Kuma War & John Kerry's Silver Star

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KumaWarKerry.jpgIntroduction and Game Analysis by Simon Ferrari
Video Analysis and Impressions by Douglas Wilson
Based on a joint play session and discussion

Kuma War presents one (apparently) sustainable model for regularly-released "play the news" games. Kuma produces 3D shooters running off of what appears to be the same version of the Source engine used for the original Half Life. Not only do they act as content creators, but they also feature a download client that makes them something of a micro-platform. Alongside mainstream entertainment fare such as dinosaur hunting and cops-and-robbers games, they release playable versions of military engagements ripped from news headlines. Kuma features literally hundreds of these scenarios on their website. Notable examples of this are the capturing of Saddam's sons during the early days of the Iraq war and the subject of this piece - John Kerry's Silver Star mission.

During Kerry's presidential bid, a controversy about the Silver Star he earned during Vietnam emerged. While many of his brothers in arms confirmed the official recap of the mission - that Kerry had strategically steered a swiftboat toward a shore occupied by hostiles, thus limiting the strength of the VC gunfire (by narrowing the target and protecting soldiers with the hull of the ship) - numerous other veterans claimed that Kerry's strategic prowess had been greatly exaggerated by Naval command. Kuma War's simulation of the mission attempts to make a spatial and playable recreation so that players can "decide for themselves" whether Kerry deserved his commendation. As you will see from our impressions, we find the makers' goal of intellectual illumination to be largely unaccomplished.

Silver Star Mission

Players begin by controlling the Kerry avatar, but one can switch between three other unnamed "swifties" - soldiers who patrolled the waterways of Vietnam on swiftboats. The user interface features a few subtitles that set the exact time and place of the mission, as well as a simple HUD consisting of a mini-map and basic ammo and health information. The foliage surrounding the river implies an expansive jungle, but the playable level is severely constrained by an invisible collision map.

You climb into a swift boat, and the game feeds you a series of objectives in the same way as any tactical shooter such as Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. First, the game asks one to patrol the river looking for trouble. The controls of the swiftboat are quite stiff, leading to a difficulty in maneuvering through the narrow waterways. One feels compelled not to criticize the developers for these frustrating controls - boat mechanics are a notorious thorn in the side of even AAA titles such as the Grand Theft Auto series. There is a conceptual difficulty in accurately modeling the relationship between speed and turn radius through water that becomes all the more apparent in a lower-budget title such as this. One can turn this difficulty on its side and say that it accurately conveys the realistic difficulty experienced by our troops as they pushed their overly large swiftboats through the muddy and miniscule rivulets of Vietnam.

Right away players will notice that shooting an innocent fisherman results in a "game over" screen. This phenomenon has been explored previously in one analysis of the game XIII. In the latter game, one plays an amnesiac secret agent struggling to complete a mission to expose the assassination of the President by an integrated network of governmental Illuminati. The game casts the motivations of the protagonist as ambiguously amoral; however, during a bank heist level the player cannot kill a police officer without suffering a "game over" screen. This is an instance of the game designers stepping in and informing the player that they have made a decision that cannot be aligned with the mentality of the game character (even though a player of XIII has limited knowledge of the character's motivations and morality).

This unspoken argument implied by Silver Star Mission makes sense - John Kerry, an upstanding citizen and soldier, would never allow the murder of innocent bystanders on his watch - but it does clash with our knowledge that some soldiers did in fact slaughter innocents during the Vietnam War. In the game, and as it was in the actual guerilla conflict, it is often difficult to tell the difference between innocents and the Viet Cong (until they start shooting at you). Thus, the game expresses how difficult it can be to make decisions on the fly about the terrain and people in a guerilla conflict.

Continuing down the river, you run into trouble on one of the banks and have to shoot enemies from the mounted turret on your boat. After killing one or two hostiles, the objective HUD orders you to execute a beach landing. Steering the swiftboat toward the shore, the game prompts the player to exit the boat and engage hostiles on the ground. Once the player and his teammate AI have eliminated the Viet Cong, she is told to destroy a weapon cache. You pick up the RPG off of a downed VC and blow up some covered munition boxes. The last objective is to return to the US-controlled docks at the starting point of the game without suffering any swifty casualties. This reflects the fact that Kerry's leadership during the mission led to a minimization of harm to the squad. The mission ends with a short text blurb about the game being dedicated to the American men who braved the treacherous waters of Vietnam for our country.

