By Alaa Elassar, CNN
Najla Bassim Abdulelah grew up in a war. The regular sight of dead bodies and the memory of her friend being shot next to her as they walked to school stained her childhood.
Children’s laughter was replaced with an incessant soundtrack of exploding bombs, and she lived with a crippling fear of losing her family.
So when Abdulelah, who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, heard that “Six Days in Fallujah,” a first-person shooter video game set during the Iraq War’s bloodiest battle, was on the verge of being released, she was horrified.
“I am disgusted that this is something that will be producing profit when people like me suffered the consequences of this war and will have to watch people play it for fun,” Abdulelah, 28, told CNN. “I just can’t get past the inhumanity.”
For Abdulelah and other Iraq War survivors, the imminent release of “Six Days in Fallujah” threatens to reopen old wounds and trivialize their pain.
They want the game shelved.
But the creators of the video game say it’s grossly misunderstood, and that they’re merely using gameplay — the way players interact with a video game — to teach history.
‘A massive killing of Arabs’
Part documentary and part video game, “Six Days in Fallujah” uses gameplay to recount history and recreate true stories from the Second Battle of Fallujah. The offensive, code named Operation Phantom Fury, saw the US Marines lead a joint force of American, British and Iraqi troops into the ancient city.
The battle lasted from November 7 to December 23, 2004, and, according to the US Army, is widely regarded as the US’ toughest urban battle since Huế, Vietnam, when ferocious fighting between American troops and North Vietnamese soldiers resulted in the deaths of hundreds — if not thousands — of citizens, who were buried in unmarked mass graves by the communist forces.
In Fallujah, US-led forces went house to house hunting for suspected insurgents. Fighters on both sides, as well as thousands of innocent Iraqis caught in the crossfire, did their best to avoid snipers and booby traps.
“We were told going into Fallujah, into the combat area, that every single person that was walking, talking, breathing was an enemy combatant. As such, every single person that was walking down the street or in a house was a target,” Jeff Englehart, a former US soldier with the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, said in the 2005 documentary “Fallujah, The Hidden Massacre.“
US-led forces used more than 300 bombs, 6,000 rounds of artillery and 29,000 mortar rounds, according to the US Marines. Military officials also confirmed that troops used white phosphorous, a highly controversial incendiary weapon that burns the skin.
Ross Caputi, a former US Marine with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, recalls some of the controversial tactics used during the battle, including firing grenades or gun rounds into homes before entering, in case insurgents were hiding inside.
“These tactics were meant to keep us safe. But I learned later that tens of thousands of civilians were still hiding in their houses during the operation, so these tactics would have put them in a lot of danger,” Caputi told CNN. “The hardship that Phantom Fury imposed on Fallujans and the destruction it caused made me feel really ashamed of what we were doing.”
In the end, more than 80 American soldiers were killed, CNN reported. The number of civilian casualties remains unknown, but at least 800 innocent Iraqis were killed, according to the Red Cross. Local NGOs estimate the battle killed up to 6,000 Iraqis, mostly civilians, The Guardian has reported.
Describing the aftermath, Englehart said, “It seemed like just a massive killing of Arabs. It looked like just a massive killing.”
A ‘new way to understand’ history
“Six Days in Fallujah” was originally developed by Atomic Games and set to be released by Japanese game publisher Konami in 2010. But the Tokyo-based company withdrew from the project a year early due to widespread criticism that it was offensive. Atomic Games went out of business and the project was shelved.
In February 2021, developer Highwire Games and publisher Victura, founded by former Atomic Games CEO Peter Tamte, announced they were resurrecting “Six Days in Fallujah.”
The game is set to be released by the end of 2021.
“It’s hard to understand what combat is actually like through fake people doing fake things in fake places,” Tamte said in a statement announcing the game’s release. “This generation showed sacrifice and courage in Iraq as remarkable as any in history. And now they’re offering the rest of us a new way to understand one of the most important events of our century. It’s time to challenge stereotypes about what games can be.”
To that end, the developers say they collaborated with more than 100 service members who provided testimony, photographs and videos to recreate real events “with authenticity and respect.” They also interviewed 27 Iraqis, 23 of whom are from Fallujah.
In the game, a player can choose to be a US serviceman leading a team on missions against insurgents, or an unarmed Iraqi father trying to escape with his family to safety. While playing, gamers will hear from real US service members, who narrate the missions, and Iraqi civilians, who relay their experiences.
“Players will encounter civilians during gameplay, and these people also speak directly to players through video interviews,” Tamte told CNN. “We want players to get to know these people as real human beings, rather than just avatars on a computer screen. And we want players to hear these Iraqis’ perspectives and stories in their own words.”
