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.