September 12th, A Toy World is the first project out from Newsgaming.com, an initiative launched by ludology advocate Gonzalo Frasca. The general idea behind Newsgaming is the development of videogames which critically interact with real-life news. For example, September 12th focuses on the ongoing war on terror and attempts to present a simulation of potential consequences.
The premise of September 12th is quite simple, as outlined in the short description of the rules. You cannot win or lose; you can only interact with the simulation. And your only method of interaction lies in the decision of whether or not to shoot missiles (and where to shoot them, should you choose to). The simulation takes place in a Middle Eastern city, and is populated by clearly distinguishable “civilians” and “terrorists.”
September 12th, a Toy World
US: Jul 2007
Should you set out to try to kill all the terrorists, you’ll quickly find yourself killing civilians along with them, due to not-quite-precise weapons (analogous, perhaps, to American “Smart Bombs”). When civilians die, other civilians will come to mourn them and the mourners will quickly be converted into terrorists themselves. If enough time passes with no more bombs being dropped, some of these terrorists might be converted back into civilians.
With no potential for winning, there is no goal given by the game itself. In fact, because the goal, which is presented to us by today’s media (killing all the terrorists), proves quite impossible in this simulation, I found myself setting more achievable, if monstrous, tasks for myself. First was the attempt to destroy all the buildings, then to destroy all the simulated people (with no distinction between civilians and terrorists), and finally, to convert the entire populace into terrorists. It turns out this last one was the only one I could complete. The obvious conclusion? If missiles are the only tools we allow ourselves, the only thing we might succeed in is turning the rest of the world into terrorists.
It would seem at first that the game has prevailed in its attempt to make one engage critically with the news. Unfortunately, while September 12th is a beautiful seed for potential “newsgames” to come, it ultimately falls short of blooming. It’s difficult to criticize something which admits its own limitations, but even with the admissions of their own bias and the explanation for the choice of focus, one can’t help but feel let down by the reductionism of the simulation. The terms of the simulation dictate that the most positive thing one can do is absolutely nothing—things don’t seem to get better (at least after an hour of unattended simulation), but at least they don’t get worse. Without presenting any alternatives or subtleties, September 12th leaves us with the statement that “missiles are bad” and nothing else to work with.
The change from “terrorists are bad” to “missiles are bad” would appear a welcome relief to gamers of certain political persuasions all over the world, but in boiling the simulation’s message down to this one statement, the team at Newsgaming.com is guilty of creating the same kind of simplistic good/bad dichotomy that the mainstream media presents. Forced into a singular decision to either act or not, the major media outlets would tell us that not acting is responsible for the current state of terrorism, and September 12th would tell us that acting can only result in more terrorism.
One can only yearn for a simulation which would allow us to choose how to act. September 12th, unfortunately, allows for no distinction between a UN missile and a US missile; it does not allow us to provide Red Cross aid or attempt diplomatic measures. In the end, it provides us with the same choice that CounterStrike or America’s Army offers us—to shoot or not to shoot.
The results of that choice in September 12th, to be sure, is the polar opposite of what we’re used to seeing in video games, but they keep the blinders on in pretending like the only tools available to us are guns and missiles.
Seeing that there are people out there who want to use the medium to actually engage thoughtfully with the news is refreshing and, quite frankly, enlivening. Future projects from Newsgaming.com will hopefully provide that level of engagement. September 12th, however, will probably be restricted to preaching to the choir because it’s locked into its foregone conclusions and simplistic dualism.