A crosshair on a car.
Traffic Games

The Story Behind ‘JFK Reloaded’, One of Gaming’s Weirdest Controversies

"You can espouse these crazy conspiracy theories and everyone’s fine, but if someone builds a recreation in software? Nope.

“As I watch the limo creep down Dealey Plaza, I put my finger on the trigger and peer down my rifle’s telescope,” reads a 2004 story in Slate. “I can see my target in the crosshairs. It’s Nov. 22, 1963. I’m trying to kill the President.”

The writer was not indulging a violent personal fantasy or an imagined time travel exercise. He was playing JFK Reloaded, a video game from Scottish developer Traffic Games, which promised something that was both a gory first-person shooter and a serious historical simulation.


Released on the 41st anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the “docu-game” allowed players to recreate Lee Harvey Oswald’s three gunshots from the window of the Book Depository in Dallas and would ultimately rate them on how closely their actions and movements cohered with the official story as laid out in the Warren Commission’s report and famously captured in the Zapruder film.

To maximise their score, the player’s first shot had to miss its target entirely, the second had to pass through Kennedy’s neck and strike Texas Governor John Connally in the chest, and the third had to fatally wound the President’s head. Any deviation from the official record of events — like by shooting First Lady Jackie Kennedy, or one of the other cars in the motorcade — would incur a points penalty.

It’s not entirely as self-serious as it sounds. It’s a video game, after all.

JFK Reloaded offered the ability to tweak the in-game physics to a cartoonish degree, presenting the tantalising opportunity to turn the sombre events of November 22 into bloody slapstick comedy, complete with a “Chaos Meter” tracking how comically ahistorical the simulation was getting.

The JFK car

Traffic Games

The year 2004 marked a particularly heated moment for gaming as it continued its long march into the cultural mainstream.

A moral panic about the effects of video game violence was playing out in the media and legislative bodies around the world. Gamers found their villains in figures like (now disbarred) lawyer Jack Thompson, who sought to use the courts and a canny understanding of news media to discipline the creators of violent games like Grand Theft Auto.


So Traffic Games could not have picked a worse — or better, depending on your perspective — time to release a game inviting would-be historians to gleefully splatter the brains of a beloved former president on the dashboard of a Lincoln Continental. The condemnation was swift. A spokesperson for Senator Ted Kennedy, brother to the slain President, described it as “despicable”. Rejecting the game’s value as an educational tool, an organisation dedicated to safety in children’s media said "the only lesson it teaches is how to be an assassin”. “A Sure-to-Be-Controversial Game Fulfills That Expectation Fully,” read the achingly New York Times headline.

The company did itself no favours in preventing the inevitable outrage. It launched a competition to promote the game where the person who came closest to simulating Lee Harvey Oswald’s actions on that fateful day would win $100,000 — that is, as long as the game actually made that much money. (A gamer from Paris named “Major_Koenig eventually took home $14,000 for his services to historical reconstruction.)

For Traffic Games founder and JFK Reloaded developer Kirk Ewing, the intense backlash was disorienting.

“I didn't quite realise the genuine depth of emotion that people in America have towards JFK,” Ewing told VICE. “But this is how it works, isn't it? People use things like JFK Reloaded to buy into their own emotional response to the actual event.”


Traffic Games

With a background working on documentaries for Channel 4 in the UK, Ewing entered Dundee’s bustling games industry with a company named VIS Entertainment. He designed a game for PC and consoles, State of Emergency, which depicted an economically exhausted America under the thumb of an authoritarian megacorp named the American Trade Organisation. Players took the role of heavily-armed rioters seeking to overthrow their corporate overlords and restore freedom to the country.

To this day, fans still ask him for a version that gives players the simple pleasure of taking a shot from the knoll.

