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Virtual Reality

Colin Harvey

Mainstream (and some non-mainstream) games' re-articulation of the dominant perspectives regarding the War On Terror makes it all the more important that there are alternative games attempting to subvert this process . . . If you can become a Palestinian, Israeli, Spanish or Iraqi civilian, adopt the role of an American GI or British squaddie, if you can assume the role of a general or president, you might understand better the world in which you live.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
51; from Howard's End, by EM Forster (1910)

There it goes again: reality. I listen to the radio, watch the television, scan the web and consider my newspaper, and there it is, reality writ large: cruel, vapid destruction expressed in so much deformed metal, dismembered bodies, ruined lives. The scenes of destruction wrought by the recent bombs in Madrid are familiar to us from news reports gone by, but also from literature, from celluloid, and from the object of my study: the video game.

I spend the bulk of my time thinking, writing, researching and teaching about the virtual worlds of video games. And of course, I also play the things. These are worlds that are by turns surreal, often violent, and sometimes cartoonish, apparently expressing only a glancing faithfulness with reality. Yet each of the images contains within it some trace of a memory of the real world, some residual allusion to a world made of atoms, emotions and all-too-real people.

The games seem so real that when I see the bloody horror of violence enacted in reality, I have to catch myself up: though the box on which I view both the real and the virtual is the same, I have to keep reminding myself that there's a qualitative difference between virtual explosions and real explosions. The nature of the media is to constantly feed upon itself: television news feeds newspapers, which in turn feed radio broadcasts, which feed novels, which feed the Internet, etc., etc. Video games are a part of this process as much as any other form of media. What I mustn't forget is that somewhere, buried beneath the sedimentation of images accrued through constant media consumption, is real pain, real human suffering.

Sometimes it's too easy to forget. In many ways the recent outrage perpetrated upon Madrid evokes a video game aesthetic. Sure, there was no reset button on the bomb blasts that turned a railway station into a scene much like a grotesque fantasy painting by Hieronymous Bosch. And unlike 9/11, there wasn't even a "Money Shot"; no equivalent of the Die Hard-style destruction that the malevolent arrival and collision of the second plane with the second Twin Tower provided for the arriving television cameras on that grim day. When I watched scenes of Madrid after the recent bombings, I couldn't rewind the action like I can in the Driver video game, or watch again as I can in Stuntman. I couldn't switch perspective as I can in Vice City. Much as I wished otherwise, I simply couldn't press the "Reset" button, because this time, the game controller was absent. All I could do was sit impassively before my screen and imbibe upon macabre detail after macabre detail. But as I watched, my mind was far from passive, even though the images were starkly familiar from the synthetic exploits that characterize so much of my leisure and professional life.

In Britain generally and in London particularly we see a major attack on our capital city as nothing but inevitable. The Titanic, the assassination of an American president, or the death of a British princess cannot hold a notional candle to what occurred three years ago in the US and virtually across the news media of the entire globe. Sure, as the media here routinely express, we're already familiar with the horrors wrought by terrorism through what we euphemistically call the "Troubles". Certainly Irish terrorism produced atrocity after atrocity in England and wrecked lives as assuredly as any other form of violence; state-sponsored or state-opposed. But at least then the band played on because there was still a band and there was still music to be heard. And while 9/11 scarred America and scared the world, for the British, it felt like a prequel to our own main event.

From time immemorial artists in all cultures have foretold disasters. But the type of fictional analogy that proliferated after 9/11 perhaps owes its form to the fact that the events themselves seemed so embedded in Western paranoia � in our often well-founded but unacknowledged guilt about the world we built at others expense. As has often been discussed elsewhere, the soaring skyscrapers and the planes in deadly contravention of their designed purpose seem to allude to so many science-fiction, horror, and disaster tales we consume for pleasure. I was in Amsterdam at a conference on computational semiotics when 9/11 occurred. Upon my return to Britain my then-partner spoke of scenes of panic at London's main railway terminus that evoked images of HG Wells' War of the Worlds. The British press compared Osama Bin Laden to Lex Luthor and suggested his worldview was shaped by the Foundation books of the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Hollywood changed elements of then contemporary films featuring scenes of comparable carnage or including images of the Twin Towers in order to resist accusations of bad taste.

