WHOEVER SAID PLAYING VIDEO GAMES was a non-educational, mind-numbing activity meant to divert you from more worthwhile pursuits such as, say, keeping up with current events? Not Kuma Reality Games, a New York City software company, whose website allows you to download and participate in reenactments of battles that actually occurred in the war on terror. "Just weeks after a military event occurs . . . Kuma creates a reenactment of the conflict, using advanced 3-D gaming tools, and delivers the mission to a subscriber's computer," the site proclaims. These missions place you on battlefields mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where you are forced to seek out and demolish your enemy with the click of your mouse.
Kuma was founded two years ago and now boasts a total of 23 online missions. Its first two--"Uday and Qusay's Last Stand" and "Operation Anaconda"--became available for download on March 31, 2004. "Uday and Qusay's Last Stand" is a two-part mission that allows players to reenact what the 101st Airborne and Special Forces had to do to take down Saddam's sons. Part one of the mission consists of clearing the surrounding area of opposing forces, while part two allows you to lay siege to the building, capturing or killing the Hussein brothers. "Operation Anaconda" portrays a March 2, 2002, battle in which allied forces sought to crush remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the Shah-i-Kot Mountains near Gardez, Afghanistan. Yet another mission portrays the capture of Saddam Hussein.
Playing the missions gives you "a much more personal experience of what it was like to be there," explains Kuma CEO Keith Halper. "It is an emotional and powerful experience and, for a first-time player, even a frightening one." Halper says the product will give the average person a perspective and appreciation for the bravery of the men and women in the armed forces in a way no other media format has been able to provide.
Indeed, he wants us to see what our soldiers are going through, or, in the case of one of the more recent (and highly talked about) games, the "John Kerry Mission," what a soldier supposedly went through. The "John Kerry Mission" puts you in the boots of a young John Kerry as you lead three Swift boats into enemy fire in the Mekong Delta. Players have to accomplish various tasks in the game, which adheres closely to the battle's official chronology, based on the Navy's records from February 28,1969.
It is said that Kerry turned his Swift boat at a 90-degree angle, and headed straight toward his attackers, Halper says. "You can try what he did, or you can try zipping past. You can try different things [to win the game]."
Despite the diverse political opinions of his employees and the heated editorial meetings that often take place at the Kuma office, Halper says the company is not glorifying Kerry or taking sides when it comes to the war. "We are apolitical [in our game-making]," Halper says. "We just want to put the facts out there." And that includes providing the dissenting views of both John Kerry and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth--in the form of a video report that players can watch before they begin the mission. (The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth challenged Sen. Kerry's version of the circumstances surrounding this particular incident, which led to his being awarded the Silver Star.)
"I think the question is, 'Did he really deserve a Silver Star?'" Halper says. Players, who on average are 31-year-old males patient enough to play for three to four hours (which is how long some of the missions can last), can determine that for themselves.
The rest is up to Kuma, which has its own staff of researchers and a panel of military advisers, including Thomas Forrest of the Swift Boat Sailors Association; Sgt. Dan Snyder, formerly of the Marine Modeling and Simulation Management Office; and retired Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Wilkerson, who, in an interview, describes what the Navy's strategy was in Vietnam. In addition, three Marines, fresh from serving in Iraq, recently came in to Kuma headquarters to help with the production of the mission entitled "Freedom's Heroes: The Road to Baghdad." Kuma also has a relationship with the Associated Press and access to satellite photos to ensure that the online portrayal of events mirrors the actual event as closely as possible and, of course, that players get the sense of really "being there."
Expect to see the events you hear about on the news to appear on the site shortly after they occur. "It is much more typical for us to [model games] on events that happened two or three weeks ago," explains Halper. (That is about how long it takes for the simulation to become available on the website, though a few missions have required as long as eight weeks' production time.) "We had the 'Capture of Saddam' mission done in three days," Halper says. "It took a lot of caffeine though." And, he adds, "you can be sure that if and when we capture Osama bin Laden, Kuma will release the mission re-creation."
A free trial, which gives you 7 days of unlimited access to all 23 missions, can be downloaded from the site--provided you have a broadband Internet connection. Subscribers pay $10 a month thereafter to receive playable missions, video news shows, intelligence gathered from news sources around the world, and insight from a decorated team of military veterans. And missions are updated almost every day. Kuma Reality Games donates $1 of all paid online subscriptions to The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which assists the families of military members killed in duty.
Those who don't have access to the Internet can play too. As of this week, "Kuma\War: The War on Terror," a CD-based compilation of 15 missions from the online service, is in stores for $19.99.
Erin Montgomery is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.