State of Emergency, published by Rockstar Games, gave Ewing his first taste of controversy. During the development of the game, anti-globalisation protests in Seattle during a 1999 World Trade Organisation ministerial conference turned violent. “The game ended up being described as if we were inspired by the riots, even though we were two years into development at that stage,” Ewing said.

The experience of developing State of Emergency, aside from being a crash course in manufactured controversy, gave Ewing ideas on how history, politics and current affairs “could be woven into the idea of a video game”. 

The games industry was moving that way anyway.

“There was a kind of explosion, a sort of liberation we all had at the time,” Ewing said. “We can make games for adults, we can make games with adult themes. We can make these new types of entertainment that aren’t based on mushrooms or orcs.”


After a stint in Los Angeles working for a Hollywood talent agency, where he was “for some bizarre reason” entrusted by Rockstar to sell the film rights to Grand Theft Auto, Ewing returned to Scotland with his “tail between his legs”, looking for a new challenge.

Traffic started as a consulting company, working with Sony and other studios on their games and projects. Alongside the studio behind Carmageddon, Ewing became enamoured by the game engine that powered the controversial vehicular combat franchise. “I'm driven by technology first and foremost,” he said. ‘So when I see a bit of technology, I'm trying to think of an idea.”

His first thought for a docu-game was markedly less controversial.

“My very first idea was, well, maybe we recreate the moon landing — let's plant the flag, maybe you can hit the golf ball on the moon, maybe you can bounce around.” But other concepts quickly emerged as the team came to realise the engine offered an excellent physics system, including sophisticated ballistics and wind simulation.

Of course, there’s some daylight between “a solid bullet physics engine” and “killing the 35th President of the United States”. But Ewing says the presidential assassination satisfied two important criteria for him. The first was that it was a singular moment in time that could be explored over and over again. Thanks to repeated investigations, there is no shortage of raw data on JFK’s assassination. The developers had the exact dimensions of Dealey Plaza and the motorcade, the wind speed on the day, the precise positioning of the people involved and the specifications of the rifle — including the speed and arc of fired bullets.


The second criteria hearkens back to his earlier career as a documentarian. “I’m quite anti-conspiracy, and back then I was vehemently anti-conspiratorial,” he said. “So the idea that I could make something that would somehow put a feather up the butt of the conspiracy theories was very appealing to me.”

As a result, there’s not a lot to love in JFK Reloaded for fans of the grassy knoll theory – or any of the other alternatives endlessly debated to this day. The game is slavish in its adherence to the findings of the Warren Commission, and Ewing believes it helps vindicate the report’s core thesis that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman.

“In my mind, all it did was show that Oswald went to the Book Depository, he knew how to fire the rifle and he shot JFK,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how he was motivated to get there. I’m not saying there wasn’t some shadowy conspiracy behind that. But it was completely plausible he did it alone — there’s no doubt in my mind.”

Oliver Stone’s vehemently anti-Warren Commission film JFK won two Oscars, and here he was “being dragged out onto the streets” for a game that was, in his view, more respectful of the establishment narrative.

It was this commitment to the historical record, Ewing believes, that doomed the game in the general public’s eye. Fans still ask him for a version that gives players the simple pleasure of taking a shot from the knoll. “I'm sure that, if I had done that, I probably wouldn't have gotten in as much trouble. If we’d created it as a sort of fantasy experience, people would have accepted it more.”


But, as it stands, he did get in that much trouble, despite his noble effort to — as he puts it — “reinvigorate history for the benefit of a new generation”. As the game launched, Ewing sought the help of Rockstar’s favoured crisis PR operative, who he insists “shall remain nameless”. 

“This guy lives out in the country, and he used to call me from his deck looking out over his cow fields and he’d fire off his gun every now and again. He said to me, ‘This is how it’s going to work. I’m going to get you an interview in New York. And if the interview goes well, I’ll have you on The Today Show on Wednesday. If it doesn’t work, nothing will happen and that will be that — we’ll all move on.’”

