Although their capacity for enjoyment is obvious, the potential for video games to provide more weighty experiences is still largely unexplored. Compared to more mature art forms, using games as a medium for protest and reflection on more political topics is almost unheard of. Like protest art, games with a political bent seek to disorient the player and toy with their expectations of the medium. These experiments evoked strong reactions from players, and raise questions about the nature of ludic experiences. The power of these experiences lies in their interactivity, and how they subvert the expected script of how a game should play.
Video games whose primary goals are not pure entertainment, often referred to as ‘serious games’ or ‘art games’, have been around since the 1970’s. From Game of Life (Conway, 1970) and Lorna (Hershmann, 1979) onwards, the interactive medium has been a rich breeding ground for media that pushes existing boundaries and provokes discussion. In the past half a decade there has been an influx of interactive media from the independent development scene that transcend traditional game experiences. Games like Dafur is Dying (Ruiz, 2006) lie at a more recognizable end of the interactive experience scale.
Made to raise awareness for the conflict in Darfur, the player has an in-game avatar of a Dafuri family member, and they can walk around and crouch. The village section of the game has recognizable resource management elements, such as health meters. Although the topic of the game promotes a strong political stance, the gameplay and game space itself is recognizable and comfortable. If it is a commonly held truth that protest art must be disruptive, Dafur is Dying and other games of its ilk are too familiar. To make a statement, the viewer of the art (or in this case the player) must be challenged.
In March of 2006, Joseph Delappe sat down to play America’s Army (Wardynski, 2002). Instead of following the game objectives and participating in the expected ludic activities, Delappe stays where his avatar spawns. In the game chat, he manually typed the name, age, service rank and date of death of every soldier killed in the Iraq war. If his avatar was killed he continued to type. If he was kicked from a match he joined another and continued to type. When the war in Iraq officially ended, the 18th December 2011, Delappe logged in and typed the last two hundred names of the deceased. Delappe inputted all four thousand, four hundred and eighty four names over the course of those five years. On his website he describes what he did as a “game based performative intervention” (Delappe, 2014). At first glance this project seems futile. Few, if any, of the players understood or cared about Delappe, let alone the death toll of a foreign war. As can be seen in the screenshots, many players were angry at their expected session of play being interrupted; angry at someone not following the script of the game.
Delappe’s project brings to mind Ai Weiwei, a Chinese born artist known for protesting the Chinese government. In his piece Remembrance (Weiwei, 2010) a voice recording reads aloud the names of all the children who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes. The running time is three hours and forty one minutes. This recording is played in the gallery containing the rest of his works, normally a place for patrons to enjoy whatever art is on display there. The recorded voice plays the same role Delappe played in America’s Army, it disrupts areas of enjoyment and recreation with undisputable, unfeeling facts.
In one of Delappe’s screenshots from dead-in-iraq a fellow player says “do that somewhere else or make DC make a memorial” (Delappe, 2014). The sentiment is likely shared by most of the players Delappe encountered – we understand your message, but don’t remind us of it. Considering the location of Delappe’s protest – a tax-payer funded propaganda game designed to encourage army recruitment – it is pertinent to assume that wilful ignorance about the reality of war is encouraged. So long as players don’t have to acknowledge the thousands of deaths and injuries in real war, so long as they know there’s a monument to remember the dead “somewhere else”, they can engage in their game fantasies.
Since dead-in-iraq isn’t a game, but instead a game-space based protest, the question of expectation arises. For most of their existence, there has been clear expectations of what a game should be. They are systems that allow the player to have agency (Caillois, 1961), that have goals and failure states (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003). In recent years, however, political art games have eschewed these rules to create the most effective experiences. dead-in-iraq is on the more abstract end of this spectrum, hijacking an existing game to make its statement. Games such as Execution (2Dcube, 2008) allow the player to interact with a system, yet it still plays with their expectations.
In Execution the player is presented with a title screen reading “Your actions have consequences. You either win or lose. Do the right thing”. Then they are given control of a snipers reticule, pointing at a tied up man. The player can either shoot the man or quit the game. If they shoot the man, then re-open the game, the man is still dead. Our cultural expectation of shooting an enemy in a game is that they come back to life to be shot at again. Nothing is permanent in a game, not even death. By breaking down our expectations of death in a medium filled with it, Execution manages to make a statement on how desensitised we have become. Perhaps the more interesting is the fact that the player is forced to quit to avoid shooting the man. Execution deliberately draws attention to areas outside the game space, and by taking the focus out of the game it reinforces the idea of permanence. As a player, you have made a permanent change to a program on your computer, you cannot undo it. Both Execution and dead-in-iraq are effective in the goals they set out to achieve; they disrupt the expected play experience to bring the players attention to an important matter.
