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<nettime> Velvet-Strike: War Times and Reality Games
anne-marie on Sun, 19 May 2002 04:42:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Velvet-Strike: War Times and Reality Games

Velvet-Strike: War Times and Reality Games
(War Times From a Gamer Perspective)

When I first heard about the attacks on September 11, just a fraction 
before I felt a wave of sadness, a nauseating thought passed through 
my mind. What terrible timing-with this president in office, perhaps 
even more so than previous ones, he could use this event as 
justification for dangerous actions on a global scale and at home. A 
few weeks later, I left for Spain to give a workshop on modifying 
computer games. When I arrived the next morning at the workshop I 
learned that the U.S. had declared war on Afghanistan. The workshop 
organizers had installed a new demo of "Return to Castle 
Wolfenstein", a remake of an old Nazi castle shooter game, on all the 
PC's. The sounds of the weapon-fire echoed off the concrete walls of 
the workshop warehouse space--what I once approached with playful 
macho geek irony was transformed into uncanny echoes of real life 
violence. At that moment, that room was the last place I wanted to 
be. Joan Leandre, (one of the other artists presenting at the 
workshop), and I discussed creating some kind of anti-war game 

Not long after the Sept 11 attacks, American gamers created a number 
of game modifications for games like Quake, Unreal and the Sims in 
which they inserted Osama Bin Laden skins and characters to shoot at 
and annihilate. Since the Sims is not a violent game, one Osama skins 
distributor suggested feeding the Sims Osama poison potato chips. If 
you cant shoot him, then force him to overeat American junk food, to 
binge, death by over-consumption, death by capitalism. (The Sims is 
essentially a game whose rule sets are based on capitalist 
algorithms, although according to the Sims designers these rules are 
balanced other factors.) 

The most disturbing Osama mod I saw was on display in October 2001 at 
a commercial game industry exhibit in Barcelona called Arte Futura. 
To give the exhibition organizers the benefit of the doubt, they were 
probably unfamiliar with urban American ethnic cartography. In this 
mod, Osama is represented as an Arab corner grocery story owner, as 
is common in many tough inner city neighborhoods in North America. 
The goal of the mod is to enter the corner liquor grocery store and 
kill the Arab owner. (At the time I saw this I has just gotten an 
email from my sister in Seattle describing how she and other college 
students were taking turns guarding mosques from vandalists.)

Harmless release of tension or co-conspirator in the industrial war 
complex? Playful competition or dangerous ethnic and gender politics 
of the other? The first computer game, created at MIT by Slug Russell 
and other "hackers", was called "Spacewar", an outer space shooter 
influenced by cold war science fiction. Since Spacewar, computer 
games evolved and bifurcated into multiple genres, some related to 
war and fighting simulation, (and using technology occasionally 
directly funded by the US military), and others less so. (RPG, Real 
Time Strategy, Shooter, God Game, Action/Adventure, etc). In the 
1990's, within the shooter genre, characters evolved from white guy 
American soldiers into oversize funny male monsters of all shapes and 
stripes and pumped female fighting machines. It seemed to be about a 
kind monster fantasy workshop, humorous macho role-play, taking 
things to their frag queen extremes. Within online Quake and game 
hacker culture, gender restrictions and other boundaries opened up.

Then beginning with Half-life and continuing with shooter games whose 
alleged appeal is "realism", a kind of regression took place. In 
terms of game play games like Half-life are universally seen as 
advancements. Yet in Half-life you are only given one white guy 
everyman American geek guy to identify with. And all of the NPC 
researchers and scientists in the game are male. Half-life remaps the 
original computer game target market back onto itself, excluding all 
others and reifying gamer culture as a male domain. (Not that I 
didn't play Half-life but I would have enjoyed it more if I could 
have played a female character.)

The trend towards what male gamers call "realism" solidified in 2000 
with the Half-life mod "Counter-Strike". Counter-Strike is a 
multi-player game where you choose to play on either the side of a 
band of terrorists or on the side of counter-terrorist commandos, 
(all male). The tactics of the terrorists and the counter-terrorists 
are essentially indistinguishable from each other. (Perhaps this 
similarity between terrorist and counter-terrorist is telling about 
the current situation in Israel and other places where the "war on 
terrorism" has been forged for a while or is only just beginning.)