The Video

A video produced by Kuma accompanies the game, and it is presented and filmed like an evening newscast. After an introduction to the controversy over Kerry and the swiftboat veterans, the bulk of the video is spent interviewing Thomas Forrest, a Vietnam vet who spent time in the swift boats. Interestingly, Forrest did not serve with Kerry. But he is able to tell us about the boats, and specifically about the strategic reasons behind why Kerry would turn his boat towards the beach and rush the hostiles head-on. His explanation is compelling in arguing that Kerry made a good strategic choice, and Forrest certainly sets some context for Kerry's mission. But his information doesn't speak directly to the heart of the swift boat controversy.

After the interview with Forrest, the video morphs into infomercial, and there's an interview with one of the designers, who claims to show "the basic techniques, tactics" of the boats, and to take us through the events of Kerry's mission. The first claim seems legitimate to us (more later), but the rhetoric around the game seems to center around the latter claim. That is to say, the Kuma Games website states:

"Today, in our Kuma War 3D re-creation of this event, we give you the information you need to judge for yourself."

A similar claim is made in a New York Times interview:

"We will present the controversy and different perspectives on it in the video news show that will accompany the mission," she added. "We will allow the user to play the game to determine for themselves what they think happened."

One thing to note is that the video uses footage from the game itself. In this sense, the game seems positioned as "re-enactment" much like you'd see on the History Channel.

Our Impressions

First and foremost, the mission raises huge transparency issues. What was based on real data? In the video there is some effort to overlay the game graphics with real photos, but it still isn't clear where fact becomes fiction. Is the map real? Is the size of the boat compared to the river accurate? How about the speed of the boat? How many hostiles were actually killed? How long did the mission actually take? Did we actually have three other crew members, or were there more?

We hypothesize that it would have helped to have pop-up facts or over-layed video/audio commentary. In that sense, integrated bits of newsmedia seems like one promising solution to the transparency problem.

Our main judgment is that the mission doesn't add anything to help one form an opinion about the Kerry swiftboat controversy - at least not intellectually. Was Kerry's boat the first to reach the beach? Given that we only see one boat on the river, the game seems to say yes, but this seems like a technical constraint, rather than a depiction of the real situation. Did Kerry lie about his wounds? That and many other of the questions raised are outside the scope of the game.

If anything, we believe that the game might make another type of impact - perhaps these types of games are important for getting people to connect emotionally with the events. Or to give them a general contextual feel for the events. The designers seem to hint at this in an interview with Tracy Fullerton: "We are able to create a sense of situational awareness [...]"

Based on the video content - which focuses on the military strategy behind Kerry's boat maneuver - I believe the game's most effective rhetoric could be an explanation of Kerry's decision to turn the boat into the shore and rush the hostiles head-on. As explained by Forrest in the video, a major problem on the rivers was that, if the swift boat was parallel to the shore, there was a lot of surface area to hit, and the gunners in the back were sitting ducks. By turning the boat into the shore - which he claims became a more widespread practice - one shrinks the target area and protects the gunners.

The problem is, the simulation isn't built to depict this situation. First, the game isn't difficult. We kept our boat parallel to shore the entire time, and I don't think we risked "losing" the mission. Second, there are no gunners rendered on the boat. I can imagine a version of the mission in which there are gunners to protect, and where you almost always lose if you keep the boat parallel to the shore. In such a game, the simulation would show by example why rushing the shore was an effective strategy. But again, the issue of strategy is not a core issue in the Kerry swiftboat controversy.

In the end, this game does not attain the same level of intrigue or complexity as an artifact like JFK: Reloaded. Certainly the potential is there to create the kind of vital 3D newsgame spaces written about by Bobby. We plan analyses of other Kuma War re-creations to follow this one in the future

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