Developers regularly consult with Iraqis on how they are portrayed in the game, Tamte says. If a player shoots an Iraqi civilian, the mission ends in failure. The only Iraqis who are allowed to be killed are insurgents.
‘An Arab murder simulator’
Abdulelah understands the premise of “Six Days in Fallujah” and Victura’s rationale for releasing the game. She’s a gamer herself.
But she says that taking a real life event, in which people suffered and died, and turning it into a game trivializes the experience.
There are more respectful and credible ways to learn about what happened in Fallujah, she says, pointing to news stories, books and documentaries produced about the battle.
“I got chills in my spine thinking about the idea that they can use the scenario of someone escaping something so tragic for a game,” Abdulelah said, referring to the scenario in which a player can choose to be an Iraqi father fleeing with his family. “It brings me to tears. How is this okay?”
Mohammed Husain, also an Iraqi-American, says he was “hurt and disturbed” by news that the game will be released. He worries that the game will lessen the battle’s significance, especially among young players.
“Instead of a historical incident, now they’ll see it as a game,” Husain, 26, told CNN.
Husain, whose parents are Iraq War refugees, also worries that insurgents in the game look like typical Iraqi men, which he said could lead to bias in the real world. Screenshots from the game show some insurgents distinguished by black and white headdress, which is common attire in Iraq and other Arab countries.
“It dehumanizes Iraqi people, showing how some are insurgents, some are Al-Qaeda, some are civilians, with no way of differentiating them. It desensitizes this generation to this kind of violence against our people,” he said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, worries that the game could reinforce harmful stereotypes of Iraqis, as well as other Arabs and Muslims.
CAIR and Veterans for Peace (VFP) repeated calls on Friday to shelve “Six Days in Fallujah.” In August, they issued a public letter denouncing it as a game that “glorifies violence that took the lives of over 800 Iraqi civilians, justifies the illegal invasion of Iraq and reinforces Islamophobic narratives.”
In April, the two organizations partnered to launch a petition calling on video game companies — including Microsoft Corporation (Xbox), Sony Interactive Entertainment (PlayStation) and Valve Corporation — not to host or digitally distribute the game.
Garett Reppenhagen, VFP’s executive director, is a former US Army sniper who served in the Sunni Triangle during the Second Battle of Fallujah.
“As a combat veteran and gamer, I find it troubling to see what amounts to an Arab murder simulator, which fails to acknowledge the impact of siege warfare against an unarmed and trapped civilian population,” Reppenhagen told CNN.
When asked about criticism of “Six Days in Fallujah” and the petition, a Microsoft spokesperson told CNN: “We’re aware of concerns and are looking into the content.”
Neither Sony nor Valve responded to CNN’s request for comment.
‘How would you feel?’
Victura is standing firm in its decision to release “Six Days in Fallujah.” It insists the game provides a new and exciting way for people to learn about what happened there.
“When we originally announced Six Days in Fallujah in 2009, we learned that some people believe video games shouldn’t tackle real-life events. To these people, video games seem more like toys than a medium capable of communicating something insightful. We disagree,” the makers said in a statement in February. “Video games can connect us in ways other media cannot.”
Critics want people to learn about the tragedy that unfolded in Fallujah, too. But they say that turning it into a first-person shooter game that’s played for entertainment is insensitive and disrespectful, especially when many Iraqis are still reeling from the destruction.
“Six Days in Fallujah” is a “disgrace” to the gaming industry, says Abdulelah. The trauma of Iraqis like herself, she says, should not be “turned into a show and tell.”
“This isn’t honoring the innocents who died. It’s very disrespectful to their memory. Not to mention, this is very recent history. People are still living through and digesting the trauma they’ve acquired in the Iraq War,” she said. “My family and I witnessed mortifying, horrible things … It’s not a memory we want to sit or revisit or talk about.”
Hospitals in Fallujah have reported spikes in birth defects and cancer cases since 2005, according to a 2010 study in which some medical experts suggested the use of depleted uranium may be to blame.
Many Iraqis who lived through the war also suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have yet to receive any type of care for their mental health, according to researchers.
A 2014 study in Baghdad showed that over 80% of the participants reported experiencing at least one traumatic event that led to them suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues.
Husain, who avoids documentaries about the war due to PTSD from his yearly trips to Iraq, including one in which he says he nearly died in a car explosion, says shelving the game “should not be a debate.”
When asked if he had a message for Highwire Games and Victura, Husain posed a question of his own:
“Have you people not lost loved ones?” he asked. “How would you feel if you were on the receiving end? If you saw a game about a tragedy that impacted your family, your people? How would you feel?”
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