Water Cooler Games served as the web's primary forum for "videogames with an agenda" — coverage of the uses of video games in advertising, politics, education, and other everyday activities, outside the sphere of entertainment.
The site was maintained at watercoolergames.org from 2003-2009, where it was edited by myself and Gonzalo Frasca. It is now archived here in full.
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Both Ian and myself did not expect JFK Reloaded to have such a big impact, but everybody in the news seems to be talking about it.
I think that, even if some people may find it disgusting or not, it is an interesting example worth analyzing. Even though I think that I would never build such a game, it certainly is connected to my interest on games based on the news.
Let痴 start by a little description (again, I am talking about the demo, haven稚 played the full version yet). Basically, the game runs a simulation of JFK痴 car driving through Texas. You are supposed to be Oswald and you have a rifle. Basically, it looks like a regular FPS, except because you cannot walk around.
Question 1: Is this a game? Douglas Lowenstein, from the ESA, argued today that it is not. "There are all sorts of things some people find offensive and objectionable on the Internet, but just because the creators of JFK Reloaded call it a video game doesn't make it so. In our view, this product is neither entertainment nor a video game as normally understood." (Washington Post, free reg. required. Btw, the article quotes Ian and mentions Watercooler Games!)
I understand the logic behind Lowenstein's argument and I agree partially. But JFK reloaded does indeed fulfill the basic theoretical requirements for being a game. It has a goal and a winning and losing scenario. Actually, it even has a cash award, so there is no doubt that it is a game. A weird game, certainly. I would that say that it is a game that may not comply to the currently accepted commercial game genres, but still is a game.
Question 2: Is it a simulation? Well, it is also a simulation. It simulates the targets and the bullets with a physics model. Unlike regular, scientific simulations, this is also a game because it rewards the player with a score and a winning scenario (shooting JFK is the most realistic way). As such, this can actually be quite a boring game by regular standards. But this is a game with an agenda, so its pleasure is not based on the standard conventions of fun, but rather aims at being instructive (this is independent from the fact that you find it despicable or not).
Question 3: Why all the reactions? I have read many posts online and a lot of people made good points. Would the reaction have been the same if the game allowed you to kill Lincoln or Julius Caesar? Probably not. The reasons are many. First, it is still quite a recent event and the relatives of the victims are alive, as Clive Thompson points out at his Slate article. But the fact that families are alive is not enough. These are powerful, very rich relatives. A reader from the Guardian痴 Gameblog pointed out that nobody complains about all the games where you have to kill Vietnamese. I think it is a valid point. Many of the families of the people murdered in Vietnam are still alive, but nobody has any problem with making Vietnam war games. The difference? The Vietnamese are far away and they are not rich and powerful and they are not an icon, as JFK was. They are an abstraction (the enemy), so they are easier to kill (albeit virtually).
I still think that most of the strong reactions to this game are connected to the fact that the controversy on the conspiracy to kill Kennedy is a fascinating topic and is very much alive. Probably a game on the assassination attempt made on Ronald Reagan may not have triggered so many reactions (well, except for the fact that he recently died, so that may have fueled a different kind of reactions). Similarly, a game on the Pope痴 assassination attempt would provoke the Catholics, but also for different reasons. There is a meta-game in JFK Reloaded, which is the detective game of who really killed the president. It is not coded on the simulation, but certainly JFK Reloaded is just one level of this larger game.
Question 4 � Is it despicable? The Kennedy family thinks so and I certainly understand their feelings. Personally, I do not have a problem with the game as such, but I do have a problem with the fact that there is a cash award. The game itself is actually instructional. I learned something important from this game that I haven稚 learned from Oliver Stone痴 JFK film: it was not an easy kill with that rifle. I was surprised that the target was so small and that the car was moving so fast. I have been playing Halo 2 and I enjoy playing with its sniper guns, but I felt that the weapon in JFK reloaded was really hard to use. This piece of knowledge may actually reinforce (or not) my feelings towards a conspiracy. But again, Oswald was in the Marines, so he had more experienced that I had as a shooter. Anyway, my point is that there is an important piece of information that you can learn through experience in a way that you can hardly learn it from other media. In that sense, I think that the game works on an educational level. Does this mean that I like the game? Not necessarily.
The fact that this is a competition with a cash award makes the situation more complicated, because this could look as a case of developers exploiting an assassination for making money. That was my first reaction and I think a lot of people think so, too. I have dealt with controversial subjects in games and I, too, have been accused of exploiting tragedy for personal benefit. I think it is impossible to make any sort of artistic or commercial project without being accused of that. However, people may react more strongly towards games because they are not used to newsgames. Did people accused Stone of exploiting JFK痴 murder? I don't really remember, probably yes (again, this always happens). People may have agreed or not with the film, but probably not many objected the fact that somebody made a movie about that subject. In JFK Reloaded, I think some people may object that it is despicable to make a game about this. Personally, I think that Stone was more interested in the facts in his film (with which you may agree or not) than in making money. So, why couldn稚 the people behind JFK Reloaded have the same kind of treatment? Let痴 face it: making decent games is not cheap. Personally, but this is my own standards, I do not like when people make fortunes with controversial subjects, unless they reinvest a significant amount of that money in pursuing their agendas. Can we know what痴 the ultimate goal of JFK痴 games developers? I dunno. But we do know that they offer a huge amount of money (up to 100.000 US Dollars) for the competition. That, I think, is their main problem, because it easily turns the game into a 都hoot Kennedy and get rich� sort of game. So, I do not have strong feelings about the idea of the game, but yes about the mechanics of the competition.
Question 5: Was there a way to make this game less controversial? Yes. First, by leaving out the cash reward (again, keep in mind that games need money in order to be produced. I am playing devil's advocate. I don't like the idea of the cash award, but I do think as a developer and I know that you need to find out some way to make money with this in order to survive and publish more games). But more importantly, I think that the issue here is, as Lowenstein point out, that JFK Reloaded is branded as a videogame. Had they replaced JFK by a cardboard image or an abstract cube and brand it as an educational simulation for teaching a High School history course on JFK痴 assassination, and I think the reactions would have been totally different. Realism is a taboo in many places, and specially in the American culture. I should point out that the game has an option for blocking the view of blood in the simulation.
I find the game to be very interesting and I think that it is important that these games are produced, even if they are distasteful or not. As a civilization, we are testing the waters for serious game applications and there is definitively going to be a trial and error. We can learn both from good and bad games. Even if you do find the game distasteful, try to set your feelings apart for a moment and think critically about what it accomplishes. To summarize, I find the game to mainly be lacking of good taste, but I also think that it is an interesting experience and that it certainly adds a useful tool for better understanding this important historical event.