JFK reloaded game causes controversy

A controversial new video game that has drawn harsh criticism from both politicians and the general public asks players to test their theories about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Traffic Management, a Scottish video game company, released JFK Reloaded last week. The game re-creates the assassination of JFK, and lets players take the role of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The game depicts the presidential limo as it cruises through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and allows the player to fire at the president from Oswald's perch in the school book depository building. After shooting at Kennedy, the player sees a slow motion replay and an analysis of where -- and who -- the bullets hit.

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), brother of the late president, has condemned the game. His spokesperson calls it "despicable."

Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) has spoken out against it, too. Lieberman "was sickened by the game," says his spokesperson Casey Aden-Wansbury.

Kirk Ewing, the managing director of Traffic, says the purpose of the game is to provide a realistic environment for users to test the lone gunman theory. The gamer who can most accurately replicate Oswald's shooting on November 22, 1963, can win up to US$100,000, according to the Web site.

"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," Ewing says in a press release.

But Christy Glaubke of Children NOW, an organization that promotes safer media for children, dismisses the claimed educational merits of JFK Reloaded. "I would think the only (lesson it teaches) is how to be an assassin," Glaubke says.

She also worries that, despite the registration policy that restricts JFK Reloaded to people over 18, kids will find a way to play Oswald on their computers.

"I would think any kid (who) has access to a debit card or prepaid credit card would have access to this," she says.

Causing real controversy

The release of JFK Reloaded, which coincides with the 41st anniversary of the assassination, follows the recent appearance of Riot UMass, another contentious reality game.

Riot UMass, created by freshman Grant Cerulo, depicted University of Massachusetts students beating police officers, re-creating the riots that occurred in Amherst after the Boston Red Sox won the World Series last month. That game site has been taken off the Internet.

Jason Della Rocca, program director for the International Game Developers Association, says that these two releases don't signify a trend. "This is not necessarily representative of the mainstream gaming industry," Della Rocca says.

At the same time, however, he defends quasi-reality games such as 9-11 Survivor, a game that challenges players to escape from the World Trade Center in New York before the building collapses, as helping the public "better understand a topic or issue."

Similarly, Ian Bogost, a game designer at Persuasive Games, considers JFK Reloaded "an attempt to frame a news event."

But not everyone appreciates these games' use of emotionally charged historical events to generate sales.

"I think it's awful that they're turning something as tragic as that into a game, for children especially," says Rebecca Sizelove, a graduate student of political management at George Washington University.

Jason Tuohey writes for the Medill News Service.

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