In 2009, Six Days in Fallujah, a video game based on real urban combat between American Marines and Iraqis between April and May of 2004, was canceled. The shooter had withered under negative media attention, eventually losing the support of its publisher.
Now, more than a decade later, Six Days in Fallujah is back under the banner of first-time publisher Victura — and so is the controversy. But in the intervening years, the tenor and scope of the debate around it has changed considerably. In 2009, the game’s most vocal critics were upset by the idea of representing a still-raw historical moment in a video game. Today’s critiques, by contrast, revolve around a decade of revelations about the specifics of that historical moment and whether Six Days can fairly represent both sides.
Based on public dissent of the Iraq war, Victura president Peter Tamte quickly found himself in a media crossfire after a 2021 Play Gamez interview sparked social media responses, including from those who served in Fallujah. Tamte’s responses noted the team was “not trying to make a political statement” with its work on Six Days, and he defended the decision not to address the war crimes attributed to U.S. troops in the game. The debates concerned whether Six Days can ever convey battlefield experiences accurately enough, or if the game’s surrounding circumstances, like the impact on Muslim civilians, are sufficiently accounted for in a genre known for a nationalist focus. A U.S.-based Arab advocacy group called on platform makers not to accept Six Days and denounced the game as an “Arab murder simulator that will only normalize violence against Muslims in America and around the world.”
To that, Tamte is primed to defend Six Days after early reactions negatively focused on the real-world circumstances.
“Look at our trailer,” Tamte says in a new interview with Play Gamez. “Our very first words, in our very first public communication about this game, describes a choice by policymakers that led to the growth of al-Qaida. We are unafraid to discuss a mistake by policymakers in our marketing materials. People should certainly not be concerned that we’re going to be unafraid to tackle those controversial aspects of the battle within the game itself.”
While Tamte is correct about the trailer, indie game developer Rami Ismail, who is Muslim, took the first gameplay footage to task on Twitter, laughing ironically when “Allahu akbar” are the first words spoken by an Iraqi. Ismail noted in 2021, “The trailer has anonymized Iraqi civilians, blaming Iraqi civilians’ staying behind in Fallujah solely on ‘Iraqi stubbornness.’”
Reaching out to Ismail via Twitter to ask if his opinion has changed since the reveal, he tells Play Gamez, “There’s absolutely entertainment to be made from contemporary scenarios, but the country that waged an illegal war making a game about that illegal war in collaboration with people who profited from that illegal war while erasing the humanity and environment of the people who died and [suffered] in that illegal war while fully committing to erasing actual history down to the store page description, that’s just not the same thing.”
Soldier Eddie Garcia, who fought in Fallujah, was wounded in battle, and initially pitched the project that became Six Days in Fallujah, understands the concerns and still supports the project. It’s personally important for him. “My fellow Marines and I did not ask to be sent there,” Garcia says. “We were ordered to go. My blood was literally spilled upon foreign soil, and I am still unsure why. I was never under the illusion that the Iraqi people were bad or that there was some great evil which needed eradicating. Even today I am unsure what the goal of the war was.
“But what I do know is that there are stories worth telling.”
The fighting stemmed from the killings of four American military contractors in Fallujah and five U.S. soldiers in nearby Habbaniyah in March 2004. On April 3, the order was given to take Fallujah and find those responsible. The battle continued for nearly a month, with a second battle happening in November. Six Days in Fallujah is based on the first clash.
“Here, specifically, the insurgency was something of our own making. We created that,” says John Phipps, veteran of the Marines light infantry 2nd Battalion who fought in Fallujah. “We went into Iraq, and we disbanded the Iraqi military. […] In doing so, we created the insurgency that we ended up fighting for almost two decades.”
Phipps details his emotions toward those he fought with and against. “It’s the Iraqi interpreters and laborers that worked for us. We made them all these promises. ‘Hey, work for us, and we’ll get you luggage for your family, we’ll make sure your family’s safe, we’ll get your green card, we’ll get it over to America.’ We abandoned a lot of those guys, and those of us who worked with them still think about that to this day.”
Veteran Read Omohundro, speaking to Play Gamez on the phone from an unusually chilly Oklahoma, acted as a consultant on Victura’s Six Days, as he did during the original development attempt. He feels the controversy over the game and the conflict is misplaced as that doesn’t represent the totality of his experience in Fallujah. “When [U.S. soldiers are] in the middle of a combat zone, they don’t give a shit about the politics of why they’re there. They’re just there. They’re taking care of their buddies and their friends are doing their mission. And that’s what this game is about. Not about what policymakers did up to that point,” Omohundro says.
For someone like Ismail who sees games regularly depicting Muslims as enemies, he does care why. This isn’t entirely about policymaking, but the inability to reconcile with the Iraqis’ humanity. “Between kill and be killed, people tend to opt to kill. We can play that in Doom. We can play that in Quake. If you leave out the context of knowing the war is wrong, you might as well not make this,” Ismail tweeted in 2021.
It’s not only Ismail either. “We’ve had 20 years to go back and go, Yeah, we were told a bunch of nonsense. You can kind of see where the mistakes were as a country,” explains Stephen Machuga, Iraq war veteran and founder of veteran-focused gaming charity StackUp.
