‘JFK Reload’ worse than despicable

By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I can’t imagine what Edward Kennedy must feel.

I mean, I know it’s traumatic to see your brother shot in the head and killed. But what must it add to your pain to see that tragedy become a video game?

It happened last week. The game, available online, is called “JFK Reloaded,” and it was released to coincide with the 41st anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination. Download “JFK” at a cost of $9.99 and you find yourself on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. It is Nov. 22, 1963, your name is Lee Harvey Oswald, and John Kennedy is riding in the motorcade passing below your window. Your mission is to kill him.

Indeed, you are awarded points for accurately recreating the shots that, according to the official account, were fired at Kennedy that day. The Web site promises prizes of up to $100,000 for those who match Oswald. Points are deducted for mistakes, like shooting the first lady.

A spokesman for the president’s brother, Sen. Edward Kennedy, called the game “despicable.” Which is a statement of admirable restraint. Truth is, you could burn out your thesaurus on this thing and never scratch the surface. “JFK” is reprehensible, abominable, detestable, adjectives I would also apply to Traffic, the Glasgow, Scotland, company that is releasing it.

Of course, you might wonder why anyone is offended. It’s a fairer question than it seems on first blush. After all, video games have recreated other painful historical memories. They have, for instance, put us in the middle of the Civil War, aboard the Titanic and at the Normandy invasion. So why does this one feel different?

There are several reasons, I think. The Kennedy
assassination is closer to us because it is still well within living memory. No one alive saw the Civil War, and the number of those who have firsthand memory of Normandy or Titanic is small and dwindling. Also, “JFK Reloaded” puts players in the uncomfortable role of “committing” one of history’s most infamous crimes.

There is an awful intimacy to it, too, the claustrophobic closeness of sniper and victim. You are drawing a bead on a “real” man through a rifle sight — not indiscriminately shooting nameless German soldiers. But ultimately, what troubles me most is the simple question of what the president’s family must think. That may strike you as a strange thing to wonder. After all, Edward Kennedy and his kin are public figures, and as everybody knows, public figures are abstract — not real people with real feelings. Besides, after years of tell-all books and general bad taste (a band called Dead Kennedys, a book with autopsy photos), aren’t they inured to this kind of thing?

Yeah, maybe they are.

But then I think of my wife, whose brother was shot in the head and killed 11 years ago. And I try to imagine how she might feel about a video game recreating that moment. I suspect it would never be abstract to her. I tend to believe she could never be inured. I think she would be stunned and angry that someone could so callously trivialize tragedy.
For the record, Traffic would dispute that characterization. The company would also want you to know it doesn’t consider “JFK” a game. No, says Traffic, this is a “documentary” promoted “respectfully” with the noble aim of interesting young people in history and proving that Oswald was the lone gunman.

All of which adds up to a magnificent pile of equine excreta. How many documentaries have you ever seen that offered points?

So call this thing what it is: a tasteless entertainment for those who wouldn’t have their entertainment any other way. It is an artifact well suited to these reverence-challenged times, this attitudinal era when people simply do not know how to respect, how to venerate, how to stand silent in the face of awesome things. I’m sure a 9/11 video game is in production even as speak.

Somebody get me a new thesaurus, please.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com