Tangled Webs

   Game Imitates Art
Issue 9.4
Dec 29, 2004

The Hunting of the President

Last month, on the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Traffic Games released JFK Reloaded, a game based on the event and in which the player assumes the role of Lee Harvey Oswald. The objective is to recreate the fatal shooting as accurately as possible. Traffic is even offering a cash prize to the player who recreates the scene in closest accordance to the Warren Commission's report.

Game-play consists of sitting in the book repository, staring down the riflescope and trying to get off the infamous three shots. Considering today's adrenaline-charged first-person shooters, this struck me as a pretty weak premise on which to base a game. Since I don't play computer games often, I turned to 14-year-old Ken, the official Tangled Webs game tester, for a more authoritative evaluation.

After ten minutes, he came back with his report. "This is boring! Do I really have to finish it?" It would seem that my impression was correct, and JFK Reloaded is not much of a game. (No Ken, you don't have to finish. You can go back to playing Halo 2 now.) Looking a little deeper, it's pretty clear that Traffic never intended this to be a game.

That's Outrageous

Technology writers wasted no time in turning this game into a story. As soon as they received the press release from Traffic Games, they began calling up people, including the Kennedy family, asking for their "reaction." Of course, no one had had never heard of the game or the tiny company that published it. Spokesmen for these parties got back to the reporters and stated simply and briefly that they found the game distasteful.

Thus, the outrage and controversy story was born. Newspaper articles were written, Internet polls were conducted and message boards filled up with people passionately arguing over whether the game was appropriate. The same three-word statement from a Kennedy family spokesman was juxtaposed with lengthy verbiage from Traffic Games to create the illusion of debate.

Two weeks later the media moved on to other topics, and all the outrage and controversy evaporated.

Of course, nothing is intrinsically outrageous. Whether one feels outrage over a particular event or action depends far more on the individual than on any objective or definable standard. However, without the media manufacturing controversy, it is difficult to imagine this little game offending on a deeper level than more popular game titles like Hitman or Sniper, whose names pretty accurately describe the game-play.

Why should this game be cause more offense than the dozens of movies and TV shows that have been made about Kennedy's assassination? Or indeed, why should we feel more outrage over a game about killing a man than we do over the real and widespread killing that continues all over the world?

Because the media tells us we should.

Although Traffic Games manufactured the software, it was the media that manufactured the controversy that actually drove the sales.

That's Edutainment

I find the publisher's claim that this game has educational value to be the most absurd, but least challenged aspect of the discussion. The whole notion that one can receive an education from games or movies seems rather questionable. Unfortunately, the label "educational" has become so cheapened that it is commonly applied to any movie or game that is based on actual events and contains at least a few random facts.

The game's authors assert that this game validates the Warren commission and proves that Oswald acting alone could have killed Kennedy, and claim that it will settle the debate once and for all. It will do no such thing, of course.

In fact, many computer simulations of the event have already been made. Each simulation contains hundreds of subtle biases and assumptions, and they have already been used to prove both sides of the argument. No new ground is being broken here.

This game does no more prove the Warren Commission's findings than Oliver Stone's movie did to disprove them. In fact, it is hard to imagine what students of history could possibly learn by peering down the simulated riflescope. Those seeking education would do better to consult some of the hundreds of books and articles written about the event itself and the subsequent investigations.

So what exactly, are we to make of JFK Reloaded? It has no educational value to speak of, and as a game it's neither particularly entertaining nor engaging. But, as I mentioned before, this software was not designed to be a game. In fact, Traffic Games never even bothered to seek retail distribution.

JFK Reloaded is best viewed as a kind of performance art. (Readers who have seen modern performance art will understand that this is not a complement.) The software is a play in one act that exists only to generate controversy about its existence. If JFK Reloaded had significant entertainment or educational value, sequels would be forthcoming. Thankfully, however, neither Lincoln Reloaded nor Gandhi Reloaded will be appearing anytime soon. The media has no interest in Act Two, and they are the only ones that matter.

Traffic Games is profiting not by cynically exploiting the assassination of a president, but by cynically exploiting the media's constant need to manufacture controversy and our own acceptance of and fascination with such media fabrications.

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© Copyright 2004, Tim Romero, t3@t3.org
This article first appeared in the December 13, 2004 edition of The Japan Times.
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