A Raleigh company that plans to release a video game about one of the Iraq war's bloodiest battles is running into a buzzsaw of criticism.
The game, "Six Days in Fallujah," is being made with the help of Marines who fought in the battle, and its defenders say it provides a history lesson about what Atomic president Peter Tamte has described as “the largest urban military assault in about half a century.”
But it has hit a nerve because U.S. soldiers are still dying in Iraq — on Friday, five soldiers were killed in the deadliest attack in a year. The controversy raises questions about the line that divides art and entertainment; books and movies about the Iraq war haven't aroused similar protests.
“Game is the key word here,” said Karen Meredith, 55, of Mountain View, Calif., on Friday. She was notified on Memorial Day in 2004 that her only child — First Lt. Ken Ballard, 26 — had been killed in Iraq. She said the game trivializes the war.
Meredith has read descriptions of “Six Days” but has not seen it, nor does she intend to.
“War is not entertainment. It just desensitizes people to what is going on. We had five people die in Iraq today and most people don't know it.”
A group that represents relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan issued a statement this week condemning the game and urging that plans to release it should be cancelled.
“The war is not a game and neither was the Battle of Fallujah,” said the statement issued by Gold Star Families Speaks Out, a national chapter of Military Families Speak Out. “For Konami and Atomic Games to minimize the reality of an ongoing war and at the same time profit off the death of people close to us by making it ‘entertaining' is despicable.”
The negative buzz, which could boost sales, surfaced this week when Atomic Games and its partner, video-game publisher Konami, revealed plans to release the title next year.
GamePro.com, a Web site for gamers, called the game's concept “perhaps the most controversial mainstream game premise we've ever heard.”
“Atomic Games describes ‘Six Days in Fallujah' as a ‘survival-horror game,' a genre made famous by gooey zombie blasters such as ‘Resident Evil 5' and ‘Dead Space,'” Sid Shuman wrote on the site. “But in ‘Six Days in Fallujah' the fear comes not from the undead or the supernatural, but from the unpredictable, terrifying, and very real tactics employed by the insurgents that were scattered throughout Fallujah.”
Atomic, which moved to Raleigh in 2006 and now has 65 local employees, referred questions to Konami spokesman Brandon Cox. Cox didn't return phone calls and e-mail messages.
The game could hit home in North Carolina, with its heavy military presence. Marines based at Camp Lejeune played a key role at Fallujah.
U.S. and other coalition forces failed to win control of the city in the spring of 2004 but succeeded the following November, when thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops assaulted the city. That battle, the subject of “Six Days,” was fought street by street, and soldiers had to knock down doors to confront the enemy.
The battle made November 2004 the most fatal of the Iraq war for U.S. troops. An unknown number of civilians died.
Fallujah also conjures up images of four civilian contractors — employed by Moyock-based Blackwater USA, now Xe, based in Moyock, N.C. — who were killed in March 2004. Their bodies were mutilated and two were hung for public display on a Fallujah bridge.
Mike Ergo, 26, was part of a Camp Lejeune Marine battalion that fought at Fallujah. He also is a consultant on the game.
“What I am hoping this game will do is bring a better understanding of the gravity and chaos that was Fallujah,” he said. Ergo is majoring in social work at the University of California at Berkeley and aspires to counsel veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many people, when they hear video game, conjure images of early games such as Pac-Man that were pure entertainment, Ergo said. “But video gaming has changed significantly. Now there are a lot of educational aspects to them. It's not just about getting points and high scores.”
Ergo also said that the people he has worked with at Atomic and Konami “have had the utmost respect for my experiences.”
There already are plenty of books and movies about the Iraq war, said Alexander Macris, president of Themis Group, publisher of online video game magazine The Escapist.
“I think games are entitled to the same level of respect as other entertainment media,” he said. “Atomic is driving the dialogue forward by creating a game like this. It is showing that games can be relevant.”
And the publicity ultimately could help sales, Macris said.
“The fact is, the consumer of this is not a young kid,” he said. “The consumer for something like this is going to be someone interested in current events and interested in realistic military war gaming.”
That said, Macris added: “I don't think Atomic is engaging in exploitation. I think it is a serious attempt to cover the fighting in Fallujah through a game.”