Full Stack Criticism

JFK: Reloaded (Traffic, 2004) is a simulative game that purports to accurately model the John F. Kennedy Assassination. Players experience the game from the assassin’s perspective and are tasked with replicating exactly the findings of the Warren Commission. The game was extremely controversial in mainstream media and was “vocally condemned by a number of prominent people, including Senator Edward Kennedy” (Fullerton, 2008). Despite the initial gut repulsion many feel towards the game, it has attracted serious scholarly attention. By combining their analyses we can reach a ‘full-stack’ criticism that takes each layer of Montfort’s stack into account.

Tracy Fullerton examined JFK: Reloaded as an example of a documentary game. Fullerton’s analysis addresses the Perception and Operation level, as well as the cultural context surrounding the game’s reception and the scenario it replicates. Ian Bogost (2007) built on an earlier version of Fullerton’s ideas, but goes further down the stack, addressing the Game Form, or rules. Bogost is particularly interested in what he calls the procedural rhetoric of the game, which he defines as “the practice of persuading through processes.” In this case the processes are the rules of the game.

Fullerton quotes the game’s developers, Traffic, as saying “we’ve created the game with the belief that Oswald was the only person that fired shots on that day, although this recreation proves how immensely difficult his task was.” The rules of the game seem to confirm this, with a perfect score of 1000 rewarded only to those who exactly replicate the findings of the Warren Commission. Traffic offered a cash prize to the player who could produce the closest replication of the real assassination. This proved extremely difficult, as the highest score was 782 out of 1000. Bogost reads the seeming impossibility of the game as its procedural rhetoric, arguing that the game rules contradict its creator’s statements, by implying that the Warren Commission’s findings were flawed. When in conflict, arguments from within the text are more convincing than arguments from the creator’s PR.

Mark Sample delved into the source of JFK: Reloaded, specifically the data files that control the many animations in the game (2011). Sample finds comments from the game developers that invalidate Traffic’s supposed goals with their inaccuracies and sexual crudeness.

In just three lines of code commentary, the developers at Traffic absolutely undermine the entire stated pedagogical project of their doc-game. Their outwardly respectful “interactive reconstruction of John F. Kennedy’s assassination” is undone by inaccuracies and misspellings (Nelly for Nellie, “desparate”) but even more so by the explicitly sexual re-framing of this traumatic event. It’s difficult to take JFK Reloaded as a serious exploration of history when under the hood it resembles an adolescent joke, preoccupied with sex and making light of death (“before he croaks”) (Sample, 2011).

These comments appear to invalidate the supposed “seven months to research” (Fullerton, 2008) that Traffic put into the game.

The next step would be to determine the validity of Bogost’s intuition, that the game was not intended to model the Warren Commission’s findings. With access to the source code of the game, not just the data files, it would be possible to dissect the scoring algorithm. It could be impossible to achieve a perfect score within in the game. How would that change our interpretation of the game? If the game is merely difficult, then the rhetoric highlights the difficulty the real assassin experienced. If it is impossible, it casts doubt on the physical possibility of such an assassination even occurring the way the Warren Commission claims it did. Sadly, it is unlikely that the original source files will ever be made available to scholars.

These scholars also make passing references to the other two layers, Interface and Platform. Fullerton comments on its release on PC instead of consoles. This choice of Platform informs the controversial content Traffic is able to produce. Consoles are typically locked down by the company that produces them, while the PC has no governing body. It is unlikely that any of the console manufacturers would approve a game like this.

Bogost comments on the Interface, saying it is one of the most engaging simulations of sniping that he has experienced. Sniping is included in most first person shooters, one of the most prolific video game genres. However, Bogost states that

few are as physically demanding as JFK Reloaded. The precision and accuracy required to pull off the three shots of the Warren Commission Report not only struck me as nearly impossible (again casting doubt rather than clarity on the historical record) but also gave me the chilling feeling of the assassin’s psychopathy. The precision of the game’s stated goal helps the player depersonalize its consequences, further emphasizing the simulation of the psychopath-assassin (Bogost, 2007).

The choice of a first person interface intended to place the player closer to the assassin is critically significant. Rather than viewing this historical moment in the large, for its impact on US and world history (Sample, 2011) this game is tightly focused on a five-minute slice of time. The first person perspective serves to make the assassin anonymously insignificant, foregrounding the familiar scene occurring in the plaza below. However, as Bogost shows, players stepping back and reflecting on the experience will be more preoccupied with the peculiar nature of the assassin and his task.