Rebooting Counterfactual History with JFK Reloaded

May 19, 11 Rebooting Counterfactual History with JFK Reloaded

Traffic’s 2004 JFK Reloaded is a notorious example of a videogame that attempts to engage with real cultural heritage: the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Unlike pseudo-historical games such as Civilization or Age of Empires, which evoke the signifiers of History without actual history, JFK Reloaded is rooted soundly in an identifiable—and for many of its detractors—experienced event. The game is a first-person shooter, in which that first-person happens to be Lee Harvey Oswald. The goal is to reenact the shooting at Dealey Plaza with as much fidelity as possible to the findings of the Warren Commission Report (i.e. Oswald acted alone, firing three bullets from a single rifle, from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository). I want to leave aside the considerable outrage over the game and instead focus here on the promise of JFK Reloaded, not as a way to recreate history but as a way to reimagine it.

Back in 2004, Traffic labeled JFK Reloaded a “docugame” and most critical readings of the game continue to see it as some form of interactive documentary. In Playing the Past, Tracy Fullerton places the game squarely within Michael Renov’s classic definition of documentary media, as the game “interrogates” the past. More recently, Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer suggest in Newsgames that JFK Reloaded is a very specific kind of documentary. Bogost et al. describe three different “playable realities” that documentary videogames can simulate in the name of experiencing or understanding the past: a spatial reality, in which players explore the physical environment of a historical event (a recent example would be Osama Bin Laden’s Abbotabad compound, modeled in Counter Strike: Source); an operational reality, which recreates specific events, hewing to the historical record; and a procedural reality, which models “the behaviors underlying a situation, rather than merely telling stories of their effects” (69).

According to Bogost et al., JFK Reloaded presents an operational reality. Players recreate in a structured, limited way (and guided by their own knowledge of the assassination) the essential operations of the assassination: waiting for the motorcade from a hidden perch, sighting the rifle onto Dealey Plaza, and firing into the presidential limousine.

However, as Bogost notes in Persuasive Games, a work that precedes Newsgames, there is more to JFK Reloaded than the simple attempted recreation of a historical event. It is nearly impossible to “win” the game, by which I mean matching the Warren Commission findings. This impossibility, Bogost suggests, is a kind of procedural rhetoric, a kind of procedural reality layered upon (or beneath) the more explicit operational reality. As Bogost puts it, “the developer’s stated goal [of reaffirming the Warren Commission Report] was a ruse” (132-133) and in fact, I would add, the game highlights the goal’s exact opposite—the improbability of the Warren Commission’s findings.

Bogost goes on to describe the emergent behavior of JFK Reloaded, in which players can drastically alter the events of November 22, 1963, causing car crashes, committing mass murder, and spurring other alternate versions of that day in Dealey Plaza.

And this is my launching point for a rather fanciful use of JFK Reloaded: what if, say, in a composition or history classroom, we were to use the results from a particular run of JFK Reloaded as the genesis for an entire alternate history of the United States?

This idea occurred to me as I was demonstrating JFK Reloaded to my videogame studies students a few weeks ago. I wasn’t able to match the Lone Gunman theory (and never have), but I did happen to shoot Jackie Kennedy’s pink pillbox hat. As the hat flew from the limo, leaving the First Lady unharmed, I suddenly wondered, What if that’s all that happened? What if the extent of the trauma on November 22, 1963, was the flight of Jackie’s pillbox hat? What would history look like from there?

What would be different today if this video were an accurate portrayal of what historians now called the Kennedy Assassination Attempt? Certainly the fashion industry would have responded, eulogizing the pillbox hat well before its demise in our own universe. But what else would be different? The U.S. leaves Vietnam in 1964? Meaning the antiwar protest movement never takes off? And then Woodstock doesn’t happen? And Hippies don’t happen? All because of some pink hat flying through the air in Dallas?

Play the Past’s own Rob MacDougall has written elsewhere about the value of counterfactual history—it’s what MacDougall calls “playful historical thinking” (a nod, I’m assuming, to Sam Wineburg’s excellent Historical Thinking). And I think JFK Reloaded can be co-opted—played in a paragaming kind of way—for the purposes of historical thinking, rather than simply for history. What’s important about JFK Reloaded is not what happens when you play the game, but what you imagine happens after the events you have simulated have unfolded. Maybe the hat gets shot into the air. Maybe Kennedy is only wounded, and his popularity swells, allowing him to grapple with Civil Rights years before LBJ. Maybe only Governor Connally is fatally shot, rewriting Texas political history, which would change U.S. history, how?

Taken by itself, JFK Reloaded is a small-minded affair, too focused on a single event to have lasting resonance. But played my way, as one link in a chain of events, the game becomes much more important. It becomes a tool. And this is the best way to understand JFK Reloaded: not as a documentary videogame, but as an engine of counterfactual history.

JFK Reloaded Hat Flying Off

Jackie Kennedy's Pink Hat Takes Flight in JFK Reloaded (2004)

5 Comments

  1. Great idea Mark! I have played a very little with that linking of a game reality to history recently asking my student how likely they would have been as the Aryans to migrate to NW India assuming they were playing them in Civilization (most thought they would set up shop long before). This sort of counter-factual history in simulations sounds very promising.

