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December 13, 2004

JFK Reloaded's Theory of History

Via Ian of Water Cooler Games, an interview with Kirk Ewing, one of the developers of the online game, JFK Reloaded (also see Ian's original post on the game). What I find interesting about the interview is Ewing's description of JFK Reloaded as a "docu-game." I haven't had a chance to play the game yet, but the use of the game narrative to show how the JFK assassination could have turned out differently seems like an interesting use of the medium.

Ewing also describes the game as an attempt to place viewers back in Dealey Plaza in order to disprove the conspiracy theories and witness the assassination of John Kennedy for themselves. Ewing's comment reminds me of an oft-quoted remark by filmmaker D. W. Griffith, who spoke optimisitically of cinema's ability to represent the past:

Imagine a public library of the near future. There will be long rows of boxes or pillars, properly classified and indexed, of course. At each box a push button and before each box a seat. Suppose you wish to "read up" on a certain episode in Napoleon’s life. Instead of consulting all the authorities, wading laboriously through a host of books, and ending bewildered, without a clear idea of exactly what did happen, and confused at every point by conflicting opinions about what did happen, you will merely seat yourself at a properly adjusted window, in a scientifically prepared room, press the button and actually see what happened.

There will be no opinions expressed. You will merely be present at the making of history. All the work of writing, revising, collating, and reproducing will have been carefully attended to by a corps of recognized experts, and you will have received a vivid and complete expression.

Of course, Griffith's view of an objective representation of history has been widely discredited. But, it seems to me that the game might be doing something else, despite Ewing's assertions that he wanted to debunk the JFK assassination conspiarcy theories, such as the one furthered by Oliver Stone's 1991 film. Although Ewing claims that the game shows "everything is as it was," the mere fact of being able to slow down, rewind, and stop time (much less to witness the assassination from a variety of viewpoints) immediately changes our reading of the event, and to my mind, conveys the very difficulty, if not impossibility, of knowing what happened in Dealey Plaza in 1963. But, due to my own interests in time-travel cinema, I'm intrigued by Ewing's descritpion of JFK Reloaded as "way to travel through time and re-visit one of the most debated and important moments in history, using technology that we love and understand."

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Posted by chuck at December 13, 2004 1:34 AM

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Am I correct, though, in thinking that I read that in the game you actually shoot JFK? I hate to be a prude but isnt that stretching things a bit too far???

Posted by: Steve at December 13, 2004 5:04 AM

That's correct, but like Ewing, I don't think the game *condones* Oswald's actions (like a film, such as Taxi Driver, that encourages us to identify with characters who act in ways that we do not condone). I do have some reservations about the game for the reason you describe, though, and I'm not sure I'd want to participate in the narrative that it's trying to re-create.

It would also be interesting to compare the game with Oliver Stone's JFK, in which the Keviin Costner character replays the Zapruder tape something like ten or twelve consecutive times, showing Kennedy's head lurching again and again as he is shot. Which text (the game or the film) compels us more readily to "participate in" the act of violence against Kennedy? That's not a rhetorical questiion: I honestly don't know.

One of the points that I was trying to make is that the game, in my reading of it, is that it's doing something very different than the game developer suggests in the interview. Instead of bringing us closer to some "objective" truth about what happened on Dealey Plaza, I wonder if the game might actually defamiliarize the event even further.

Posted by: chuck at December 13, 2004 8:50 AM

I think the contest behind the game adds a crasser dynamic to this. It's no longer popping off JFK for the pursuit of learning, but for a cash incentive.

Posted by: Rusty at December 13, 2004 9:44 AM

Yes, that aspect is very crass, and if I hadn't been half asleep when I wrote original entry, I would have mentioned that. I don't want to sound like I'm defending the game. After all, I compared the developer's theory of history to D. W. Griffith's, not exactly the best company. I guess I'm saying that the objective view of history the game ostensibly offers breaks down pretty easily. And the difficulty level of "winning" the game would also seem to reinforce the improbabilty of Oswald acting alone (rather than the opposite).

But what seems interesting to me is that both Griffith and Ewing use similar time-travel metaphors ("you wil be there for the making of history") for dsecribing the historical work they're doing in making films or games. Of course, the participation level is different. In Griffith's film library, you're a passive witness. In the game you're a historical actor of sorts.

