Translation, Adaptation, History, Controversy (and back)

My own interests with translation have recently come crashing into one of the current big gaming controversies: Six Days in Fallujah. The path of my interest goes form translation to adaptation to the construction of history, of which the game Six Days in Fallujah is a prime example. It is also an example of gaming controversy and protestation.

Recently, Ki Mae Huessner wrote a piece for ABC News about Rendition: Guantanamo and gaming controversy. She lists 9 games that have “gone too far” in that they have brought about large controversies. Some of these games like Grand Theft Auto IV (and the rest in the series) thrive off of this controversy. Others, like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! and JFK Reloaded are completely and unfortunately misunderstood in their intent because of the controversy and crash because of it. The main problem is the conflation of games, children, play, sugar, spice and everything nice, which excludes concepts of art, theory and all things serious. This split has been problematized time and again in different fora (Serious Games, Meaningful Play, Art Games), but primarily dismissed by the people who count: the media (ABC News) and the producers who cave in (Konami). Obviously, my interests are not aligned with advocating for or against  games in general or any game in particular. What I am interested in is the interaction of culture and games, or as it is more often written in conferences sections and on journals, Games and Culture.

At this point I would like to jump back along the windy path of my interest away from controversy, which is generally disinteresting to me, through the construction of history (and knowledge), to adaptation and finally arriving back at translation

Six Days in Fallujah, Rendition: Guantanamo, and JFK Reloaded are all controversial games. They are so controversial, in fact, that the former two are likely not going to be made, and the latter is barely known outside of people who study games and people who study history. All three of these are about ‘history’ and its construction, but that’s not why they’re controversial. Their controversy stems from the particular events that they dwell in/on. Moments of national trauma and embarrassment. Other games, such as Kuma/War, which features John Kerry’s Silver Star mission, or the sundry World War II RTS games do the exact same thing as the controversial games, but spark near no negative reaction as they are based around events of national (and international) pride and success.

History is constructed after the event happens. History is the ordering of the past to fit with, justify the existence of, perpetuate the goals of a given political entity be it nation-state, company, individual, or other. Text books, movies, novels and even historical treaties all do this; games are no different. The problem, of course, is that whereas some of the above have been welcomed into the serious realm games have not. So, games can construct history and the three above games do exactly that. Time for another step backward to the idea of adaptation.

Adaptation involves the re-ordering of logics from one form to another. The intent is that the overarching logic (or under-girding structure) remains between versions/editions/adaptations, but such is of course the difficulty in adapting anything. While most adaptations are thought to be from one form of popular media to another (between books, plays, movies, radio shows, television shows and so on) what must also be understood is that the definition of media need not be so limited. Language can be considered a medium, hence the difficulty in adapting between language/word and visual representation. History is another medium. History games are all adaptations, imperfect re-ordering of the events, feelings, beliefs, half-truths, full truths and lies in order to construct History.

And finally back to translation. While adaptation admits to changing the object (a book is turned into a movie; a historical event is turned into a game), translation hides and objects to this simple fact. Translation is based around the impossible goal of equality that is embedded within the concept of translation (See Walter Benjamin, “Task of the Translator”). (Perfect) translation is, and will always be, impossible. What remains then is choosing what will be successfully translated from one culture to another. History games make a very particular choice in what they translate, but that choice is also what leads to controversy as it does not match up with the dominant perception of what should be maintained.

Back to Six Days in Fallujah. History games are necessary for a number of reasons. On one level they are important in that they are part of the construction of history. Popular culture is one part of historicism despite official history’s denial of such a fact. On another layer, history games are an important step in the definition of games as a medium outside of the realm of (uncritically happy) play with sugar, spice and you get the picture. Art Games, Serious Games and Mature Games (theoretically mature, not thematically mature – Beyond Good and Evil, not RapeLay) are other parts of this movement. Six Days in Fallujah would have done both of these things: critically bring up issues of the interpretation of the past event and construction of future history; oppose the uncritical simplicity of games where you play the unquestioned, good guys and kill the unquestioned bad guys.

Life is not simple. Play is not simple. Games should not be simple.

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