President’s Column: The Controversy Over Six Days in Fallujah Proves Video Game Panics are Alive and Well

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Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD
cjfergus@stetson.edu

This year Victura Games announced that a new action game would consider the 2004 Second Battle of Fallujah part of the controversial war. Published by Victura and developed by Highwire Games, this video game represents a revival of a previous effort scrapped in 2009 due to significant public pressure. The game promises an almost documentary-style exploration of urban combat set in history, though the degree to which players influence the outcome remains unclear at this point.

The Iraq War is understandably emotional and controversial for many in the US and Iraq. Launched under false pretenses, the war led to approximately 4,500 US deaths and a great many times that deaths among Iraqis (the Iraq Body Count project estimates about 200,000 deaths), much of that in the sectarian violence that followed the US invasion. Many others were wounded, often with life-long consequences on both sides.

So Victura is taking on a difficult topic. According to the game website (Victura, 2021), the developers based their game on interviews with both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. The developers appear sincere in attempting to portray the battle honestly, from all sides (though most of the game will be played from the vantage point of US soldiers, it is reported that some of the game will be played as an unarmed Iraqi civilian father, trying to help his kids escape the city). The game will reportedly include interviews with soldiers who fought in the battle, and Iraqi civilians who experienced it firsthand. Thus, the education opportunities to see the battle from both sides appear considerable. Nonetheless, some have concerns about the game.

A recent petition to stop the game (reportedly signed by some individuals within the gaming industry) has gotten attention. The petition initially claimed the game will, among other things, “breed a new generation of mass shooters in America and brainwash gamers into thinking RACISM IS OK” (all caps original). At present, it’s been signed by about 16000 people. The petition has undergone some edits over time, prompted by the backlash that some of its claims were not well-supported. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has similarly called for the cancelation of the game calling it an “Arab murder simulator,” (Osborne, 2021) echoing the 1990s “murder simulator” language used by anti-game advocates at the time. It’s worth noting that these efforts aren’t merely criticizing the game (which, it should be noted, no one has seen since it’s not released yet), or persuading people not to buy it. Rather, these efforts are making direct claims of harm (related to mass homicides and racism) and trying to de facto censor the game, making it impossible for gamers to buy.

Of course, movies and books have considered the Iraq War and other Middle Eastern conflicts, often from a US perspective, without quite so much controversy, without threatening their release. That this product is a video game is probably key, the implication that games are often treated differently from other media. Whether the topic/content of the game is insensitive, or too soon, etc., is a subjective conclusion. However, it’s important to reiterate that no one has seen the game so making declarative comments about its content worries me a bit.

More to the issue though, the causal connections asserted by those opposed to the game can be evaluated more clearly. As to the claim that the game would cause a new generation of mass shooters, science has debunked any such notion. Indeed, both experimental and correlational research, particularly from preregistered designs, as well as data on mass homicide perpetrators, epidemiological violence data in the US, and cross-national data all point away from such a conclusion (Winegard & Ferguson, 2017). Indeed, the petition was ultimately edited to remove this claim, presumably due to criticism.

As for racism, unfortunately, there’s very little research on this score and what we have on it isn’t of very high quality (not preregistered, questionable measures, high demand characteristics, etc.). We need good preregistered studies with standardized, well-validated measures, and carefully carried out to avoid hypothesis guessing. Our division would like to support such research by raising funds to promote preregistered, well-designed research on media and race.

The other issue is, even if the game is offensive (and it may be…we don’t know as it’s not out yet), the call to ban it makes me nervous. I fully support people’s right to critique a game or persuade others not to buy it. But to try to stop the making of a game so that others who might wish to are unable to buy it crosses a line that makes me uneasy. We seem to be seeing an upswing in what I refer to as de facto censorship (Ferguson, 2021) from big tech companies, advocacy groups, and sometimes just Twitter mobs. I suspect this kind of censorship, coming from non-government actors, is going to be an increasing concern in the years ahead.

The tone of the rhetoric against the game also envisions cognitive distortions evident in much of modern advocacy (on both right and left). There’s catastrophizing (the game will lead to mass homicides, racism, etc.), all-or-nothing thinking (the game must be banned), personalization (the assumption, sight unseen, the game will be dehumanizing to Iraqi civilians), etc. By taking such a hardline stance, advocates miss the opportunity to reach out to and work with the developers to ensure that coverage of the battle is sensitive to their concerns.

In closing, this game is tackling an emotionally fraught issue, and I respect and sympathize with the concerns of those upset by the content of the game. At the same time, the causal claims made by activists against it can’t be supported by good science. The impetus to restrict speech in this case due to a moral concern…and almost all censorship comes in the guise of a moral concern…potentially sets a dangerous precedent. Ultimately, shouldn’t we wait until the game is released to critique its merits and not do so preemptively per a phantom image of what it might be?

References

Ferguson. (2021). De Jure and De Facto Censorship: Why We Need to Be Concerned About Both. Areo Magazine. Retrieved from: https://areomagazine.com/2021/03/11/de-jure-and-de-facto-censorship-why-we-need-to-be-concerned-about-both/

Iraq Body Count Project. (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.iraqbodycount.org/

Osborne, M. (2021). Six Days in Fallujah’s Controversy Grows. Retrieved from: https://www.svg.com/380192/six-days-in-fallujahs-controversy-grows/

Victura. (2021). Six Days in Fallujah. Retrieved from: https://www.sixdays.com/

Winegard, B., & Ferguson, C.J. (2017). The development of rampage shooters: Myths and uncertainty in the search for causes. In L. Wilson (Ed.), The Wiley handbook of the psychology of mass shootings (pp.54-76). Wiley Blackwell.

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