Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battlefield, Company of Heroes, Commandos, Counter Strike; if you're a gamer, these are all familiar titles of popular video games. If you're not familiar with games then from the titles alone I'm sure you can guess their subject matter; war. If games can turn war into entertainment, then why could they not also help us to understand it? I've had to think a lot about the relationship between games and war, as, since about two weeks ago we decided to make a new game, not about annoyed birds or farms or words or friends, not a first-person shooter but a game about the war in Syria. So we've released Endgame Syria on Android and online with iOS versions to follow shortly.
It will come as no surprise to note that games have long been tied to war; indeed one of the first ever video games appearing in 1963 was called 'Space War!' (with the exclamation mark!). Media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote about the relationship between war and media in his book 'War and Peace in the Global Village', written at the height of the Vietnam war in 1968; "We are now in the midst of our first television war ... The television war has meant the end of the dichotomy between civilian and military. The public is now a participant in every phase of the war, and the main actions of the war are now being fought in the American home itself." What McLuhan wrote about television back then is true for games now.
Today the militaristic first-person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has chalked up a billion dollars of sales in 15 days. Armed forces from around the world use games and game concepts to push their various aims; America's Army is the US army's first-person shooter, designed to help in recruitment. In the recent Gaza conflict the Israeli military 'gamified' the propaganda war by allowing users to get virtual military ranks and badges for social media activity such as 'liking' certain posts and articles. Iran, often cast as the baddie in a host of video games, has also been getting in on the act and since 2007 has produced its own titles to push-back against what it sees as a culture war, e.g. creating Mir Mahna, a game about the titular national hero who takes on Dutch forces in the mid-1700s.
Making games based on news is not a new concept, but we've been experimenting with this idea for a few months now, mixing news with games. For example, we had a game here at the Huffington Post UK. But to show the form has any future we need to show we can cover the big and difficult stories. In trying to do this you face the question; why use games for this at all?
Games will not, nor should they, replace traditional news forms but they can offer something new. Firstly as they allow the user to interact with the flow of events, they are a great way to explore a dynamic situation with multiple outcomes as they let the user explore many paths in different ways. Secondly they are a medium that many people relate to as a primary media form. This means that for many people games are the 'natural' frame they use to understand the world around them. Thirdly they can put you as the audience into a decision making role, to allow you to see a little of the protagonist's perspective.
For these reasons I think it is worth exploring games and news and why we've chosen to make a game about the war in Syria. It is not an easy decision - look at the débâcle of the as yet unrealised game Six Days in Fallujah, announced in 2009, that soon sailed into a storm of protest and has yet to emerge from this. So does that mean there is an invisible line we can't cross that other media forms - the written word, video, audio and photography - don't need to worry about? I don't think so. Games, with their connotations of fun and frivolity seem the opposite of how we should cover a live conflict. Comics have that connotation too. Then pioneers like Joe Sacco and his amazing works such as 'Palestine' covered war from a different perspective to other media and showed clearly that it is not the medium that is the issue, but what you do with it.
When we set about creating Endgame Syria it was apparent that this would be a huge challenge. Firstly should we take a stance on the war? Games do all the time as do their host cultures; look no further than the Taliban controversy around Medal of Honor to see this. In the Obama vs Romney debate game we produced, we didn't take sides. From that experience and as I read about the conflict in Syria, we opted to make the game from the rebel perspective to explore the challenges they have in taking on a well armed state machinery. Secondly time was critical; it is a live situation and so we needed to make the game fast (this has taken about two weeks from start to finish and created using GameMaker: Studio) so it would still be relevant and we could respond to changes in the real world as things progressed in the development.
By making Endgame Syria, I hope that we've encouraged some people who didn't know much about the situation in Syria, to find out more. After all, the chances are your taxes are going into this war in one form or another. We also hope that we've joined the ranks of other games that have been unafraid to take on serious subjects and cover them with sensitivity. If either of these are the case, then the risk of making something controversial rather than playing it safe and making games about grumpy avians, will have been worth our while.