Omohundro also addresses the issues of war crimes reported during Fallujah and whether Six Days should acknowledge them. Reports of civilian casualties, to him, fail to consider that Fallujah wasn’t two sides dressed in specific uniforms like the factions were in World War II; knowing who’s an enemy versus who’s an innocent civilian is almost impossible, he says. “A lot of people are going off of what the media portrayed versus what actually took place. And what’s being constituted as a war crime is based on hearsay versus what actually transpired,” Omohundro says. “I’m not saying that there’s not some horrific stories that the civilians are going to explain. I mean, it was a horrific event. It wasn’t fun to live through.”
Translating war into interactive form
When it comes to real-world-inspired virtual battlefields, the bulk of first-person shooters tackle decades-old conflicts such as World War II and the Cold War. Although Six Days seems like an outsider in depicting recent warfare, it’s not a milestone; in the early 1990s, games like Desert Strike and Super Battletank directly linked their stories to Desert Storm and Saddam Hussein while those battles happened, focusing little on the war’s reasoning aside from aesthetics. Critics have cited recent military games like the Call of Duty series that frequently embrace jingoism, as with the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and its sequel, which saw U.S. soil invaded by Russians after a Middle Eastern conflict.
Tamte compares Six Days to 2008’s Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. The latter title followed a close-knit troop during World War II, players carefully commanding their squad into strategic positions before attacking. The urban combat in Six Days (which uses randomly generated cities) creates added difficulties, with documentary interviews between missions.
Other than a part-time producer, this is an entirely new team behind Six Days, working on a nearly entirely new game, using the original only as a basis. “I was pretty discouraged after what happened last time around. I left the industry for about four years or so, built [a] productivity software company. I sold that company. At that point, I decided I’m ready to get back in,” Tamte says.
When I ask whether Six Days can portray, accurately, the enemy forces and why they chose to fight, Tamte expresses understanding, but makes clear his position: “We do not need to let players assume the role of an insurgent in order for players to understand why there was an insurgency.”
Tamte quickly notes Six Days features interviews with Iraqi civilians, inserted between gameplay in contextualizing video segments. “These stories from Iraqi civilians have literally reduced me to tears. No human being can hear these stories and not want to reach out,” Tamte says, also noting Six Days includes stages where the focus isn’t on combat, but on an Iraqi civilian father and son trying to escape the fighting.
“I’m also not expecting them to suddenly [have] a big scene where a bunch of infantry Marines have a deep-seated conversation about the morality of the war,” Machuga responds when I ask about those scenes.
The included documentary segments are expected to cover the insurgents, the buildup to this battle, and the causes of those fighting against American soldiers. “Why there were people from all these different countries assembling in Fallujah at that moment, is a fascinating lesson learned,” Tamte says.
Tamte says his team on Six Days focused on the costs of war, not just the gunplay, while honoring those who served (but to note, no real service members or Iraqis will be depicted in gameplay). “I don’t believe that the public collectively really understands the cost of that action, and they don’t understand the sacrifice of the individuals on both sides. If I can put players in a situation where they are faced with those same challenges, then people who play Six Days in Fallujah will understand that if you’re going to assault a city, the cost is guaranteed to be massive.”
Then why make a video game instead of telling the story in a different medium like a documentary, where the interview footage might be a better fit? Garcia points to video gaming’s ability to put someone in that moment. “When we watch a movie or read a book, we are limited to a very specific lens. […] A video game can do a much better job of broadening the perspective. Players are in control of the experience, and they can fail at it. […] Everyone has an opinion about war, but most people have not fought in one. With Six Days in Fallujah, the hope was to ensure the stories were told so people were not clueless to the existence of the worst battle in recent American history.”
After speaking to parents whose sons died in Fallujah, Tamte says the mission is to tell what happened, and remember it. “What we’re reminding people of is, without a doubt, one of the most historical battles of the past half-century. I think we share that objective with those people because they were very concerned about not forgetting their sons’ sacrifice,” says Tamte.
While Machuga shares reservations about the actual conflict, he wants the team to have a chance before dismissing it outright. “Let’s play through it. See what this thing is. And then you can have conversations,” he says. “I appreciate the fact that somebody is stepping up to take a swing at it. […] We have a very upset part of the internet, but then I also know where they’re coming from. There’s 10% of the people I interact with [that] hate the military, hate the troops, hate veterans, call us baby killers no matter what. You’re never going to win those 10% over.”
Phipps worries that authenticity isn’t possible regardless of the game maker’s goals. “It will not give you anywhere near an accurate sense of what it’s like to be near a battlefield, what it’s like to not just experience death in front of you, but to smell it, to hear it,” he says. “It’s not going to tell you what it’s like to watch a gunnery sergeant get reduced to ash in front of you, or having to clean him up afterward.”
Echoing that sentiment is another Ismail tweet from the early marketing efforts: “Six Days promises realism, but only where it supports a narrative heroism.”
At the end of our interview, Tamte suggests Six Days can inform and add to the conversation about the Iraq War. “Ultimately, we need to ask big questions before we go to war,” he says, “and we as a public can’t do that unless we have the knowledge.”
Ismail sees it a different way: “That’s not entertainment, that’s propaganda you have to pay for.”