Gamers tend to have a love-hate relationship with that pesky outside world: “reality.” We reap benefits like jobs (where we earn money to buy videogames), utilities (where we get electricity to run our videogames), and roads (on which the pizza delivery guy drives, so we don’t have to get up from our …. well, you get the picture). But now and then the outside world takes notice of our hobby and its proclivity toward guns, explosions and death as the means of determining victory, and it makes them nervous.
When a particularly violent or risqué game comes out, the public reaction is cliché. People see the word “game” and think “toy,” which makes them “think of the children.” These aggrieved parents contact the government, calling for regulation, bans and fines against any game they feel is too violent or explicit for their young ones. Gamers respond by going on the internet and shouting about free speech and art, decrying the “tyranny of the majority.” In short, both sides overreact. Even when we try to sit down and talk to each other instead of about each other, no progress seems to be made. Perhaps that’s because the debate is poorly framed. The real problem is that not all games are toys – though they can be. Nor are all games art – though they can be that, as well. But all games are a medium.
Consider the case of The Night of Bush Capturing: A Virtual Jihadi, a game mod created by Iraqi-born American artist Wafaa Bilal to emphasize the plight of Iraqi civilians during the American invasion and occupation. The player’s avatar is Bilal himself. In the game, as in real life, Bilal’s brother, an Iraqi civilian, becomes “collateral damage” in an American airstrike. Departing from reality, virtual Bilal is so overcome by grief that he joins Al-Qaeda, trains as a suicide bomber and works his way past American forces to kill President Bush.
Virtual Jihadi presents an excellent opportunity for all sides to examine the new distinction of videogames as a medium. In this case, the devil’s in the details: Virtual Jihadi is Bilal’s hack of an Al-Qaeda skin of the American-made shooter Quest for Saddam. Quest for Saddam gives players the opportunity to shoot up a bunch of Saddam body doubles until reaching the real deal and killing him in the name of truth, justice and apple pie. The Al-Qaeda version, The Night of Bush Capturing, not to be confused with Bilal’s own game, gives you the exact same gameplay but replaces Saddam with Bush look-alikes for targets.
If the concept of the game makes you uncomfortable, don’t worry – it should. In his statement about the piece, Bilal writes: “Because we inhabit a comfort zone far from the trauma of [the] conflict zone, we Americans have become desensitized to the violence of war.” Iraqis have no comfort zone where they can be away from the violence. Virtual Jihadi turns the tables and makes Americans into the vulnerable ones. And since videogames are an interactive medium, the game is even more disquieting than simply watching American soldiers fall; instead, you’re the one gunning them down.
Virtual Jihadi recently made headlines when New York officials shut down Bilal’s developer display along with the hosting building, purportedly for building code violations. The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Bilal, arguing that this exercise of government authority was really retaliation against Bilal and violated his freedom of speech. Having been arrested multiple times by the Hussein regime for his art displays in Iraq, Bilal is no stranger to being silenced by authority.
The straightforward NYCLU complaint clearly spells out the details of the First Amendment-based suit. It explains how Bilal’s piece was to be hosted by the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, New York. Before the opening of the exhibit, Robert Mirch, a commissioner for the city, posted a press release from his city office saying, “It is completely inappropriate for any organization in Troy to stage an exhibit that features a portrayal of a suicide bomber sent to kill the President. [They] should cancel this exhibit immediately.” After comparing the game to 9/11 on a local radio station, Mirch organized and participated in a protest outside the opening of the exhibit. The next day, Mirch closed down the building, citing building code violations.
Complicating matters, the Sanctuary for Independent Media inherited these violations from the church that had previously owned the building, and the Sanctuary had received permission from the city to operate without fixing these violations until other construction had been completed. Lead Counsel for the developer Cornelius Murray said, “This case is a textbook example of an abuse of authority by a public official to suppress speech with which he disagrees.”
Adding insult to injury is the reason that Bilal was displaying his work at the Sanctuary in the first place. The original hosting institution had shut down the same exhibit earlier in the year. He had been invited to be a guest professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but once Virtual Jihadi went on display, the exhibit was closed, the art building was locked down, and Bilal was asked to leave. In a town-hall style meeting between students and administrators to discuss the piece, students asked for a way they could regain faith in the school’s dedication to freedom of expression. The college president, Shirley Ann Jackson, said they should not have lost faith because the school hadn’t done anything wrong. She went on to defend her position by stating she wouldn’t allow a safe haven for child pornography, either.
Seeking sanctuary for his controversial piece, Bilal installed his exhibit at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, only to be shut down again in less than twenty-four hours. Frustrated at the whole affair, Bilal wondered why so many people were upset by his work if the CIA and FBI were uninterested in him. (The FBI reportedly made inquiries into Bilal’s activities when they first learned of this piece, which they seem to have dropped upon learning the details of it.)
During the single night the exhibit was open, Bilal expressed his wish that the sort of censorship that happened in Iraq would not happen in “this beautiful country.” It took a while, but Bilal got his wish: in an ending more frequent in storytelling than real life, Virtual Jihadi was allowed to re-open after six weeks, following an outpouring of community support.
Irrespective of any possible connection between videogame and real life violence, Bilal is concerned that videogames teach us something more insidious: hatred. “[V]ideo games are one of the technologies being used to foster and teach hate. I am especially concerned by the ones created by the US military, which are intended to brainwash and influence young minds … the U.S. Army’s own free on-line game is equal to the Night of Bush Capturing in its propaganda motives.”
Many people may feel there is a world of difference between America’s Army and Night of the Bush Capturing but as a man who has lived on both sides of the border, Bilal sees them as moral equals. Bilal uses his art to prompt us to examine our assumptions and whether or not we eventually end up agreeing with him, the introspection makes our lives richer. Speaking after his RPI exhibit was shut down, he said, “It’s an art show that is trying to solicit a conversation among people. And when you shut it down, you say you don’t have any right to say your point of view.”
Virtual Jihad is a game where it’s easy to see the delineations between the medium (a first-person shooter), the content (shooting American soldiers and assassinating Bush) and the speech (racist generalizations are dangerous). The game uses the videogame medium as a chance to explore what would drive someone to become a suicide bomber (the content). By taking the player through the grief of the senseless death of a family member, Bilal asks the player to consider – not approve, but consider – where these bombers are coming from (the speech). It encourages players to consider that if The Night of Bush Capturing is a mindless recruiting tool for racist violence, Quest for Saddam may be as well.
Virtual Jihadi asks many important questions that gamers must inevitably face as the medium is adapted for use in telling a wider range of stories. We have come to terms with stories of sex and violence sharing the same shelf space with games of adventure and racing. Can we deal with games that feature the assassination of a sitting president, however unpopular? Can we deal with games that ask us to question the government, or even other games? Can we deal with games with which we disagree?
Kate McKiernan is a games analyst, photographer, and webmaster for Pixelsocks.com. In her spare time, she enjoys being a biology graduate student at San Diego State University.