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Video games about military combat are standard fare. But one that faithfully re-creates the November 2004 Battle of Fallujah between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents has kicked up a lot of controversy for the U.S. company that developed it and the Japanese company that has planned on distributing it.
Early this month, Japan's Konami (9766.T) showed bloggers and reporters in San Francisco nearly 20 working titles, some of them developed by Konami, others by independent studios. Among the titles was Six Days in Fallujah, developed by Raleigh (N.C.)-based Atomic Games. The idea behind the Apr. 9 event was to drum up word of mouth for Konami's tentative lineup of games slated for 2010 and later.
Six Days in Fallujah got plenty of that. Gold Star Families Speak Out, whose members are families of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticized the game immediately after blogs wrote about it. "The war is not a game and neither was the Battle of Fallujah," the group said in a statement. "For Konami and Atomic Games to minimize the reality of an ongoing war and at the same time profit off the deaths of people close to us by making it 'entertaining' is despicable."
Now Konami says it won't be distributing or selling Six Days in Fallujah. "We reached our decision sometime in the past week," says spokesman Shigeyuki Homma. Homma takes pains to point out the company's decision wasn't a knee-jerk response to the uproar. It came after "weeks to months" of sifting through feedback from military families, media, industry people, employees, and other people—not all of it negative. He says that Konami, which also sells Dance Dance Revolution, Pro Evolution Soccer, and the Metal Gear Solid series, had pulled the plug on games shown at similar events in the past but declined to give details.
According to blogs and reports, Six Days in Fallujah attempts to portray the U.S. military missions in the central Iraq city, where fierce street skirmishes took place following U.S.-led forces' defeat of Iraq's military in 2003. More than 2,000 people—both troops and residents—were killed in the city.
In Six Days in Fallujah, gamers assume the roles of U.S. Marines. Their mission is to patrol the streets and wipe out Iraqi insurgents. There's an air of authenticity to it: Programmers created the game with help from U.S. troops who were deployed to Fallujah and drew on several thousand photos, including military satellite images, The Wall Street Journal reported.
At times, players must decide whether to shoot people who don't appear to be armed. The game hadn't been completed, and it isn't clear whether Atomic will now look for another distributor with sizable marketing and sales resources. "We were informed on [Apr. 23] that Konami had decided to pull out of Six Days in Fallujah," an Atomic spokesman told BusinessWeek in an e-mail message. "This caught us by surprise. Development of the game had been progressing very well and on schedule. We would very much like the opportunity to complete the game."
Atomic specializes in games and virtual-reality military training tools. "This helps us give players of our video games authentic inside access to the events, tactics, and stories at the heart of real military and espionage operations," the company's Web site says. Past Atomic games have dealt with World War II.
In some ways, the reaction to Six Days in Fallujah wasn't entirely unexpected. Sony (SNE) tried to trademark the phrase "shock and awe"—a reference to the bombing raids that U.S.-led pilots carried out in the early days of the 2003 assault—but decided to drop the application after a public backlash.
Hall is BusinessWeek's technology correspondent in Tokyo.