JFK Reloaded is just plain creepy.

The art of play.
Nov. 22 2004 6:34 PM

A View to a Kill

JFK Reloaded is just plain creepy.

Screenshot from JFK Reloaded

As I watch the limo creep down Dealey Plaza, I put my finger on the trigger and peer down my rifle's telescope. I can see my target in the cross hairs. It's Nov. 22, 1963. I'm trying to kill the president.

The game I'm playing, JFK Reloaded, was released today by the Scottish company Traffic, on the 41st anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Not surprisingly, it provoked a backlash before anyone ever played it. "It's despicable. There's really no further comment," said a spokesman for Ted Kennedy.

On the surface, the game certainly seems like a loathsome piece of opportunism. The designers, though, claim the game's intent is to educate. The stated goal of JFK Reloaded is to debunk assassination conspiracy theories by buttressing the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and fired only three bullets. So, the game places you in the precise place where Oswald stood—the sixth-floor window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository—and challenges you to re-create his three shots. One shot missed the car entirely; another hit JFK in the neck; and a third hit the president's head, causing what the commission called "a massive and fatal wound." The closer you get to matching those three trajectories, the closer you get to a perfect score of 1,000. (The game designers are also offering a cash prize to the player who gets the highest score.) You can replay the scene as many times as you'd like.

On its face, this is an interesting concept. If people still don't believe that Oswald acted alone, why not create a realistic 3-D simulation of the event to show it could have worked that way? This is what video games are uniquely suited to do—set up a system and let people mess around in it so they can discover what's possible and what's impossible. That's part of the pleasure of everything from the Sims  to Super Mario 64.

After playing JFK Reloaded for a couple of hours, I have to give Traffic credit for the game's unbelievably precise physics. Every bullet bounces around with a super-realistic trajectory, behaving in the incredibly complicated way that bullets do. Sometimes I'd hit the back of the limo and the bullet would careen forward, smashing the glass; other times it would embed itself in the metal. After each round, the game lets you view the scene in a dozen different ways, including the classic Zapruder film angle or even from the perspective of a camera mounted on the limo. Then you get a 3-D model of the limo that you can rotate however you want, with the bullet trajectories traced in freeze-frame. As a physics simulation, it's remarkable.

But as an experience? It's nauseating.

When I play blood-soaked shoot-'em-up games, the vamped-up violence doesn't really bother me—the more cartoonish the action, the fewer consequences the game seems to have. Even war games where you're theoretically fighting a real enemy—like German or American or Japanese armies—don't really feel personal. But JFK Reloaded is different. When you peer through the rifle scope, the faces of JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy (and Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife Nellie) are completely recognizable. These are real people who still have immediate living relatives—or, in the case of Nellie Connally, are still alive. While the game's ostensible purpose is simply to re-kill Kennedy as accurately as possible, you can perform any number of alternative scenarios. Shoot the driver first, and the motorcade comes to a halt, allowing you to pick off anyone you want. Or sometimes the driver dies with his foot on the accelerator, driving the car off the road and into a lamppost. You can, if you wish, kill Jackie instead.

When I finally managed to kill JFK and watched his head blow open while he flopped forward like a rag doll, I was genuinely horrified. The game wants you to think about what's happening as a mere physics experiment, but you can't, nor would you want to. Because it's focused solely on the narrow question of whether you can replicate Oswald's shots, it doesn't try to achieve the sort of catharsis that is supposed to come from wrenching art. When the ballistics reports told me, for example, that one of my shots hit JFK in the right shoulder, exited his chest, bounced off his right fingers, and ricocheted through the limo until it hit Connally in the shin, I wasn't really thinking about how if I just aimed a little higher, then I could've gotten closer to 1,000 points.

After about an hour, I got my score up to 430. I was pretty good at the game, but I didn't feel like I'd won anything.

Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. He is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.