Because of the aforementioned interplay between various forms of popular media, the implication of video games in the unfolding narrative of the War on Terror should not strike us as at all surprising. The iconography should seem as equally familiar to Playstation 2, Xbox and GameCube players as it is to readers of novels, watchers of television, and viewers of cinema. There are the images of course: crashing planes, exploding vehicles, the brutality of knives and guns and bombs, blood, guts � mayhem. And there are the sounds: explosions, gunfire, the exposition-heavy outpourings of fanatics of various political, cultural, religious and ideological perspectives, seemingly borrowed wholesale from the badly written connecting tissue of video game cut scenes.

But there are also the facts as presented to us by the media: the 9/11 hijackers supposedly trained themselves using Microsoft flight simulators (nobody, as far as I'm aware, has suggested banning flight simulators as a consequence). And just as the meta-narrative of the War On Terror contains elements of the video game, so we see video games attempt to re-present the narrative in their own digital contexts. There are both video game responses to that first tragic act of the narrative in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and to the subsequent plot-twists situated in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Israel and Palestine. From the horror of those first momentous events through the West's unerring, dutiful enactment of the script that Bin Laden wrote for us, games have sought to play their part and sometimes to subvert their role.

The current issue of Wired magazine examines the company Kuma Reality Games, which specializes in games based on real events. The company's Kuma: War enables the player to engage in a series of missions based on real events based in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea. You can mastermind the mission to find Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay, rescue soldiers trapped in Afghanistan, or hunt for errant North Korea commandos in South Korea. As Bill Werde's article explains, the missions' fidelity to real life extends to those aspects of the missions that do not accord with the constant, frenetic pace that characterizes many combat-based video games. Military engagement is often slow, and sometimes, as with Saddam's capture, ends with more of a whimper than a bang. In this latter case, what should on paper have been an explosive exploit to capture a dastardly dictator featuring an exciting climax is instead reduced to an exploratory element of extra content for subscribers to the game, rather than a proper mission. Such creative decisions offer intriguing insights into the limitations of turning reality into virtuality.

Mainstream (and some non-mainstream) games' re-articulation of the dominant perspectives regarding the War On Terror makes it all the more important that there are alternative games attempting to subvert this process. The group have so far produced two examples that seek to challenge dominant ideological perspectives: the games September 12th and Madrid, both available at In the first, you are able to wage your own war against terrorism by launching missiles at the terrorists mingling amongst an innocent community. As the simulation tells, you there is no beginning (it has already begun) and there is no end. You can either shoot or not shoot. Launching missiles at terrorists invariably results in the deaths of innocent bystanders, and produces more terrorists. The message is clear and the active engagement on the part of the user hammers it home. Pro-war advocates should be forced to play this a la Alex in A Clockwork Orange, their body strapped down and their eyes wrenched wide open, until they get the point.

The Madrid game is, self-evidently, a recent response to that particular tragedy. The player must keep various flames burning as memorials to lost life around the world. The effect is potent, affecting, and dare I say it, moving. In common with Kuma's work it says much about the ways in which games can engage with the realities of the world, and about the nature of play itself. Both Madrid and September 12th, in vastly differing ways, exploit the key advantage of the video game as an art form, and one which has gone largely hitherto unexploited up until this point: the ability, through interactivity, through play, to make us empathize with other human beings.'s work serves another purpose apropos the medium itself: they make us take games seriously. As I've said in previous columns, games and play are often derided as trivial pastimes, favoured by children, and therefore unworthy of adult attention. But the history of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and children's playground activities is replete with macabre renderings of real events enabling children to understand the world, enabling them to empathize with pain, with suffering. Video games are the latest incarnation of this phenomenon, and while derided (occasionally in justified terms) for their violent, aggressive nature, as a medium they offer us the potential to understand each other in ways distinct from the novel, the painting, and the movie.

I would argue that the quality of empathy is one the world clearly needs more dearly now than at any time in its recent history. If video games can rise to this challenge, they might provide an invaluable tool for enabling this process. If you can become a Palestinian, Israeli, Spanish or Iraqi civilian, adopt the role of an American GI or British squaddie, if you can assume the role of a general or president, you might understand better the world in which you live.

Understand the real via the virtual. Only connect.

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