The article, published in Newsweek, achieved its goal. Ewing was being interviewed by Matt Lauer on The Today Show by Wednesday.

Ahead of a performance by Aerosmith — with bandanna-wearing diehards baying for blood against the studio window outside — he was duly excoriated by the host and other guests. “They immediately brought a senator on to call me a scumbag,” Ewing said. “I could sense the crowd behind me banging on the glass like, ‘This guy killed JFK!’” 

Soon, he learned JFK Reloaded was being discussed in the US Congress, in no small part thanks to the effort of Senator for Connecticut and one time vice-presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman, who had positioned himself as an enemy of violent video games. "I hope somebody in a prosecutor's office will take a look at this," Lieberman was quoted as saying.


An appearance on Fox News in which Ewing was “fucking humiliated” by conservative firebrand Bill O’Reilly followed, along with a series of similarly dispiriting radio appearances. He eventually turned down an appearance on The Daily Show, not knowing who Jon Stewart was. His email inbox was flooded with abuse and lamentations from distraught Americans, including a message from a pastor describing him as “today's greatest purveyor of electronic wickedness”. (“That’s a t-shirt right there,” he adds.)

Ewing found the experience surreal. JFK Reloaded, a video game released by a team of developers, had turned into himself briefly becoming media enemy number one. Sitting for lunch that week at an Italian restaurant in New York with Rockstar president and Grand Theft Auto co-creator Sam Houser, it felt like a peaceful eye of the storm for two of the most controversial guys in video games at that time.

“I don’t know if you know anything about Sam, but he is just an extraordinary individual. He’s like, ‘Do you want the osso buco? People hate you, don’t they? They fucking hate you, don’t they? I feel good, because they fucking hate you.’”

But the cream of the crop as far as backlash went was an official letter of condemnation from the Massachusetts House of Representatives, signed by Ted Kennedy. At this point of the interview, Ewing stood up to read from the letter, which he has framed above his desk and describes as his “résumé”.


Speaking the officious, parliamentary language of the declaration with requisite pomp, he read, “Whereas the Scottish-based firm Traffic released the video game sensationalising the events in Dallas by allowing players to recreate the assassination. Whereas the game is designed to have players assume the persona of Lee Harvey Oswald. Whereas the makers of the game encourage players to be as efficient and accurate as possible. Whereas the game fee established by the so-called entrepreneurs represents a profit-making scheme at the expense of trivialising the tragic death of our 35th President.”

It’s here that Ewing gets mildly annoyed, despite the obvious pride at having caused so much of a stir with his little game. Oliver Stone’s vehemently anti-Warren Commission film JFK won two Oscars, and here he was “being dragged out onto the streets” for a game that was, in his view, more respectful of the establishment narrative. “They choose what is canon and acceptable. You can espouse these crazy fucking conspiracy theories and everyone’s fine, but if someone builds a recreation in software? Nope.”

It wasn’t all negative. Aside from committed fans of the game — some of whom unsuccessfully pleaded with Ewing to make a Princess Diana followup where they could “play the motorcycle outriders” — one particular piece of correspondence remains a source of amusement. It’s a letter from the head of the Royal Armouries in London, who told him they had a Mannlicher–Carcano rifle in the collection, and complimented him on the ballistics simulation. “So I’m actually endorsed by the Queen of England,” Ewing added.

Ewing, who has worked at an augmented reality company for a decade now, sees the current fascination with the metaverse as a partial vindication of what JFK Reloaded set out to do. Now everyone is talking about immersive virtual experiences as a tool for education and entertainment. Strip away the controversy, and that’s what he intended with his visceral exploration of the events in Dallas in 1963.

“I think that JFK, in my mind, does have its place in video gaming history,” he said. “Because it did make the suggestion that you could have real events and real moments to delve back into.”

“And I guess that I think that's probably going to become a more popular function as we move forward in the metaverse, and people look for ways to explore history or explore time in different ways.”

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