An interview with Rami Ismail regarding Six Days in Fallujah apolitical stance along with how it contributes to the problematic depiction of Arabs in pop-culture.
The resurrection of Six Days in Fallujah alone was enough to stir controversy, but the Polygon article brought with it a wave of backlash. It wants to recreate a major battle and tell a story while also trying to be apolitical, which has made the resulting criticisms all the more significant.
One of the most outspoken critics of the game has been Rami Ismail, the co-founder of Vlambeer and an advocate of diversity in the games industry. Following the article’s publication, he broke down everything wrong with the game and the apolitical stance in a series of Tweets. The biggest critique is that Six Days in Fallujah tries to glamorize the war while also erasing the history of the civilians who suffered in the crossfire.
I had the opportunity to speak with Rami Ismail (via Google Hangout) about his concerns about Six Days in Fallujah. Specifically, we discussed how the game’s narrative direction tells a one-sided story, the dehumanization of Middle Easterners in pop-culture. and how such a game’s story could be better told in the realm of pop culture.
Growing Up During the Iraq War
One of the first topics I wanted to discuss was what it was like for him growing up during the build up to the Iraq War, along with its aftermath. To understand how he and so many others feel, one has to go back to what it was like in the days leading up to the war and in the years after the Second Battle of Fallujah. So many still remember the images of Colin Powell at the United Nations Security Council, the battlefield of Fallujah, and the anti-war protests that sparked before and after the invasion.
It was also a time of fear for the Arab and Muslim community as they were scared to speak out. Due to fears of preserved as a fifth column and targeted for harassment, many chose not to protest against the war. Ismail remembers this all too well, growing up and during his college years. He also remembers how the elders in his community were afraid to speak out in fear of being seen as “pro-terrorist”. It was no different in college or when he was working to establish himself in the games industry.
Ismail also remembers he had the same concerns when Six Days in Fallujah was first announced back in 2009. Not wanting to be blacklisted or targeted for harassment, he didn’t have say much publicly. This fear has plagued the community for too long, and now he wants to break the cycle. Ismail wants to use his platform to speak out not just against American foreign policy in the Middle East, but also about the negative depiction of Arabs in pop culture.
The Response to his Tweet
As Ismail’s tweets have become a major talking point for the gaming community, numerous people (who served in or had to flee Iraq) have reached out to him. He has been praised for building a greater awareness of what happened, while those who reached out also shared his thoughts and concerns about the game.
A worry many have shared is that the game might glamorize a controversial war that was made possible by a lie. Veterans of the war fear that the game will ignore many of the horrors they saw while ignoring why Iraq was invaded. Arabs and Iraqis are disgusted by the concept of such a game while also dreading that it will once again depict them as generic villains.
The Politics of War
Like so many, the remarks about the game “not being political” while also wanting engender sympathy for the troops was seen as a red flag. When discussing this, Ismail went more in depth about how the game is being political by telling one side of the story while ignoring everyone else’s experience. In taking this approach, the game is trying to spin an unjust war while also ignoring the blow back it has created in the region. To put it simply: “If you’re trying to rewrite history, you are being political.”
It’s not just the attempt to sanitize history but also the dehumanization of Arabs in pop-culture. Six Days in Fallujah wants to tell the horrors of war from the American perspective while ignoring those who lived there, and in doing so it erases everyone else’s story. The real horror of the war was experienced by the civilians caught in the middle, and by ignoring it, the game is not acknowledging them as human. This just adds to a greater problem of Arabs (along with Middle Easterners) as being a go-to villain. Ismail had hoped that pop culture had broken away from this trope, but this game indicates that we’re not there yet.
He has also made note of the lack of attention from the media in reaching out to those actually affected by the war, or at least to seek the thoughts and opinions of someone from the Middle Eastern community. Despite this shortcoming, he did praise Charlie Hall for going more in-depth about the actual conflict by presenting both sides by questioning the apolitical stance of a game based on a real battle.
Sharing the Story of War
Ismail wants to make it clear that recreating a historical event should not be off-limits, but it needs to be told right. The story of Fallujah needs to be shared in a manner that highlights the horrors of war along with the struggle of everyone caught in the conflict. It should not just be about the warring sides, but include a focus on those whose livelihoods were shattered. In a way, he prefers the story to be recreated similar to a game like This War of Mine, rather than Call of Duty.
A takeaway he wants for everyone is to realize that a lot of innocent people died in the battle, and their stories needs to be told. They were not cannon fodder or nefarious villains, they were real people who lived through a horrifying moment in history.
8Bit/Digi is an independent media outlet that provides an insight into the video game community and industry of the San Francisco Bay Area.