You know the story: You’re playing a couple of rounds of your favorite online shooter to blow off some steam after work when you’re suddenly accosted by a bunch of peace-loving hippies. They’re spouting things about friendship and love, spraying symbols of armistice on the map walls and tossing flashbangs at anyone with the gall to fire on their opponents. All you’re trying to do is shoot your mates in the face, so why won’t they let you?
They’re part of a community protesting the virtual warfare in Counter-Strike the same way real-world protesters would – by generally making nuisances of themselves. The movement began when Anne-Marie Schleiner, an activist and digital media artist, noticed a disturbing trend following 9/11: Modders were beginning to give their creations an anti-Arab slant. Games like Quake and Unreal were hotbeds for the modding community at the time, and some users were modding with what Schleiner saw as malicious intent.
Schleiner describes seeing a mod during a conference in October of 2001 where players were encouraged to enter a grocery store and kill the Arabic owner. Concerned about the anti-Arab sentiment furthered by some modders, she decided to team up with fellow artist Joan Leandre, who was also at the conference, to do something about it.
Velvet-Strike was born as a way for players to download Counter-Strike sprays (custom images that players can paste onto in-game surfaces) with anti-war themes. The theory was that if players saw sprays such as “Hostages of Military Fantasy” or children’s paintings on the walls, it might make one or two people think about what they were doing. In time, Velvet-Strike became part of a larger movement of peacenik players concerned by the level of realistic violence the game portrayed.
Following Velvet-Strike‘s lead, other activist players joined the fray. They began to cook up “intervention recipes” (a sort of protester action plan), including getting 14 like-minded people to stand in a low-lying area to form a heart. They would then spam the chat with the message “Love and Peace” and hold the position so other players could see it from higher ground. Other ideas included coaxing players into a transport ship in Tribes 2, then flying in the opposite direction of the enemy base, all the while telling players they were taking a nice, scenic tour of the area.
Schleiner says this type of protest is inevitable as real-world protests are becoming less and less prevalent. “Online games are a kind of public space that, especially in places like the United States, where suburbia has replaced live city public gathering spaces, can be a space of access and intervention, and a way to call attention to issues, even if the attention is initially hostile,” she says.
When players intrude on the gameplay experience of fellow gamers to make a political point, the initial response can sometimes be vitriolic. Schleiner describes being quite perturbed at some of the responses from mostly young male players, but says she’s learned to see the lighter side of these interactions.
“At first I was quite upset by them, but my collaborator Brody Condon helped me see the humor in them which inspired me to post some of these emails publicly. I really like the one telling me to ‘go play with my Barbie.’ I also think the ‘Bush is just a good guy’ one is classic,” she says.
It’s easy to understand why many players would be upset. In their view, activists ruin their escapism, turning what is meant to be fun into political football by bringing the problems of real life into an unreal setting. In-game activists acknowledge their work is open to criticism, but the way they see it, the game space is already political – they’re just bringing their side of the story.
Conceptual artist Joseph DeLappe made headlines worldwide when he decided to use America’s Army as a space to protest the war in Iraq. Disgusted with what he saw as less of a game and more of a recruiting tool, DeLappe sought to remind players of the real-world consequences of the war in Iraq by posting the names of the fallen into the game’s chat system using the screen name dead-in-iraq. “This piece was the first of what became a series of critical interventions in computer games – considering these online spaces as a new type of public space,” he says.
Players weren’t very receptive to DeLappe’s message. They criticized him for using the names of the fallen to illustrate a political point, claiming it was disrespectful to their memory. As with Schleiner, it was something DeLappe grappled with.
“I’ve struggled with this issue, but have come to realize, in a way through my contrarian actions, that to not do what I have done would be to dishonor these dead,” he says.
DeLappe says that thanks to a low level of gore, players as young as 13 can freely play America’s Army, which could have a negative impact on their understanding of war. He views his actions as a reminder to players in a sanitized environment that war has deadlier consequence than a Game Over screen.
“There has been a privatization of memory and grief in our country that has been a conscious, politically motivated tact promulgated by the Defense Department largely in reaction to the reportage on the Vietnam War,” DeLappe says. “Through this work, I am symbolically taking responsibility, even ownership, of these deaths – we as tax-paying citizens are intrinsically connected to these deaths and the deaths of the many thousands of civilians in Iraq.”
Schleiner and DeLappe may have found an arena ripe for political demonstrations and commentary, but surprisingly, neither of them are fundamentally against videogame violence. “I am more concerned with what starts to happen when games tell players things about how the world works and players start to take the operations of in-game simulations as givens in the real world,” Schleiner says.
DeLappe views his in-game activism as a way to bring moral realism into a medium that is typically more interested in visual realism. “Consider my actions as a type of ‘counter spectacle,’ or that I am simply fulfilling the missing role in the game of being a conscientious objector,” he says. “Maybe what I am doing is in fact a public service, an unauthorized step towards realism in the game.”
But what about the players who just like to blow off a little steam? Aren’t they entitled to play online without being reminded of the horrors of real-life conflict? As more people start to game online, developers are becoming more conscious of providing a streamlined experience for everyone, which could lead to less tolerance for political griefing. “Computer gaming has been a bit of a new frontier that will undoubtedly see greater levels of control in the years to come,” DeLappe says.
Schleiner sees the next political battleground in open-world sandbox games. “I do predict further struggles between developers of online games that are highly managed and their players, not just about in-game design concerns,” she says. “Online sandbox games like Second Life are much more amenable to political activism than World of Warcraft.”
But while both Schleiner and DeLappe agree it will become harder to introduce a political agenda into online games, that doesn’t mean they’re not optimistic for the future of new media activism. There are more people playing online games every day, DeLappe says, and where there is an audience, there will be people with a message.
“As an artist and activist I suspect there will be many opportunities to do my part to question, expose and redefine these experiences in the future.”
James McGrath is a freelance journalist from Perth, Australia. He often doesn’t kill anyone in Counter-Strike, but it’s not a political thing.