Game makers are taking advantage of the images, settings and stories coming from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to create entertainment that at times looks more like the nightly news than something sold on the same shelf as "Mario Brothers."
In this summer's "Full Spectrum Warrior," posters of a well-known al-Qaida operative pepper tin shacks. Kuma Reality Games turns actual news events, such as an April shoot-out in Baghdad, into game fodder. And then there's "America's Army," the U.S. Army-sponsored game that consults with returning veterans for scenarios.
The end results scream realism; a bonus for gamers who value authenticity.
But just by their proximity to this young century's biggest controversy, these games go beyond entertainment -- raising some new issues not the least of which is whether gamers should be bothered about cozying up on the couch with "Operation Fallujah."
Ian Bogost, a game designer and contributor to a game deep-think site called Water Cooler Games, believes that the issues raised by war games are not unusual.
"Games are all very mired in ideology, they are cultural artifacts," he says.
Whether the people who play the game actually understand (or care) may not matter provided the game kicks some booty, but the people behind Kuma, "America's Army" and "Full Spectrum Warrior" are very much aware of the implications of creating war games in a time of war.
Where these developers differ from each other is in their ultimate goal. Each is trying for something more than "game as pure entertainment" -- but with very different results.
Gaming as interactive journalism
The atmosphere at a Kuma Reality Games meeting is like that at any other game developer: Staff members sprawl across throw pillows. Techno music pumps in the background.
Then company business begins.
Kuma's CEO Keith Halper is in conversation with an older gentleman in coat and tie. This is retired Marines Corps Maj. Gen. Thomas Wilkerson, a Kuma consultant.
“Why is Iraq the big battleground?” Halper asks him.
“In Iraq, it’s about control,” says Wilkerson, going on to speak for several minutes about the importance of Iraq in relation to the United States, various Iraqi interests and al-Qaida.
This is not your ordinary game developer meeting, but Kuma may not be your ordinary game developer.
Kuma's raison d'etre is creating scenarios straight off the real battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan; their titles include: "Operation Anaconda" and "Fallujah Abizaid Attack."
"You see it in the news," Wilkerson says. "In a couple weeks you'll see it on Kuma."
Every two weeks, Kuma releases a new scenario based on a real world event. In "Operation Anaconda," players take on al-Qaida in the 2002 battle. In "Uday and Qusay's Last Stand," Kuma's first and most infamous release, players hunt down the Hussein boys in Mosul.
Games are released on Kuma's Web site to subscribers who pay a $9.99 monthly fee. Each release features background information, including an evening news-like video that explains the real event upon which the game is based.
"This is all a reporting process where we take first person accounts and scenarios and apply game tools to illuminate real world events," Halper says. "And when a story comes down, it’s one that we can tell uniquely well."
"Look at CNN," said Wilkerson. "They are balancing information with entertainment," he said. "That's what we want to do with our simulations."
Tying games to recent events has led to criticism ranging from accusations that Kuma is unfairly profiting off of events where the blood is barely dry to comments that an attention to how certain weapons work and a quasi-Middle Eastern setting barely qualifies a Kuma game as news.
"Re-enacting the Hussein shootout where the only options are whether to blow the crap out of the villa or capture them is not a very instructive editorial," Bogost says. "I wanted the bigger picture."
To their credit, this week Kuma released "Battle in Sadr City," its first title to come to terms with civilians on the battlefield.
Halper says that Kuma's ultimate goal is to remain true to the boots on the ground.
"We've gotten a lot of letters from active soldiers and veterans. We have people submitting their personal stories.
"If we can do one thing valuable," he says, "it's to try to get Americans to understand."
Gaming as training exercise
The military has long hired game developers to adapt their commercial products for government use.
The Xbox game "Full Spectrum Warrior" has taken a particularly circuitous route: from a U.S. Army-sponsored project to the surprise commercial hit of the summer.
The Army partnered with Los Angeles-based Pandemic Studios in 1999 to create a new type of interactive training aid geared toward its video game-savvy recruits.
