I’m working on a thesis chapter about those Flash games that popped up after September 11, the ones where you maim Bin Laden or attempt to rescue the WTC from terrorists. I presented a short piece on this in October 2001 (my weblog posts in mid-October discuss it) I’m interested in how they use interactivity to make an argument. In most of the games, the argument is extremely crude – remember the bloodlust and the anger right after the attacks on the WTC? So there are dozens and dozens of games where the sole point is to beat the shit out of Bin Laden. Newgrounds has a long list.

Other games are more ambiguous. New York Defender is a simple game where you shoot down planes before they crash into the towers. The objective is to “Utilisez votre souris pour combattre le sentiment d’impuissance.” (Use your mouse to combat the feeling of powerlessness.) This game has a strong ironical force, though, and demonstrates the futility of the exercise, as did its possible ancestor Missile Command (1980) Though you may shoot down some planes, more and more and more will come, and the ending is always your complete annihilation. The game was criticised for being insensitive when it first arrived, in part because of this critique. Gonzalo Frasca, who wrote his MA thesis on political games, designed his own game in response to these others: Kabul Kaboom! It combines images from Guernica and CNN, situating the player as a Afghan woman trying to catch the hamburgers thrown down among the bombs. At the same time, skins were created for Quake, The Sims and other games so you could INSERT Bin Laden, Bush and other characters into your game – and frag em.

As the political situation has changed, other games have appeared. When people complained at the US governments’ violation of the human rights of prisoners suspected of terrorism, Al Quaidamon was released where you could play with your own pet desktop terrorist prisoner and see how the game reacted when you treated him well or poorly. The same interactive rhetoric was used for an more or less opposing viewpoint in Ascroft Online 1.0. Both these games are simulations where your actions affect a rating scale. In Ascroft Online the ratings are from Republican to Barbra Streisand, with Book reader as the penultimate horror. In Al Quaidamon it’s the treatment rather than you which is rated, from Human Rights Activisists Approval to Hitler’s Approval, of course with loaded in between possibilities.

12 thoughts on “political games

  1. Hanne-Lovise

    I have also been looking at examples of games that restrict their “openess” to make arguments (I am writing about simulation modeling of real life problems seen as possible “interactive documentaries” ).
    Here is a cute one: make your own bush speech (not really a game, but to play with): http://www.lemonbovril.co.uk/bushspeech/index.html
    You put together different words and sounds to make a Bush speech that can be played afterwards. The interactivity is restricted to picking from a menu with a limited amount of words and expressions. This makes it impossible to make a consistent intelligent speech – and this is, of course, the point.
    PS. I guess you¥ve read Gonzalo Frasca¥s “Ephemeral games: Is it barbaric to design videogames after Auschwitz?” (available on http://www.ludology.org )? He has some interesting points.

  2. Jill

    Oh, yes, exactly, Hanne-Lovise: they restrict their openness. In Gulf War 2 (http://idleworm.com/nws/2002/11/iraq2.shtml) for instance there is a promise of interactivity but it’s not there – I think that’s where the great effect of these games/simulations is, the promise of freedom that is then curtailed. The Bush speech example’s great! You and I should get together and discuss this stuff some more, Hanne-Lovise!

    And yes, I’ve read Gonzalo’s thesis, and yes, it is good. 🙂

  3. H-L

    Looking forward to read your chapter when the thesis is ready! (and the rest of the thesis as well, of course 🙂

  4. Eszter

    For those interested in games and politics, I highly recommend the following article written in 1994 by Paul Starr on the Seductions of Sim, Policy as a Simulation Game:

  5. Jill

    Thanks Eszther! I’ve just skimmed the article but it’s clearly relevant – and voices exactly the kind of concerns I’ve had when playing the Sims (it’s SO annoying you can’t mix residences with shops for instance, and so clearly ideological) but I’d not thought it through in such detail.

  6. christian

    I heard a speech that Gonzalo Frasca made before X-mas, it was very good. What I wonder is that since using humour/cartoons to criticise is not something new. Do u think, and if so, what make this games have more power than the classic comic? Is it the same mechanism that make some people think that playing GTA3 is more damaging than just seeing an action movie?

  7. Jill

    I’m not sure that these flash games DO have more power than traditional comics. And I agree, Christian, that they have a lot in common with satirical/political comics. Some people do clearly think that simulations are more dangerous – Gonzalo Frasca noted that right after September 11.

    — But what is the difference between representing reality -through videotapes of planes smashing buildings- and simulating it ?through, say, Microsoft Flight Simulator. Unlike the first, simulation is a first person experience ?at least for the player. Magical thinking makes us believe that if we mimic the real situation, even if it is in a make-believe mode, we are somehow performing it again. —

    Anyway, I’m not going to try to argue that these games work BETTER than comics in convincing the audience – I’m not sure they do – but I’m going to try and look at what they, specifically, do do. I think ,)

  8. Judy

    You have a pretty nice blog. English is not my native language but it was please to read your site. From Russia with love :)Sincerely yours..

  9. New Media Theory

    Procedural, immersion, agency
    1. Spend five or ten minutes with Eliza, one of the first and most famous “bots”. 2. Read Murray’s discussion of Eliza (pages 68-74). 3. Do you understand what Murray means by “procedural”? Procedural means that the work and interaction…

  10. HUIN303/204: fagblogg

    innlevering/politiske nettspill
    I dag er det selvsagt innlevering av andreutkastet. Dere fÂr utdelt to medstudenters arbeider, et ark med karakterbeskrivelser og skjemaer for  vurdere arbeidene. Til torsdag skal dere ha fylt ut skjemaene og ha en mening om hvilke karakter som…

  11. pedabloggy

    violence and computer games
    Nur Lubis has found some articles that discuss this issue. Another take on the issue is http://www.opensorcery.net/velvet-strike/ Some games closely inspired by political events are very violent, as pointed out by Mikaela Smith-Chandler and Jill Walker…

  12. pedabloggy

    class 11 lecture
    Reprinted readings: Jakobsson, Mikael and Taylor, T L (2003). ‘The Sopranos meets EverQuest: social networking in massively multiplayer online games’. DAC Conference proceedings, RMIT University, Melbourne, May 2003, pages 81-90. Online readings: EverQ…

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