Weekend Reader: Questions Asked by a Virtual JihadiS

Typically, the controversy over "Virtual Jihadi" - a mod of a skin of 2003's budget-bin jingoist shooter Quest for Saddam - deals more with free speech and abuse of authority rather than what the game asks its players to consider.

Even without the actions of Troy, N.Y. officials against the mod's creator, and those hosting or displaying it, "Virtual Jihadi" is controversial enough. In it you inhabit the persona of an Iraqi whose brother dies as collateral damage of the 2003 invasion. The game then becomes a quest to murder President Bush, going through a series of body doubles along the way.

But the usefulness of Virtual Jihadi to the games debate, argues TK, is not in making moral equivalences, arguing why the victors get to write history, or in reducing the behavior of belligerents to a common denominator. It's asking for an intellectually honest answer to how much is too much, and when, and why?

The clichés of the games debate - killing prostitutes, shooting innocents, dehumanizing others - already exist, and wanton engagement in them is repellent enough. So why is a game is dedicated to the killing of a head of state over the line? And if it is, what does that say about us? Does it cross the line because we respect the head of state? Or because it threatens something else?

Cease Fire: A Look at Virtual Jihadi

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 [creator Wafaa] 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.

[...]

Irrespective of any possible connection between videogame and real life violence, [creator Wafaa] 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

Weekend Reader is Kotaku's look at the critical thinking in, and of video games. It appears Saturdays at noon. Please take the time to read the full article cited before getting involved in the debate here.