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A Dallas, Texas, of the Mind

A new computer game lets players compete to reenact the assassination of President Kennedy—from the vantage point of Lee Harvey Oswald.

I spent my entire weekend killing President Kennedy. And, quite frankly, I’m only getting started.

I purchased JFK Reloaded, the controversial computer game released last week on the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, which transports you to Dallas 41 years ago and puts Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle in your hands. The game does not, however, give you the opportunity to change history—it challenges you to repeat it, and precisely. To suggest there is anything commemorative about JFK Reloaded—that the game is somehow memorializing one of the darkest moments in American history—would be sheer naiveté. So what is it, really?

Whatever the answer, I simply can’t bring myself to put the rifle down, and with good reason: Traffic, the Glasgow-based software company that created the game, has promised $100,000 to the first assassin in cyberspace who can match Oswald’s shots—to the letter—and earn a perfect score of 1,000 points. And let’s face facts here: $100,000 would be a splendid payoff for a game that costs just $9.99. Hey, that’s more than Oswald got—at least according to Oliver Stone.

But don’t kid yourself: 1,000 points is no easy feat. I don’t want to brag, but I’ve already murdered the president about 80 times, and he’s escaped with his life in only a few instances—bullet-riddled for sure, but ready and able, after several months of intense rehabilitation, that is, to take on the Soviets, or a starlet perhaps, in yet another bout of Cold War madness.

Still, despite all the time I’ve logged in Oswald’s makeshift assassin’s nest, my best score is a 608. And on most grading scales that’s a D-, friends. It’s barely passing, and—in these days of rampant grade inflation—that’s a positively hideous result.

I can do better. I’m sure of it.

 

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JFK Reloaded begins on a note of feigned solemnity. As a band plays a mournful dirge in the background, the game coolly informs you that you’re in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. It’s 12:30 p.m., the weather is fine, you’re perched in a secluded corner of the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, and, oh yeah, you’re holding a rifle.

Yes, this is a tasteless conceit—but the graphics are anything but. The colonnades and reflecting pools of Dealey Plaza are breathtaking, the passengers and vehicles in the motorcade superbly rendered—you can even catch a glimpse of LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson in one of the limos—and the game’s sense of physics is downright stultifying. When you miss your target and hit the side of the president’s limousine, the bullet ricochets off into the distance. Fragments lodge into the limousine’s upholstery, windshields splinter and crack, bullets glance off the pavement and into the bodies of unlucky Secret Service agents and motorcycle cops.

JFK Reloaded bills itself as a referendum of sorts on the Warren Commission—yet it proves the lone-gunman theory beyond a shadow of a doubt. To maximize your score, you must fire three bullets at the limousine as it lumbers along Elm Street toward the triple overpass and, just beyond, to the relative safety of the Stemmons Freeway. But here’s the catch: The Warren Commission report tells us that the first bullet misses its target, the second passes through JFK’s neck and into Texas Governor John Connally’s right shoulder, and the third obliterates the president’s skull. While it’s not too difficult to assassinate the president from the vantage point of the sixth-floor window, it’s another thing altogether to murder him and wound Connally in precisely the same fashion as Oswald did.

And, by the way, in JFK Reloaded there’s nothing magic at all about the so-called “magic bullet” of Warren Commission fame. It’s nearly impossible not to fire a shot that doesn’t pass through the president and into the body of Governor Connally, who rode directly in front of JFK, Stetson in hand, in the limousine. If JFK Reloaded proves nothing else, it demonstrates how utterly amazing it is that Connally didn’t perish that day along with the president. In my assassin’s quest, I’ve offed the governor a dozen times without even trying. On that rarest of occasions, his big white Stetson will float off into the wild blue yonder as he slumps in the seat beside his wife, Nellie.

At the conclusion of each round—of your latest assassination attempt, that is—the game provides you with a detailed ballistics report. With a mouse click here and mouse click there, you can rotate the limousine and inspect the paths of your bullets. Afterward, you can review a lengthy forensic analysis of your attack that contains a casualty score summary, as well as statistics regarding each bullet’s timing and trajectory. You missed JFK and wounded Jackie instead? Too bad. That’s a 50-point deduction right there. You accidentally shot the governor in his left upper arm? Wrong. That’ll cost you another 25 points. Now get back in there and try again!




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All of this has an effect on your senses—as always happens when the banality of repeated experience sets in. As you continue playing the game—as one iteration transforms into another—you become as desensitized as any moviegoer watching Natural Born Killers for the umpteenth time. Like New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as he coldly manipulated amateur filmmaker Abraham Zapruder’s film of the assassination in a Louisiana courtroom—”back and to the left, back and to the left, back and to the left”—you assume the steely guise and emotionless demeanor of a logician. The performative nature of presidential assassination transmogrifies into the act of gaming itself. Despite the crisp quality of the graphics, just as the occupants in the limousine resemble JFK and the first lady, they very quickly seem as tangible and human as Mario and Ms. Pac-Man.

And as commonplace so often follows controversy in the world of entertainment, JFK Reloaded is most likely the harbinger of games to come. The possibilities are endless. Just think about it: confronting Caesar on the Ides of March. Creeping up behind Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Slaughtering the Romanovs—yes, Anastasia, too—in the basement of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. Mooring the Hindenburg—or at least trying to moor the hydrogen-filled zeppelin—in Lakehurst, N.J. Or, my favorite, steering the Titanic into the iceberg at just the right angle to peel open the first six watertight compartments and flood the ship into oblivion. All historical subjects, and tragedies—like the JFK assassination—with which countless followers have been obsessed for decades. Is any of this so unimaginable?

All of which begs the question: Forty years from now will we have a computer game that awards points—and maybe even a cash prize—to whomever can most accurately pilot a jet into the World Trade Center? With JFK Reloaded—as with possibly every other game in the history of computers—our only limit is the imagination. Whether we choose to limit it—and why—is an entirely different matter.
 

Ken Womack is Professor of English at Penn State University’s Altoona College. He is the author of Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles. More by Ken Womack