People who love Counter-Strike have told me that the appeal is the 
"realism"-its not about "silly" muscly monsters bouncing around space 
ports like in the Quake Series -in Counter-Strike you play 
realistically proportioned soldiers and commandos killing each other 
in stark bombed out bunkers. When you are killed in Counter-Strike 
your character really "dies" instead of immediately regenerating. 
(Although you get to play again in a few minutes as soon as the next 
round begins.) So "realism" is not about faster game engines, 
graphics processing and "photorealism". It is about reproducing 
characters and gameplay environments that are considered closer to 
"reality" and farther from fantasy.

But now, in the wake of Sept 11, are these games too "real"? Or is 
the real converging with the simulation? Who defines what is real? 
According to an email rumor, President Bush recently approved of a 
deal between an American television network and the US military to 
create a series of wartime docudramas of US soldiers fighting the 
"war on terrorism" abroad. The news section of the TV network was 
apparently miffed at the arrangement because they had been unable to 
gain access to reporting on the war in Afghanistan. (Recall in 
Orwell's 1984 the merging of state controlled war time news and 
docu-fiction.) The trend in brutal reality TV, beginning with popular 
shows like Cops, and continuing with a slue of reality game shows 
like "Survival" is another field of convergence. 

You are for or against us, you are with us, "the one", or you are 
with the enemy is the underlying logic of the West, as I understood a 
talk by Marina Grzinic at an international cyberfeminist conference 
in Germany in December 2001. (Pre-axis of evil.) Although computer 
games replicate this binary competitive logic maybe there is 
something ultimately subversive in the knowledge that it is only a 
game, that at any moment you may switch sides with the "other", you 
may play the terrorist side in Counter-Strike. But reality games 
pretend to erase this awareness. And if you are going to converge 
network shooter games and contemporary middle eastern politics into a 
game, (Counter-Strike), then you leave out a number of complexities 
such as economics, religions, families, food, children, women, 
refugee camps, flesh bodies and blood, smell etc.

Maybe the problem is that convergence with "reality" is happening 
with the wrong game genre. Instead of replicating the binary logic of 
the shooter genre, of Cowboys and Indians, of the football game, if 
the US government borrowed tactics from real time strategy gamers or 
RPGers, we might be looking at a different global response. (But then 
again given who our leadership is now, its unlikely he is capable of 
the intellectual planning required of a strategy gamer.) "Winning" or 
advancement in massively multi-player Role Playing Games like 
Everquest is enhanced by strategically building social bonds amongst 
players. And strategy games like Warcraft and Command and Conquer, 
while directly enacting tactics of imperialist colonialist 
expansionism, at least take into account other factors in addition to 
military might.

After playing Counter-Strike for a couple weeks I must confess it 
incorporates social maneuvers beyond shoot and kill, (and I must also 
confess to enjoying many aspects of the game--I have actually always 
enjoyed shooters.) Team play and communication between members on 
your side are complex, including live voice radio, and a number of 
coded chat "smileys" and automated radio commands that take some time 
to learn. Formulating strategies is also necessary for survival, as 
in other network shooters. As a Counter-Strike newbie I was sometimes 
even able to solicit help from my enemies, indicating a clear 
awareness of the game as fictional play space. Some of the combat 
environments are quite beautiful. But I still am critical that this 
domain, the network of thousands of international Counter-Strike 
servers spanning Taiwan to Germany, has been reified as an 
exclusively male "realistic" combat zone. (You can hear live audio 
voices of male players on many servers.) I am also disturbed that the 
binary logic of the shooter is being implemented on a global military 

Personally I would like to see computer games move towards fantasy, 
away from military fantasy which pretends to "realistic". I like 
fantastic environments where there is more room for imaginative 
habitats and characters. Japanese games for children and adults are 
engaged in this undertaking, filled with curious animal Pokemon 
creatures, Robo-cats, transformers, Anime people, monsters, demons 
and fairies, of all genders. I identify more with these characters 
than with counter-terrorist or terrorist soldiers and they are what I 
want to be my reality. Reality is up for grabs. The real needs to be 
remade by us.


Velvet-Strike is a collection of spray paints to use as graffiti on 
the walls, ceiling, and floor of the popular network shooter 
terrorism game "Counter-Strike". Velvet-Strike was conceptualized 
during the beginning of Bush's "War on Terrorism." We invite others 
to submit their own "spray-paints" relating to this theme.

The Velvet-Strike Team:

Anne-Marie Schleiner opensorcery {AT} opensorcery.net
Joan Leandre retroyou {AT} retroyou.org
Brody brody {AT} tmpspace.com


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