Monday, May 9, 2011

Virtual bin Laden

One of the most interesting things happening in games right now is also the most banal: immediately after bin Laden's death, it was announced that various game companies would provide the opportunity to shoot and kill a virtual Osama in relatively realistic simulations of his Pakistani "compound." You can play his death as a Counter Strike level or as a forthcoming free mission in Kuma War.

In some ways, what's strange about the game is that it feels strange at all. We've been simulating the murder of bin Laden's ideological allies (and, well, a lot of completely unrelated brown people) for quite some time. I'm not sure if there's been a high-profile game that allowed bin Laden's murder up until now, not because people wouldn't have enjoyed it, but because of how transient the victory would have been -- while he lived, the power fantasy of shooting him in the head would have quickly given way to the frustrating reality of his unattainability. Now that we have killed him and seen to the body, this is no longer a concern. The only remaining problem, and one to which many gamers have been surprisingly sensitive, is the possibility that this is wrong, or more likely, simply tacky.

I don't think there are good moral arguments against simulating one man's death that wouldn't apply to the first person shooter genre as a whole -- if you are comfortable with Counter Strike, which pits feds against terrorists in pitched (and endless) gun battles, then there is little reason to object to a particular instance of Counter Strike where the target is one specific terrorist. Far from feeding the bloodthirstiness of the moment, I suspect these levels will ultimately help us to purge ourselves of the need to rehearse bin Laden's death, not only because of the catharsis, but because of what games do. A person watching a modern first person shooter for the first time will be perhaps shocked by the violence and realism; an experienced player recognizes its abstraction. Counter Strike in particular has boiled its player base down to a relentless, extremely skilled few who can see past all the trappings of combat and narrative to what is fundamentally a game about moving one's mouse very quickly. To master a game is to perceive the system beneath the illusions of character and atmosphere; should players repeatedly murder bin Laden, it will only serve to teach them his artificial intelligence, his role in a rather crude simulation. They will forget their hate, I suspect, and remember the game.

Of course the narrative itself, and the choices of how to represent the killing, are quite interesting. These games are crude and uninteresting enough that in the playing they will be reduced very quickly, as I have said, to their systems, but in contemplating the creation of these levels, in the brief moment of the illusion that a story will really be told, the developers reveal themselves and their players. The largest deviation between the Komu War version of events and reality as the White House has told it is that there will be an equal number of armed guards to match the invading SEALs; the alternative, wherein a squad of highly trained and well-armed soldiers charge a home and shoot an aging, unwell man, would not be very exciting. This seems to scrub the story clean, to remove its complexities, to make the fight seem far more fair than it was -- and yet, there is something very interesting about the fact of half the players, randomly chosen, being forced to defend bin Laden. Presumably players will download the level in hopes of rehearsing the slaughter. How will they feel if they find themselves on Team bin Laden? How will they feel if they win?

Apparently there may have been as many as thirty children in the compound. Will these make it to the game? It's not yet clear. The team at Kuma are still working it out. Apparently they are considering including the children as unarmed adults, a truly weird compromise. Gamers are familiar with the moral problem of unarmed potential targets, and for the most part I think we acknowledge the problem as false: if you understand the game is only a system, if you recognize the narrative is such a thin veneer as to be essentially invisible, then it doesn't really matter what you do. (Though, for what it's worth, I have generally avoided shooting civilians, or even the opportunity to do so. I have never played a modern Grand Theft Auto.) 

There is also the question of the so-called "human shield" story, another Kuma has struggled with. At this point it seems unlikely that the initial account, wherein Osama used his wife as a shield, is true. But what if it was? Would they represent this in the game as well? Would you have to shoot her, or to find a way to shoot around her? Could your management of this dilemma affect your score?

Again, I think that these things are banal, and that (in part because the games themselves are not good games) they will have no real impact on their players. But now, as we imagine them, and their creation, we feel strange. Or I feel strange. The rehearsal of heroic stories has become more social and collective than ever: we not only retell the stories again and again, we attempt to (re)live them together. But the most revealing thing may be our belief that anything has really changed, that it was not always just so.

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