“If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, we learn that life is short and there is no time for hate.”
– Sandy Dahl, wife of Flight 93 pilot Jason Dahl
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Most television channels, at least in the northeast of the United States, showed full-day coverage of the memorial services conducted in New York, including a list of the 3,000 people who died that day.
Parents and relatives of my friends were killed simply for going to work, and some have received nothing more than a generic jar of ash with assurances that the ashes were those of their lost loved one. A family member of mine was standing between the Twin Towers when the first plane hit, and we lost contact with him after the North Tower fell. Thankfully, he appeared on my sister’s doorstep that evening, covered in dust and blood but miraculously alive.
Why am I writing about this on site dedicated to video games?
Last year, an Oculus Rift game titled 08:46 caused outrage when it depicted the events of September 11, 2001, from the eyes of an office worker in the North tower on the 101st floor. For reference, the first plane hit the 93-99th floors of the North Tower, blocking all means of escape for anyone above the 100th floor.
Yes, this is a game that puts you, the player, in the helpless position of an office worker scrambling around your office after a plane crashed into your building. As the player, you know there is no escape, but similarly, you are compelled to try and save your avatar from the smoke, fire, and impending building collapse. Surely, there must be a way down…
If you don’t own an Oculus Rift, full playthroughs are available on YouTube.
08:46 was created as a student project, and so lacks the polish and graphics of AAA games, and falls into some exposition-dump traps at times, but I’m not here to talk about design details. This game isn’t profiting financially from the attack, nor does it depict the events in a fantastical, detached manner. Anthony Krafft, the creative director, has stated that the game was created with care and respect, to remind us – caught up with the grandeur of living through an historical event – that 9/11, first and foremost, started off as a regular workday for those most affected.
But, again, why am I talking about this on a gaming website? Because of the public outcry that resulted from 08:46’s existence.
Media like books, movies, and the visual arts are sometimes critiqued for being sensational. Video games are no different in this sense, but the interactivity of the game medium tends to add fuel to this fire, hampering otherwise moving and important stories from being experienced. Instead of being seen as a way of increasing empathy by forcing us, as players, to experience – truly experience – and interact with lives that we otherwise would never have been exposed to, video games are occasionally accused of “making light” of serious subjects.
Schindler’s List is a critically-acclaimed movie that won seven Academy Awards in 1994, for its moving portrayal of a man trying to save lives during the Holocaust. And plenty of people went to see a film about this horrific time in our collective history, with the movie grossing over 320 million USD (around 285 million EUR) worldwide. Imagination is the Only Escape is an undeveloped game about a little Jewish boy trying to reunite with his mother and escape from occupied France during World War II. The game, created by Luc Bernard, has not received funding and whether it will be released is questionable.
Letters from Iwo Jima, directed by Clint Eastwood, is an award-winning film about the battle of Iwo Jima during World War Two, told from the perspective of the Japanese and following their lives during the battle. Six Days in Fallujah is an unreleased game that tells the historically-accurate story of a squad from the United States Marines during the Second Battle of Fallujah. Six Days in Fallujah lost its funding and its publisher after coming under fire for depicting this sensitive topic in the format of “just a game.”
If a game is made with sensitivity and a desire to educate, as the three games mentioned above were, I will always defend their right to exist. There are so many things that each of us will not be able to understand unless we are exposed through media. So many types of life experiences will not be learned about, discussed, or even appear on our emotional and social radars without the help of media.
Games can present these sensitive topics in a way that other mediums cannot: interactively. These opportunities create a chance for us to expand our ability to relate and empathize with people different than us. When we put ourselves in the lives of another, we are forced to try and understand them as people: their lives, their motivations, their hopes, their fears.
And so, I say, respectfully, that if there is one thing we can learn from these kinds of games, it is that life is short, life is unpredictable, life is unfair in ways we might never know or experience, and there is no time for hate.
Hopefully, if we can see these terrible events through the eyes of the people most affected, we will one day no longer have the need to make movies, or write books, or design games around these real-life horrific events. And that would be the best tribute to the fallen we could ever offer.
What are your thoughts? Are these games insensitive? Do they present worthwhile experiences to us not only as gamers, but as humans?
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon.
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Thank you for yet another thought provoking post! I think, right now, as it stands, games as a medium do not have the luxury that books and films for instance have in dealing with these topics. And it is a luxury because practically any media which engages with traumatic historical events is exploitative and opportunistic to a degree. That’s not the same as saying good things can’t come from them, or that these topics can’t be handled well. The visual novel Maus is very interesting on this because it’s a Holocaust story by the son of a survivor that is also concerned about the ethics (or lack thereof) in selling that story for a profit. Regardless my point is that no one bats an eyelid at this sort of thing in other media, as long as the subject matter is handled with SOME sensitivity and whatnot. Maus didn’t need to address the ethics of selling a Holocaust story, it just happened to do so.
Games on the other hand currently have to bend over backwards with such topics, because games as a whole aren’t taken seriously by many people. Even just calling something a game rather than an interactive story, say, is seen to trivialise the subject matter. Before you even get to the game’s handling of a given topic, you have to get past that hurdle: they made this subject into a GAME? If 08:46 were labelled and marketed exclusively as an interactive, educational piece, possibly designed for use in a museum or some such, maybe it would’ve passed without controversy.
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I agree that a certain amount of exploitation occurs when a traumatic or historical event is portrayed through media because, by its nature, people will be drawn to observe it. But because films and books are considered high-brow, it’s an acceptable form of gaping (cough cough) observation (cough cough), compared to the tasteless gawking at a car accident, because it prompts discussion and all those things that we both know about.
it’s interesting you mention a name-change. I had been toying with bringing that up, and I sat doodling on my notepad for a long time, trying to come up with a different name for video games. I wonder if it’s like “film” versus “movie”: while referring to the same thing, and while neither one sounds particularly pretentious, “film” is considered the more respectable term. Perhaps we as a community need to start brainstorming a way to label “interactive experiences” as different than “video games,” without sounding like we just pulled words out of a thesaurus!