    At the risk of asking a question on too nit-picky a point, since I don’t want to detract from the value of what you’ve raised here, I couldn’t help but wonder what you meant by
    “Unlike pseudo-historical games such as Civilization or Age of Empires, which evoke the signifiers of History without actual history”. If you have time to comment, I’d love to hear more, particularly about the terms “pseudo historical,””signifiers of History”, and “actual history”. I do most of my game work with games like this (well Civ — I won’t touch Age of Empire myself in a classroom, but we all have our tolerances) that allow for great deviation from the historical record. I’m guessing I’m not making the same distinctions you are, so it might be fascinating to discuss.
    Jeremiah

    • @Jeremiah: Asking what I mean by the phrase “pseudo-historical games” is definitely a fair question! I dismissed these historically-based strategy games (which I have spent untold hours playing) a little too casually, simply to make my way to my larger argument. So I appreciate the chance to explain the phrase here.

      In the back of my mind when I wrote about “the signifiers of History without actual history” was the excellent discussion we had on Play the Past with Rob’s post Seeing Like SimCity. Rob confronts headlong the questions surrounding historical simulations (raised by scholars like Alex Galloway), and in his post and the ensuing comments, we collectively wrestled with the way these games both misrepresent the past yet still open the way to a deeper understanding of the past.

      Regarding my own use of the phrase “pseudo-historical” to describe these games, I wonder if a more accurate modifier is “quasi,” as in “quasi-historical games.” Pseudo-historical tilts the balance toward deception and falsehood, while quasi-historical highlights the virtual, simulated aspect of these games.

      • @Mark & Peter
        I’m going to dig into that discussion you referenced with Rob’s post (I still fondly remember the excellent critical points Rob always brought up in the Playing with Tech in History conference we attended together). But so that I don’t procrastinate and let this thread die, I just wanted to post back, so sorry if you all hashed this out.
        At least two things strike me about your clarification and Peter’s salient point about the interpretive conflict between the “Great People” of history and the impersonal social and natural processes. First, (this is not the first time I have wondered this), I wonder if my training as Greco-Roman historian puts me in a different framework than modern historians. Let me explain. Most of the time the field of ancient (or any lesser documented pre-modern history) has to squeeze blood from a stone hypothesizing about processes over the long term with scanty evidence. There just aren’t that many individuals to focus on compared to modern history. I wonder if my comfort calling the processes in games like Civ, Rome:Total war, EU3 Rome, etc. historical is because, to me, so much of what we do in reconstructing the ancient world is very sketchy compared to the standards of available evidence for modern topics. Does the individual become more important for the modern historian and JFK reloaded more historical because we know so much about him, Oswald, and millions of other individuals from that year in time? (Won’t it be funny after all this speculation if you tell me you are a scholar of the Aztecs or some other sparsely documented group).

        My second thought, and I struggle with this everyday as a high school teacher, is that history is an incredibly overloaded term. I prefer to use the term history to refer to the discipline, but time has mellowed me to realize that I can’t change the term comnpletely and we need something to refer to the interpreted past. But your term “signifiers of History without the actual history” suggests almost that there is an unmediated past — (please note, I am not suggesting you believe that; I’m just enjoying thinking about the terminology). I guess what really helps me work with games about broader based historical trends is the sense that there is no unmediated past and very little historical fact where important things are concerned. Bringing it altogether, I suspect that may be a pre-modern historian perspective.
        Thanks for stirring up ideas.
        -Jeremiah

      • Trevor Owens /

        Like @Jeremiah my first instinct was to jump in and get into it about your quasi/psudo thoughts here.

        For me the key idea to unpack is the term “actual history.” Inside this notion we have a few components.
        1. The past, the thing we can’t ever access.
        2. A range of objects that contain traces of the past.
        3. The narratives we make to make sense and create stories out of traces of the past we have in the documents.
        4. A discipline of research and tradition of rules for what counts and the meta-commentary about the texts
        5+ a bunch of things I am currently forgetting.

        If you want history 1, what actually happened in the past, you are out of luck. If that is what we want, it’s gone. Frankly, the only kind of really honest history becomes a very self aware kind of number 3 that makes explicit how specific claims are made and the weaknesses of those claims given what it can draw on from 2.

        @Mark I really like where you are going with this and in terms of Civ mega history vs. focused counterfactual exploration seems to me to really be an issue of scope. How different can I make the history of the world, how wide open is the possibility space. The wider the space the less the game engages with the sense of what really happened and more it has to do with totally different ideas about what might have happened.

        IHMO the dirty little secret of historical thinking is the fact that all value judgements in history are grounded in counterfactual thought. Deciding how important one factor is in relation to another. Any argument about what the most important causes of the civil war is necessarily built on the imagination required to imagine what the absence of a given factor would result in.

        Not sure if this is all hanging together here, but I am going to go ahead and hit submit and come back later and see if I still agree with my self. In any event, great post and I really think there is a lot more for us to mine in here about play, counterfactuals, historical thinking and historical imagination.

    • I think that the comparison between the ways that these two games, Civilization and JFK Reloaded, explore history is really interesting. Civ portrays history as a long and involved process, bigger than any individual person. Governments rise and fall and countless men (and elephants) are killed in battles, but each one is merely a drop in an ocean of data that dictates the future. It forces us to look at history as more than just a series of notable events and world-altering heroes.

      JFK Reloaded, on the other hand, makes us consider how the life or death of one man could influence history. The JFK assassination has often been a subject of time-traveling “what if” adventures in sci-fi shows, so many of us have thought about it at least once, though I doubt many of have considered the historical reprocussions of the pillbox hat.

      It would be interesting to juxtapose these two games in a class and debate the merits of the two competing counterfactual narratives that emerge.

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