Don't Shoot the Pretty Pink Hat: How to Play JFK: Reloaded on the Anniversary of his Assassination
by Nate Garrelts
On November 22, 2004, a day when most people would be remembering Kennedy and where they were when they heard he had been killed, some gamers were looking through the scope of a Carcano 91/38 at the Texas School Book Depository. In an official press release, Traffic Games spokesman Kirk Ewing said that their game JFK: Reloaded (2004) had the potential to “disprove once and for all any notion that someone else was involved in the assassination of President Kennedy.” To that end, game players were granted points based on how closely their shots recreated those of Lee Harvey Oswald as reported by the Warren commission. The game's official website touted the game as the “world's first interactive reconstruction” and offered a potential prize of up to $100,000 to the person whose shots most closely matched Oswald's. Of course, the profit motive for gamers made us painfully aware of the developer's own financial stake in the game's success.
The gameplay begins when the president's motorcade rounds the corner onto Elm Street heading past the book depository on the right and Dealey Plaza on the left. It ends when the motorcade reaches the overpass on the way to Stemmons Freeway or after about a minute. Players see this scene through the crosshairs of a scope from the vantage point of the sixth floor of the book depository window. While many were sickened by the idea of the game, it was enthusiastically received by some who told tales of shooting off Jackie's hat or blowing off the back of the president's head.
Today, JFK: Reloaded is infamous. It often appears on lists of the most controversial games of all time, only being beaten out by games like Muslim Massacre (2008), RapeLay (2006), Super Columbine Massacre RPG (2005), Postal 2 (2003), WTC Survivor (2002), and Ethnic Cleansing (2002). There was even a recent Reddit conversation on January 8, 2013, titled “Why did JFK: Reloaded create so much controversy? And do you agree with it?”
Academics have also weighed in on the game many times (Raessens, 2006; Bogost, 2007; Fullerton, 2008; Poremba, 2009; Bogost, Ferrari, & Schweizer, 2010; Sample, 2011). In an effort to put JFK: Reloaded and games like it into perspective, Raessens (2006), Fullerton (2008) and Bogost et al. (2010) each make a strong case for using the term documentary game while at the same time acknowledging the problems of using this terminology. Raessens (2006) accurately summarizes the situation when he says that such games “do not represent the historical reality objectively, but they are more than just subjective impressions of the artists involved” (p. 221). Much of the other research focuses on how gamers interact with the documentary content.
According to Bogost (2007), while the subject of a game may be “comparable to documentaries and news broadcasts” we cannot understand a game like JFK: Reloaded unless we also ask “how the player interacts with procedural rules to create patterns of historical and social meaning” (p. 128). For Bogost, the “procedural rhetoric” of JFK: Reloaded “helps the player depersonalize its consequences, further emphasizing the simulation of the psychopath-assassin.” This allows for the revelation that the assassination can be more effectively carried out using a different strategy and gives way to a second revelation that “JFK Reloaded suggests that the assassin’s role, unlike the military sniper’s, is that of spectacle as much as accuracy” (pp. 133-134).
Poremba (2009) interrogates the way JFK: Reloaded confronts historical documents even more than the historical moment itself. She writes “the indexical value of the simulations in JFK: Reloaded is not the real life event at all, but the Warren Commission (and related) documents to which there is that strong indexical link exceeding analogy” (p. 8). Whether or not Oswald had the ability to complete the task has been often called into question along with the scope sighting and the timing and placement of the shots. The Warren Commission reenacted the assassination with trained marksmen, as did CBS and the Discovery channel. That the game only depicts this moment, attempts to use realistic physics, and awards points based on recreating the Warren Commission’s findings lends credence to the developer's argument with regard to their intentions and Poremba's suggestion that we read the game differently.
Sample (2011), on the other hand, proposes that we should think of the game “not as a way to recreate history but as a way to re-imagine it.” Reminiscent of Alan Moore's re-imagining of history in the Watchmen or Bradbury's story “A Sound of Thunder,” Sample wonders “What if the extent of the trauma on November 22, 1963, was the flight of Jackie’s pillbox hat?” The resulting ripple would imaginatively lead to an early end to the Vietnam War and no counter-cultural movement of the sixties. He ends by suggesting that we read the game “as an engine of counterfactual history” instead of a documentary.
As much as we know about Oswald, his motives were unclear to the Warren Commission and are still unclear today. In some ways this means that when we are sutured into the first person perspective behind the gun in JFK: Reloaded, we are forced to also bring our own motives. The question as presented by the research is really this: If you play the game on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death will you be thinking like a killer, a forensic investigator, or a time traveler? I suggest you watch the black limousine pass through the scope and resist the urge to pull the trigger. You don't even have to shoot the pretty pill box hat.
Bogost, I., Ferrari, S., Schweizer, B. (2010). Newsgames: Journalism at Play. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fullerton, T. (2008). Documentary games: Putting the player in the path of history. In Z. Whalen & L. Taylor (Eds.), Playing the Past: Nostalgia in Video Games and Electronic Literature (pp. 215-238). Nashville, TN. Vanderbilt University Press.
Poremba, C. (2009). JFK Reloaded: Documentary framing and the simulated document. Loading..., 3(4), 1-12. Retrieved from http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/
Raessens, J. (2006). Reality play: Documentary computer games beyond fact and fiction. Popular Communication, 4(3), 213–224. doi: 10.1207/s15405710pc0403_5
Sample, M. (2011). Rebooting counterfactual history with JFK Reloaded. Playthepast.org. Retrieved from http://www.playthepast.org/?p=1392
Traffic Games. (2004a). JFK: Reloaded. [Windows video game]. Scotland: Traffic Games.
Traffic Games. (2004b). New "Docu-Game" brings recreates the assassination of John F. Kennedy [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://www.gamespot.com/news/new-docu-game-brings- recreates-the-assassination-of-john-f-kennedy-6113806
Traffic Games. (2004c). JFK: Reloaded home page. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20050403035506/http://www.jfkreloaded.com/
Nathan Garrelts is an Associate Professor of Languages and Literature at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. His scholarship focuses mostly on narrative media, and he has edited two collections of essays on digital games: Digital Gameplay (2005) and The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto (2006).