Posted by: chuck at December 13, 2004 10:07 AM

Yeah, the participation question was one I raised when I wrote about the game last month. I think there is a distinction between that and a medium where you don't participate.

Posted by: Rusty at December 13, 2004 12:25 PM

Rusty, thanks for linking your review. I remember reading it, but forgot to link to it when I wrote this entry.

I'm cautious here about the definition of "participation" when we talk about games versus movies (and this is a distinction I originally made, so forgive me for thinking out loud). What is the distinction between "passively" watching a movie and "passively" playing a game by the narrative rules that have been written? Don't I participate in reliving Kennedy's assassination by replaying JFK in my VCR? Just another question I'm not sure I can answer.

I'm also intrigued by the fact that it's Kennedy's assassination (and not, for example, McKinley's or MLK's). Certainly the fascination is connected in part to the documentary impulse associated with Zapruder's recording, but why Kennedy, why now?

Posted by: chuck at December 13, 2004 1:21 PM

Where I make the distinction in participation versus non-participation is if the viewer's/player's action can change the outcome. If you're watching a video, there's no way to knock off Jackie, for example. In the game, there is.

As for "why Kennedy, why Now?", I have not the slightest clue.

Posted by: Rusty at December 13, 2004 1:40 PM

I've been thinking about players who might intentionally break the narrative goal of the game to knock off Jackie (or people in the crowd), and that's a distinction worth noting.

Another question I'm curious about: would you (or any other readers for that matter) distinguish between JFK Reloaded and other first-person shooter (FPS) games? Is it the identification with the shooter in general? Or is it specific to this game, in which a recognizable set of historic figures are the gun's target?

Again, I'm not really defending the game as much as trying to think through wht it is actually doing that might be more (or less) objectionable than other FPS or "historical" games.

Posted by: chuck at December 13, 2004 5:19 PM

I guess that would depend on the game. Most FPS games give you an enemy with a clear place in the narrative as someone you are engaged in war with, like a WWII-themed FPS putting you as a U.S. soldier against computerized Nazis. If you're at war with an enemy, it's agreed upon by both sides they're out to kill each other. That applies to cops vs. the mob games, human vs. alien games, etc. also. If innocent bystanders show up in those games, you're usually penalized for shooting them. Even in games like Quake or Unreal where you're blowing up other players in "death matches," you're still in a competition with rules that have been agreed upon by all participants, so you're morally in the clear with all those I think.

Where things get hazier are in games like Grand Theft Auto where there are innocent bystanders around and you're not penalized for killing them.

This falls somewhere in between the two I think, but I'm not sure where exactly. It's different enough from everything else that it's hard to lump it into the same category.

Posted by: Rusty at December 13, 2004 7:42 PM

Okay, but at least theoretically one would be penalized for shooting Jackie Kennedy, too, especially if you wanted to "win" the game and prove the "Lone Gunman" hypothesis the game narrative supports. But I think you're right that the game might invite people to break the rules of the game more readily than other games.

I also think you're right that JFK:R confounds these categories somewhat, and as someone who has only a marginal history with FPS games (I played the arcade version of Area 51 often enough so that I "won" the game consistently, but that's about it), I was trying to test the limits of what the game might be doing.

Posted by: chuck at December 14, 2004 12:09 AM

The museum at Dealey Plaza is pretty well done. I don't know if either of you have been there, but if you ever find yourself in Dallas, I suggest you check it out. Once you go there, there is a real creepy feel to looking out of the (one of the-IMO) assassin's windows.

Posted by: Steve at December 14, 2004 7:13 AM

I haven't been to Dallas, but if I do go, that's one place I'd certainly visit. Do you mean it's crepy to look out teh window Dalls or in its mediated representation in a game? Of course, both are probably creepy in different ways.

Posted by: chuck at December 14, 2004 11:51 AM

I think that this game is a realistec, yet saddening example of what our country is becoming. Things like this should not be allowed to be released. Especaily over the internet through which it can be distributed across the world.

Posted by: Bobby at January 21, 2005 9:21 PM

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