A videogame changed Peter Tamte's life. And forever altered his view of military service.
In the early 2000s the U.S. Marine Corps recruited the developer to help design video training programs. Tamte, who had never served, befriended a bunch of the grunts who were testing his product. Then came the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq, the heaviest urban fighting for U.S. troops since Vietnam.
"I got an email from a U.S. Marine who had just been medivaced out," Tamte says. "He started telling me all these stories from the battle that I had not heard. I was blown away by the things that he had said."
This was 2004, and the war in Iraq had transformed from "mission accomplished," to a quagmire with a daily death toll and no end date. Tamte had been watching it on the news, but, in talking to the convalescing Marine, he realized the story was much more complex.
"It was that conversation where he said, 'You know, Peter, our generation plays video games. We don't read books or even watch movies so much, we play video games.' And I was like, 'Yeah, I know.' And he said, 'Would you be interested in creating a video game to tell the stories of the battle for Fallujah?'"
Tamte said yes. Seventeen years later, he's still trying to keep that commitment.
He named the video game "Six Days in Fallujah," based on six battle scenarios the Marines told him about. In between play are documentary style interviews with Americans, but also Iraqis. While most of the civilians had left Fallujah by the time of the battle, there were still thousands stuck in the city. It's estimated that hundreds of them died in the U.S.-led assault.
Tamte says the Marines he interviewed had no illusions about what they did taking that city.
"One of the Marines articulated it," says Tamte, "He said, 'What happened to the people of Fallujah is tragic, is tragic. And it wasn't their fault. At the same time, not my fault either.'"
By 2009, one of the world's largest videogame makers, Konami, had partnered with Tamte's company, and was poised to release the game. But the Iraq war was still raging, with around 140,000 U.S. troops occupying the country. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians had died. Fallujah was still a combat zone. A first-person shooter video game about Iraq stirred controversy, including from a group of Gold Star mothers.
"This war is going on. And it's not a game," says Keren Meredith, whose son Ken Ballard died in Iraq.
"Ken never got the chance to put another quarter in it and play another game." she says, "I just didn't think that it was right — the armchair warriors, the keyboard warriors who were so, you know, 'Let's play a game. Oops. I got killed. Okay. Let's start over.'"
After outraged Gold Star mothers went on cable news, the big corporate sponsor, Konami, dumped the game.
Peter Tamte says he'd been consumed by the project, and suddenly no one would touch it. He wasn't sure if it was because the Iraq war was unpopular, or that video games weren't considered a serious form of storytelling.
"Honestly, I was crushed," he says.
Tamte put all the interviews and footage filmed in Iraq on hard drives, and he left the video game businesses.
Since that time, several games have tried to take a meaningful look at war.
Destiny's Sword seems like another multiplayer shootout, but the game makes players go through a difficult healing process, including psychological wounds.
Another combat game, Spec Ops: The Line, puts players through a Heart of Darkness set in Dubai, where the cost of winning is moral transgression. Other "serious" video games have looked at issues from genocide to global warming to mental health.
The sheer popularity of videogames has pushed the U.S. military to take them seriously. America's Army was designed by the Army in 2002 for recruitment, but also vetting of potential soldiers. Just last year, the Army stirred controversy with its live-streamed video gaming on Twitch, where it was accused of using misleading ads that linked to a recruiting site and trying to censor anti-war speech on the platform.
Then this year, Peter Tampte announced that he will be releasing "Six Days in Fallujah" after a decade-long hiatus.
"People had trusted me to tell their stories," Tamte says "and I kept getting encouragement from people off and on through those years."
Reaction to the announcement has been just as passionate as last time. Not only Gold Star parents, but critics of the Iraq war have condemned the game, and even called it Islamophobic.
"It's simply irredeemable," says Scott Simpson, with the group Muslim Advocates. "There is no way to release a game that glorifies the killing that happened."
"Is it enough to have an interview of a soldier beforehand justifying their actions? Simpson adds. "I don't think so."
Simpson says he thinks the game could even promote anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence.
Peter Tamte says none of that is his intention, that he only wants to reach an audience that won't otherwise know anything about Fallujah.
"I worry that if media collectively or games specifically don't deal with the topic of the Iraq war, that millions of people will forget its cost," Tamte says. "War is a very abstract thing to most of us. And the longer we get distanced from it, the more we're likely to forget the sacrifice that comes with war, but that's a really important thing for a democracy to understand."
"Six Days in Fallujah" is scheduled for release by the end of this year.
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