In the course of researching newsgames over the past few years, we’ve been able to roughly categorize them into certain types, which we’ve previously written about on Idea Lab. These categories were based on how genres of games are able to support types of news stories. Current event games tend to be short, 2D, and built with Flash because it’s easy to produce something playable quickly. Documentary games are often 3D and highly visual because they can afford longer production times.

So while it was no surprise that a number of Osama bin Laden games were released soon after the U.S. military operation that successfully located and killed the terrorist leader, it was unusual that all three of these current event games were built in three-dimensional environments. What was it about this story that had three different teams working with 3D tools to recreate the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan?

The three newsgames in question are News + Gameplay’s Bin Laden Raid, Kuma Games’ Kuma\War Episode #107: The Death of Osama Bin Laden, and the Counter-Strike: Source maps fy_abbottabad and de_abbottabad.

Each was released May 7 — exactly one week after the tactical operation — but produced under different circumstances.

Bin Laden Raid

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News + Gameplay’s Jeremy Alessi and his team of two other developers coded, scripted and built models for hours on end to release their first foray into the world of newsgames. Bin Laden Raid was built using the openly available Unity authoring tool. It was likely chosen not only because of Unity’s sophisticated 3D engine, but because a Unity web player plugin is available for all major browsers on Windows and Mac OS X, meaning the game doesn’t have to go through a lengthy install process. Bin Laden Raid positions the player as one of the special operatives raiding the compound and tasks him with killing bin Laden and all insurgents inside the building, collecting intelligence in the form of laptops scattered throughout the complex, and finally blowing up the downed helicopter before taking off with bin Laden’s body in tow.

The Death of Osama Bin Laden

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Kuma Games’ interpretation of the mission is bound by the constraints of its existing platform. The Kuma\War series uses Valve’s Source engine and a custom, old version of the Steam distribution platform to release downloadable episodes of its games. The Death of Osama bin Laden is a multiplayer scenario in which players can choose either side of the fight. As terrorists, players must prevent the special operations forces from completing their objectives for five minutes. As special ops, players go through the same mission points as Bin Laden Raid: kill, collect intel, blow up the helicopter, and escape. It’s possible to play the episode with artificial intelligence controlling the enemy, but the AI isn’t particularly sophisticated.

Counter-Strike: Source maps

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Lastly, a Counter-Strike player named Fletch released a multiplayer map for Counter-Strike: Source called fy_abbotabad. The prefix “fy” refers to “frag yard” and implies that the map is intended for traditional death-match style play. This setup in Counter-Strike usually means there are two distinct sides for the terrorists and counter-terrorists, and most combat occurs as the two sides meet in the middle. A few days later, Fletch released an updated version of the map called de_abbotabad. The prefix “de” stands for “bomb defusal” — the classic match setup that involves counter-terrorists preventing terrorists from planting C4 explosives or defusing those bombs once they’ve been placed. The map has nothing to do with the operation against bin Laden’s compound beyond loose similarities in its architectural layout.

When you consider these three games, reasons for building 3D environments are rather obvious. The scenario of the military operation is reminiscent of modern first-person shooters on videogame consoles. And it’s not just that many games are about war. War is immensely complex. But games about war don’t demonstrate this complexity. Instead, they’re scripted so that the player succeeds against all odds — often as an army of one or in a small squad. 

A fight without conflict

Jean Baudrillard argued that the Gulf War did not take place because it was a fight without conflict. Its tactical execution and televised mediation made it seem unreal to all but those who were directly involved in it. He further argued that Operation Desert Storm was a pre-written script that only needed execution to be successful. The coalition might was overpowering in both physical force and military imagery.

The Gulf War has often been called the “videogame war” because it seemed like a military simulation depicted through powerful imagery. But the bin Laden operation is even closer to a videogame: The success of the SEALs is reminiscent of superhero-like accomplishments in games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.  Of course, this assessment is only true knowing now the operation was successful.

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Of the three games, Bin Laden Raid is the closest depiction of the rhetoric that positions the SEALs as invincible heroes. The mission presents no threat of failure. The enemies are easy to kill; you cannot be killed; and there is no time limit. All the player has to do is go through the motions to be successful. But this game only represents what happened, not what could have happened. In that way, it trivializes the accomplishments of the highly trained special ops. But it’s unclear whether the reality it depicts was intended or emerged from the constraints of a quickly produced game.

Spatial reality: Recreating environments

Bin Laden Raid was most concerned with accurately recreating the layout of the compound, Alessi told me in an email exchange. In our analysis of documentary games in “Newsgames: Journalism at Play,” we discuss three kinds of documentary reality: spatial, operational and procedural. Spatial reality recreates environments and architecture to develop an understanding of what it was like to be in a certain place in time. Similarly, Alessi’s team took satellite images of the compound, photographs of the aftermath, and dimensions from the training model to produce their 3D rendering. “As a side note,” Alessi said, “most shooter games scale interiors up by 150 percent. We did not do that here which, combined with the FOV, makes the space look cramped, but it is to scale according to the information available at the time.” The game does certainly feel more cramped than the traditional first- or third-person shooter.

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The Kuma website tells a similar tale of rendering the mise-en-scene of a space:

“We are sticking to our retelling of real-world events, and that means a lot of reading and research, as well as talking with sources so we can get it right, “ Mike Thompson, project lead at Kuma, explains on a post on the game company’s web site. “It’s not fun telling an artist to start a model over after an all-nighter because someone found a mysterious tail rotor, but that’s what we do to get the job done.” Kuma’s episode, built with an engine used primarily to develop shooting games, looks more like a familiar first-person shooter. It doesn’t have the accuracy of scale of Bin Laden Raid, but the threat of being killed during the mission better addresses the reality of the situation.

The Counter-Strike maps, on the other hand, use the layout of the compound as merely a starting point to produce something unconcerned with journalistic integrity. de_abbotabad is tabloid in nature. If players don’t specifically search the current multiplayer games ongoing in CS: Source for the map, they might stumble upon a ripped-from-the-headlines scenario and try it out. But the story it tells — counter-terrorists and terrorists engaged in a bomb defusal scenario — is not even closely related to news reports that inspired it. The maps are not masquerading as newsgames, but for some players, a few rounds in de_abbotabad may give them a picture of what it was to be a Navy SEAL moving through the compound with the threat of violence lurking around every corner.

Beyond simple, playable Flash

Three military games set in the same 3D space released on the same day produced three different experiences. Each presents a particular reality based on its interpretation of the space. They all fall into the current event games category we described in “Newsgames: Journalism at Play,” but they go even further since most of the ones we looked at for our research were simple, playable Flash games. 

The designers of these three games undertook the difficult tasks of quickly rendering a 3D world based on interpretation and conjecture. But is a spatial reality — the accurate recreation of a place in time — the most important part of the story? And to what extent is accuracy important? Does an exact recreation of a building provide a commensurate experience? Or is there a point in which accuracy matters less than recreating the operational reality of what it was like to be there? If so, perhaps the Counter-Strike maps, which are void of content from the story, actually represent the threat of danger, the deliberateness of movement, and the skill of execution better than the games that chose to recreate the event as it unfolded. 

The answer to these questions lies somewhere in the middle: striking a balance between modeling what happened, where it happened, and how it happened. Because events like the operation against Osama bin Laden are complicated, designers will find that recreating a building brick-for-brick or tasking the player with the mission objectives may not be the best way of telling the story after all.

Perhaps the most illustrative game, then, would involve President Obama waiting anxiously for the results of an unknown outcome. Press A to sit pensively. Press B to engage in daily activities while knowing in the back of your mind a historical military operation is unfolding.