"The Army's real goal was some sort of party game," recalls game director Wil Stahl. "This was pre-Sept. 11 and they wanted something that their recruits would choose to play on break, yet [it would] reinforce the things they were being taught."
The result was a real-time strategy game that combined a highly rendered street-level perspective with proven Army tactics in the art of urban warfare or, to use the official term, Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT).
But while the official Army game wound its way through the approval process -- it's still in bureaucratic limbo -- the commercial version, "Full Spectrum Warrior," became a commercial and critical success.
"Full Spectrum Warrior" is set in the fictional country of Zekistan, but for all the dusty alleyways, mosques and chicken-scratch villages, the setting could as well be Iraq or Afghanistan.
Stahl says one of the secrets to the game's success is its emphasis on standard Army field procedure: Try to play "Rambo" and you will die very, very fast.
"It sold because people see things happening on the evening news and they're curious about what it's like to be a soldier," Stahl says. "This game gives a sense of the soldier's perspective, but from a safe environment."
Gaming as recruiting tool
The U.S. Army is also behind “America’s Army,” a game conceived in 1999, when enlistee quotas were running low, to woo gamers into considering military careers. The initial game, free for download, included basic and specialist training coupled with a dozen sample missions.
Who knew that the game -- at its core a recruiting tool -- would become so hot? Since its 2001 launch, over 3.4 million players have registered to play.
In the wake of Sept. 11, "America's Army" began incorporating missions inspired by the war on terror. The experience of Special Forces Capt. Jason Amerine, who helped escort Hamid Karzai back into Afghanistan during the early days of the war, is one example.
"We’ve created a very realistic experience," says game deputy director Chris Chambers, "where a young player can virtually explore and experience the Army from basic training all the way up to deployment and live situations that we might find in the global war on terrorism."
As a product of the U.S. Army, "America's Army" has found itself uniquely positioned to mine current events.
Soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are invited to the "America's Army" offices where they meet up with the game designers to review scenarios, help plan future scenarios and make sure that the game's rules of engagement and overall layout are faithful to the battle.
"America's Army's" recent edition, "Overmatch," is modeled after an engagement early in the Iraq war where a Special Forces team, aided by an indigenous force, held off a much larger enemy.
But what truly sets "America's Army" apart from all the other war-inspired titles, even beyond its recruiting angle, is that it may be the only game where a developer nearly got killed doing research.
Chambers was an active duty major when he was deployed to Afghanistan. While his deployment involved duties not related to the game, he spent time with members of the Special Forces to take photos, speak with soldiers and collect enough assets that could be transferred to missions for the "America's Army" game based on the Special Forces.
"The firebase was rocketed," recalls Chambers. "I was in some local area patrols in some missions of various dimensions and we did take fire."
As the war(s) have churned on, a funny thing has happened. The "war as video game" metaphor pushed during the first Gulf War through endless re-runs of the cruise missile cam has proven to be a load of crap.
At the same time, actual video games have become more real; not just in graphics, but in how they are used and understood. They're still entertainment, but also reporting and recruitment tools, hoo-ha propaganda and even a therapeutic way to work out 21st century angst by battling the bad guys.
Games are a product of the culture, says Dave Kosak, an editor at Gamespy.com. Several months ago, Kosak got into an online debate with a co-worker over whether "Battlefield: Vietnam," a Vietnam-era shooter, unfairly trivialized the war.
Speaking to MSNBC.com, Kosak noted the similarity to the way the war has influenced other creative mediums.
"What you find is that hot topics bubble into games, just like they bubble into movies, into radio and onto TV," says Kosak.
Of course, war games remain about as accurate a representation of warfare as Mario is of the plumbing trade. Unlike the grunts represented on-screen, players can turn the console off and grab a Coke.
But if the recent spate of war games proves anything, it's that the definition of gaming -- and how both developers and players approach it -- may be changing.
"We haven't yet explored the social implications of occupying a country," says Kosak. "As a medium, we've only scratched the surface."