The Academy Awards loom on the horizon, signaling an end to the chaotic awards season. And though I imagine Moonlight and La La Land will dominate conversations, I'd like to temporarily redirect the chatter to a film that, more than likely, will go unseen by the Academy's members: #Jackie.
Cinema, by extension of our own morbid fascinations, is obsessed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Films like JFK, Executive Action, Killing Kennedy, Kennedy and Parkland have examined the man and the traumatic event that brought about his end. However, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín's take on the incident and the days following JFK's death chose to redirect our attention to the influential public figure whom sat alongside him.
Though it's an historical drama, Jackie forgoes traditional plot progression for a more complex character study—it mirrors the mental state of its protagonist, effectively conveying a sense of paranoia, loss, confusion and strength through its editing (it should have been nominated for Best Picture). And though I'd love to see the cinematic contributions of Isabelle Huppert finally acknowledged by the Academy, I'd sooner see the statuette handed to the remarkable Natalie Portman.
But what's all this got to do with #VideoGames, huh? Well, those filmmakers aren't the only ones interested in reconstructing the famous days in Dallas. Just as Larraín examined the event from a fresh perspective, video games, for better or worse, have attempted to do the same. With Jackie having resonated with me so profoundly, I was keen to see if video games had attempted something similar. With that in mind, I want to examine the controversial title I stumbled upon; the game that broached the assassination of JFK in a unique, simulative manner.
'Reloaded': Revisiting The Video Game Assassination Of JFK
If anyone is familiar with JFK: Reloaded, then they're equally familiar with its controversies. Released for Windows on November 22, 2004 (the 41st anniversary of the event), this "historical simulation" video game sees the player stepping into the shoes of Lee Harvey Oswald on that historic day.
Nestled by a window, Mannlicher Carcano M91/38 rifle in hand and awaiting the arrival of the President's motorcade, everything is on you—the fate of those below is in your hands. You can sit there and watch the car go by, you can fire rounds at random bystanders or—which the game rates you for—you can attempt to replicate the assassination in extreme detail.
JFK: Reloaded boasts a scoring system (ranging from 0-1000) that "rewards" actions which mimic the event. Rather than a morbid way of congratulating the player for accurately killing JFK, the developers maintain that it was designed to help prove the findings of the Warren Commission, which oversaw the investigation into the assassination. In relation to how Oswald carried out the attack on the President, here are the Commission's findings: first shot missed, second hit JFK and Governor Connally and third hit JFK's head. Replicate this pattern and come as close as possible to the actual timing and your score increases in number.
According to Traffic Games, a developer based in Scotland, the aim of JFK: Reloaded was "to establish the most likely facts of what happened on 1963-11-22 by running the world’s first mass-participation forensic construction." But, as you can imagine, a lot of people took issue with JFK: Reloaded.
The Controversy & Backlash
One of the more notable figures to condemn JFK: Reloaded was the late Senator Ted Kennedy, JFK's brother, who described it as "despicable." Senator Joseph Lieberman also claimed to be "sickened by the game." Additionally, Children NOW, an organization that promotes safer media for children, felt that Traffic Games' claim that the game was educational were unfounded. Director Christy Glaubke commented, "I would think the only [lesson it teaches] is how to be an assassin."
In response to these claims, Kirk Ewing, Traffic Software's Managing Director, said:
"We genuinely believe that, if we get enough people participating, we'll be able to disprove, once and for all, any notion that someone else was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy."
In order to give you an idea of what we're talking about here, you can watch some gameplay from JFK: Reloaded below—but be warned, some viewers may find it disturbing.
Ewing believed that the video game medium had the potential to contribute in a meaningful way to the some 40-year-old discussion around the assassination.
"[...] part of the logic for us was to disprove the conspiracy by demonstrating how it was possible for Oswald to make all three shots in the context of the car's speed, the wind and the specification of the rifle he used. When it comes to the ballistics, I think we made a good representation of what it must have been like to look down the barrel of the gun and fire those shots at the president."
However, all of his good intentions were ignored by news outlets, who ferried him around New York city for an entire week to interview and berate him. "Intelligent people unpicked my personality in front of an audience of millions," he said in an interview with Eurogamer, stating that he "had an unbelievable amount of violence directed towards [him]." But he fought his corner, believing that if the "subject could be discussed in film and documentary, why shouldn't it be a candidate for a game?"
All of these valid points however, were undercut by a competition.
In order to get as many people in on the social experiment as possible, Ewing decided to hold a competition to see who could most closely recreate the assassination as described in the Warren Commission report. Players around the world were able to submit their attempts for one month, with the prize pot being linked to the revenue the game had generated up until that point (roughly $100,000).
The prize eventually went to a 16-year-old Parisian teenager, who took home $10,712. Though Ewing doesn't regret that JFK: Reloaded was made in any way, he does regret the competition to replicate JFK's death.
"I was naïve," he told Eurogamer. "I underestimated the deepness of affection for Kennedy held by many American people. Maybe in Scotland we didn't think through the reaction. Questions about the prize money were always the toughest to answer. It was a marketing trick, but it muddied the discussion that maybe we could have had if it hadn't been there."
The Unique Perspective
Ewing is right. His competition undermined his arguments. It gave news broadcasters and video game stigmatists something to point at. It validated their hatred and rage for the industry. And perhaps that's why we don't see these kind of projects. Ewing was actually asked by hundreds of people to create more games that examined other assassinations. People were clearly impressed by his little project. But the world wasn't ready for it.
But now, in 2017, I see a lot of merit in a game like this. It's disturbing, morbid and controversial for sure, but video games can offer fresh perspectives on life. The video game medium can accomplish things that no other medium can hope to replicate—it makes us active participants. Therefore, shouldn't its unique strengths be taken advantage of and tested in interesting ways? I believe so.
Though John F. Kennedy was assassinated over 50 years ago, the impact his loss had and still has on the American people continues to resonate. Cinema is still exploring the events of that day, finding new ways to come to terms with its horrors, and perhaps video games will once again contribute to the discussion. Though Traffic Games' approach wasn't always tasteful, it generated fascinating debates and demonstrated the medium's potential for simulation that many hadn't anticipated. Should we see more of that?
How do you feel about JFK: Reloaded?