Every so often, debate will be recycled among games writers over whether the term ‘videogame’ is really relevant to the medium anymore, or whether it’s an anachronistic term that does harm to outside perceptions of the hobby. We’ve all but settled the games as art question by now, and calling games ‘games’ is seen as condescension, a demotion of the medium to plaything and something to be avoided in the same way many nineteenth century authors wanted to shun the term ‘novel’.

Alternate nomenclature though- ‘interactive art’, ‘interactive drama’, the ‘interactive fiction’ of branching text narratives- do a similar disservice in painting games into a fictional corner. Even games that are based around real world events will take liberties to construct a fictional narrative, and gaming nonfiction is all but unheard of, with the closest things we have being hex based iOS board game ports about World War II.

Quite why this should be is somewhat of a mystery, but it might partly be because gaming’s highest profile exploration of the genre ten years ago was swept into a tidal wave of mainstream media furore, most of it extremely negative. Gaming was already much maligned in mainstream press in 2004’s pre- Wii/casual smart phone game era. JFK Reloaded seemed to unleash Armageddon.

The detailed ballistics simulation is what lends the educational edge to Reloaded. Ewing would have liked a more informative slant and had more informational content, but time and budget restricted that.

The detailed ballistics simulation is what lends the educational edge to Reloaded. Ewing would have liked a more informative slant and had more informational content, but time and budget restricted that.

As I chat with the game’s affable creator Kirk Ewing, now a decade removed from his time as US network news pariah and a good deal more jovial about the whole thing as a result, I’m surprised to learn Reloaded could have been based around a much more positive 1960s event.

‘Before I worked in games (at Rockstar, where Ewing worked on Grand Theft Auto and State of Emergency), I did quite a lot of news work for the BBC and other channels, so I had a documentary background’, he explains, ‘(with Reloaded) I wanted to explore the idea of a moment in time. Before I thought about JFK I had ideas about some less controversial subjects, like the moon landing. I was interested in the whole thing of planting the flag, putting the golf ball; it would’ve been a kind of physics playground thing. We came to realise though that JFK might have a bigger marketing reach than the moon landing’.

So it came to pass that in an era before Steam, and before independent self published games were really discussed even in enthusiast press, a small Scottish studio called Traffic Software snagged international front pages, discussion in US Congress and some vicious hate filled emails.

JFK Reloaded is a brief experience and mechanically, extremely simple. Recreating Kennedy’s fatal shooting on November 22nd 1963, the game sought to prove the findings of the Warren Commission investigation into the event; namely that Kennedy’s motorcade was fired upon by Lee Harvey Oswald from the sixth floor window of the opposite book depository. Oswald fired three shots at the motorcade, one missing and the other two striking and killing the US President.

In the game, you can fire upon the procession as much as you want, but the first three shots are what counts toward a score. Once the assassination is played out with three clicks of the mouse and a detailed physics model, the game gives a ballistic analysis of your shots, and grades performance based on proximity to the Warren Commission findings.

Ewing worked at rockstar during their most controversial phase, as they moved from GTA through State of Emergency, to Manhunt.

Ewing worked at Rockstar during their most controversial phase, as they moved from GTA through State of Emergency, to Manhunt.

‘We eschewed a lot of the conspiracy theories,’ Ewing remarks of the game’s straightforward nature. ‘I wanted something that was purely documentary and not subject to conjecture. I wanted to show it was completely possible for this to be done by one guy and not this massive conspiracy. That’s partly what caused some backlash. People wanted more of the gamified, unreal aspects; the grassy knoll and so on, because the more real we made it, the more upset people became’.

Upset is a mild understatement. While Ewing was aware that his game would court controversy, he had no idea of the monster it would become. ‘When we launched the game, I did an interview in New York with N’gai Croal at Newsweek. He wrote a really balanced piece, but said to me after the interview “you know, people are going to want to talk about this”, and I was thinking that was a good thing. A little while later I got a phone call saying they were discussing it in Congress’.

Ewing’s background in documentary making and at the always controversial Rockstar had prepared him somewhat for the blowback toward Reloaded, but nowhere near enough. ‘State of Emergency had caused a bit of furore in the States, but that was directed at Rockstar in general, not specifically at me. When I got back home, I had three or four thousand emails in my inbox, 90% of them unpleasant. I had death threats, the Daily Mail were on my parents’ doorstep.. I think people didn’t understand that I made a game about JFK, not that I personally killed him’.

If it was typical tabloid media overreaction to take an informative and educational piece of software and depict it as a murder simulator (‘nowadays there’s defined boundaries of “this is for kids, this is for adults”, but then they assumed this was a game and so it had to be for kids,’), Ewing and Traffic Software themselves didn’t do much to help their case. A contest was announced alongside the official launch that promised a cash prize to whomever managed to match the Warren Commission findings closest in-game, a ghoulish competition that Ewing admits was ill-advised ‘it definitely didn’t help anybody, and was what drew the most ire from the States. Apart from anything else, it set me back about £20,000,’ he rues.

JFK Reloaded feels like a game lost in time now, something that, once the hullabaloo died down should have been remembered for pioneering the genre of the docugame. Yet video games are as scared of sensitive real world subjects as ever, especially when not confined to amoral games of soldiers the medium is used to.

The replay mode is perhaps a bit mawkish; the sports style 'R' and gruesome brain matter contributing to mainstream media ire.

The replay mode is perhaps a bit mawkish; the sports style ‘R’ and gruesome brain matter contributing to mainstream media ire.

‘The problem with a game,’ Ewing ruminates ‘is that by making you an active participant it means you have to take responsibility for your actions; (in Reloaded,) you had the gun, you were pulling the trigger, and that upset people. It’s not like walking in on seeing someone getting water boarded in Zero Dark Thirty or something and being able to divorce yourself and say “I was just getting a glass of water”‘.

What some audiences sniff at as the ‘non-game’ worlds of Proteus or Gone Home seem to offer the most hope for the interactive documentary today; exploratory experiences where the player interacts with but isn’t directly involved in the narrative. Yet on both a large-scale and independent basis, developers need to overcome their squeamishness about tackling real world issues, and the impression even amongst the medium’s proponents is that a video game is by default a negative experience that struggles to enlighten, improve or illuminate.

That might not be Ewing’s task to pull off; still involved with games, he currently works with a Veemee and Zappar, producing content for various virtual worlds like Playstation Home and augmented reality content respectively. ‘It’s a bit less controversial than my older stuff, but we all have to grow old gracefully, don’t we?’, he wryly admits. Meanwhile not only does a balanced and sensitive interactive documentary seem in the current climate of successful indie projects that aren’t gamified in the traditional sense, like something that could be done, but maybe something that should be done, if this hobby of ours is to be viewed as anything but ‘just’ a game.

 

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About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)