So long as players don’t have to acknowledge the thousands of deaths and injuries in real war, so long as they know there’s a monument to remember the dead “somewhere else”, they can engage in their game fantasies
This disruption can be examined by exploring the idea of the magic circle. The magic circle is a common term in game studies, often use to talk about immersion in play. The original definition, however, explored the behaviours of humans in defined spaces. The magic circle is a “temporary world within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (Huizinga, 1949). The game space of America’s Army is a magic circle. The players take on the role of a military personnel, they follow the objectives they’re given, they communicate with the other plays, deciding on tactics and strategy. Delappe breaks this magic circle; he is what Huizinga refers to as a “spoil-sport”. A spoil sport is not a cheat, they simply refuse to acknowledge the magic circle. It is not explicitly stated anywhere in America’s Army that the chat must be used for tactical talk only. Many players in first person shooters talk about subjects outside of the ‘magic circle’, they reference pop culture, tell teammates that they’re going to the bathroom, trash talk other players (Breidenbach, Boria & Wright, 2002). Despite this, the magic circle isn’t broken. The game itself still plays out despite the unrelated interactions. Perhaps it is Delappe’s refusal to play that causes disruption, instead of the typing of names. If Delappe was to play while typing names, it could be reasonably assumed that fellow players wouldn’t get as angry. In turn, the disruption and power of Delappe’s performance would be greatly reduced by playing; he would be indulging the pro-war propaganda that his actions are protesting.
Player reactions to dead-in-iraq and Execution are varied, but are usually confused or angry. A review of Execution by player MoonriseEclat said “Confused at why if you shoot him once it says “You lose” and nothing happens….. you are forced to quit”(YoYo Games, n.d). Another player commented “This is, perhaps, the stupidest thing ever created. Thanks for wasting my time”. Some other players praised 2Dcube, but most of the comments focused on how to reset the game and undo the damage. Is the statement effective without a receptive audience? The fact that some players felt compelled to comment on their experience, even if it was negative, is testament to the idea that these pieces of art can have an impact.
Schools of thought on more traditional art forms argue that art has nothing to do with its audience; that defining art must not be done in relation to a viewer. Games, however, need players. In his paper on dead-in-iraq, Dean Chan criticises Delappe’s performance as “obscurantist and too wilfully monologic” (Chan, 2010). Could an open discussion on the Iraq war have had the same effect? It’s doubtful, as many players would choose to ignore Delappe and concentrate on the game. By doggedly typing out names and ignoring other players, Delappe makes his teammates take notice though brute force. It is impossible to know if Delappe’s performance made any of the America’s Army players think critically about the Iraq war or the questionable origins of the game they were playing. For one brief moment, however, their comfort zone was broken and they were forced to face the darker reality of online war games.
When we look back at the controversial art of the past – Dadaism, Picasso, Manet – once shocking pieces seem quaint and tame now. Video games are the exciting new medium of this century, as Impressionism was when Manet’s Olympia was first exhibited almost one hundred and fifty years ago. Games have the ability to shock because they are new. Protest art in the form of paintings or performances are expected, a game that protests is still shocking. Gaming is a new context for protest art, and it is the context that gives it power.
The limits of gaming, the ability to subvert and surprise the viewer through expected systems are only just starting to be explored. dead-in-iraq utilizes existing game spaces for its own means; disregarding the collectively agreed upon code of conduct to protest the games content and real life connections. Execution has similar goals, commenting upon the prevalence of consequence free killing in games by strictly controlling the player’s expectations and interactions with the game. Playing outside the bounds of expected interactions and behaviours has produced thought provoking pieces of art, and as this medium develops and matures it can only be hoped that these fringe art pieces will continue to be made. Poetry may make nothing happen, but video games can be a way of happening.
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Chan, D. (2010). Dead-in-Iraq: The Spatial Politics of Game Art Activism and the In-Game Protest. In Huntemann, N. & Payne, M. (Eds.), Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games (pp.272-286). NY, New York: Routledge.
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