into a real battleground.

The U.S. Government blames Iraqi insurgents for this, but Highwire Games has done the dirty work for them, creating an entire system dedicated to eliminating the humanity of real spaces in order to create a more compelling experience for players.

Civilian accounts are bone-chilling

The popular narrative over the events in Fallujah from April to November of 2004 hinges on your definition of “civilians,” how many of them remained inside the city, and how many were killed by U.S. gunfire and air assaults in that time period.

A U.S. Army analysis of the War in Iraq describes the events of April in 2004 in these terms: “Cable television channel Al Jazeera claimed 600 civilians had been killed and filled its broadcasts with images of dead children at the Fallujah hospital and other locations within the city.”

“With little time to prepare for the mission, [Multi-National Force West, the coalition headquarters in Iraq] had not embedded Western journalists with [the Marine expeditionary forces], so that the critical ground of information operations was effectively ceded to an insurgency that could distribute a one-sided message.”

Worse, the haste with which the operation was executed precluded the opportunity to evacuate the city of civilians properly, essentially ensuring that the insurgency had the opportunity to exploit footage of civilian casualties.”

The plight of civilians was also documented by independent journalists, who paint a bleak picture of how their lives were torn apart by the conflict. To be certain, any depiction of the battle of Fallujah that minimizes the civilian presence in the city (or acts as though evacuation was an act without its own inherent violence) isn’t telling the full story.

The developers behind Six Days in Fallujah have taken a renewed interest in civilian life in the city during the battle (though comments made to the press by game director Peter Tamte about their existence have been grim). You can encounter families as a U.S. Marine, and some missions apparently allow you to play as a father trying to get his family out of the city.

But even before the November 2004 battle, the U.S. presence in Fallujah had taken a huge toll on the Iraqi people. Air strikes and mortar assaults on insurgent positions resulted in civilian casualties (the U.S. Army’s report categorizes this as “collateral damage”). The documentaries 500 Miles to Babylon and The Road to Fallujah both allege that Marine snipers opened fire on ambulances attempting to render aid in the city.

Marine snipers also allegedly shot and killed civilians walking in the streets according to witnesses speaking to the Associated Press, and footage from 500 Miles to Babylon. Independent videographer and activist David Martinez, who directed the documentary, gave a personal account of Marines opening fire at an ambulance he was riding in while volunteering in the city.

Image source: 500 Miles to Babylon

There are also former Marines who boast about targeting civilians. Former U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter bragged about “probably” killing civilians while conducting mortar fire on Fallujah in an interview on Barstool Sports’ podcast Zero Blog Thirty where he was defending the conduct of convicted U.S. Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, who was later pardoned by former president Donald Trump.

“I was an artillery officer and we fired hundreds of rounds into Fallujah, killed probably hundreds of civilians…Probably killed women and children if there were any left in the city when we invaded,” Hunter said on the podcast. “So do I get judged too?”

The developers working on the original Six Days in Fallujah seemed to be aware of some similar conduct. Former Atomic Games designer Nathan Cheever (who's not working on the new version of Six Days in Fallujah) blogged on Gamasutra in 2018 about his work on the game, and shared slices of setpieces the team wanted to build levels around taken from the research and Marine accounts.

One moment Cheever apparently researched was an incident in which U.S. Marines forced a captured insurgent to disable a chain of improvised explosive devices. If he’d failed, he would have been blown to shreds.

I don’t quite know how “forcing a prisoner to disarm bombs at the threat of their own life” would be viewed through the Geneva Convention’s requirements for treatment of prisoners but it’s sure bleak to read it in a game design document.

That’s to say nothing about Tamte’s conversation with Gamesindustry.biz where he says, "I don't think that we need to portray the atrocities in order for people to understand the human cost. We can do that without the atrocities."

Another awful, though admittedly minor account of U.S. troops’ behavior in the city comes from Iraqi journalist and doctor Ali Fadhil's documentary Fallujah: The Real Story. Fadhil described the scene in his account to The Guardian, but you can also see the moment he describes in t he documentary.

“Fallujans are suspicious of outsiders, so I found it surprising when Nihida Kadhim, a housewife, beckoned me into her home,” Fadhil wrote. “She had just arrived back in the city to check out her house; the government had told the people three days earlier that they should start going home. She called me into her living room.”

“On her mirror she pointed to a message that had been written in her lipstick. She couldn't read English. It said: ‘Fuck Iraq and every Iraqi in it!’”

Image via Democracy Now

“‘They are insulting me, aren't they?’ she asked.”

A vile end

There’s zero reason to believe at this time that Highwire Games and Victura would allow players to recreate any of the real-life behavior discussed above.

But there is ample reason to be suspicious of any depiction of the U.S. assault Fallujah that sands the edges off in order to create a sanitized version of real-world events, particularly to amplify the concept of U.S. Marines in Fallujah as heroic liberators.

“We watched people's opinions turn on the Americans,” Martinez, director on 500 Miles to Babylon told me in a phone interview. “I don't want to paraphrase history to be neat like that, but [Fallujah] was a tipping point, that was when a lot of [Iraqi] people said 'these guys are crazy.'"

(It’s worth noting that the U.S. Army and other groups describe Fallujah in similar terms.)

As one of many storytellers who produced work documenting the events in Fallujah in 2004, Martinez had one particular experience other journalists didn’t: while in Fallujah, he’d been briefly detained by Iraqi resistance fighters.

Despite the fear for his life he experienced in the day they imprisoned him, Martinez still expressed skepticism over any media narrative that favored the U.S. Marines. “When you're talking about a video game like this, or movies, my sympathy is with the Iraqi people,” he explained.

"When you set the story from the perspective of a U.S. Marine who is fighting in Fallujah, and you make all of the enemies out to be Al Qaeda, you've made a moral decision. That's a political decision that is identical to the U.S.'s professed objective in invading Iraq, which we knew then, and know now, to be false.”

Highwire Games and Victura have done more than set their game as a story of U.S. Marines fighting in Fallujah, they’re using a video game to prop up the U.S. Government’s lies that justified invading Iraq and Fallujah in the first place. Those lies ultimately killed over 100,000 Iraqis, not to mention the over 4,500 deaths of Coalition Forces.

The killing and displacement of Iraqi civilians by US forces is an inescapable part of the assault on Fallujah, and every step of the way, those casualties were shrugged off or downplayed by the West as either incidental, necessary, misunderstood, or nonexistent.

Real people lost their families, their homes and their way of life in a tragic, awful year that in the United States, has been largely told as the story of the hell that Coalition forces went through.

It’s vile to extract tales of heroism from an eight-month period build on the foundation of hundreds of unnecessary deaths. It’s viler still to insist that ignoring U.S. atrocities, and letting players recreate the conditions under which Iraqi deaths occurred, somehow tells the truth about the Second Battle of Fallujah.

Gamasutra made multiple interview requests with Highwire Games prior to publishing this piece. The company has not responded to our questions.

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