While the Wafaa Bilal controversy continues to rage in Troy, New York and on the campus of Renssellaer Polytechnical Institute, a GamePolitics reader offers some local perspective.Zachary Miner is a graduate of SUNY Albany, and did his Master's thesis on the effects of the extensive use of MMORPGs and whether such use can be properly termed as an addiction. He has what he describes as an ongoing interest in video games and culture and hopes to do more research on gaming in the future. From Zachary's account (edited by GP):
I live in Albany, which is right next door to Troy, where the Wafaa Bilal flap is going on... I attended an event [Monday night] which was held at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy...
During his speech, Bilal said that the idea for the game started with Quest for Saddam... in which the object is to find and kill Saddam Hussein. Apparently someone in Al Qaeda obtained a copy of the game, changed the skins of the soldiers and Saddam so that now the player is an Iraqi killing Americans and hunting George Bush [the so-called Night of Bush Capturing game].
[Bilal changed] the game from the Al Qaeda version so that instead of the player himself killing Bush, he now has to recruit someone else - in this case, a character skinned to look like Bilal himself... to become a suicide bomber and attack Bush. Bilial said that the point of this is to show the vulnerabilty of Iraqi citizens to recruitment for such purposes.
There was a photocopied booklet provided before the event that, in cartoon form, gives the backstory of the suicide bomber character in the game. The backstory follows Bilal's life almost exactly, which might be the source of some of the controversy, since it paints him as a terrorist. In real life, Bilal's brother was accidentally killed by a US bomb, and his father died 18 months later, grieving for his son...
Bilal said he created the game in order to "hold up a mirror" to an American society which believes that such a game is perfectly fine when it is an American killing Iraqis, but which finds itself outside of its comfort zone when it's the other way around.
He also said in the speech that the FBI and CIA were no longer interested in him. I don't know exactly what he meant by it, and he didn't elaborate.
I was a little put off by the fact that he wouldn't specifically address what happens in the game when you recruit the suicide bomber, since that seems to be the point of the changes he's made. He made it sound like he didn't want to give away the ending to the game, which was weird because when I talked to him and asked him if he planned to make the game available for play outside of his exhibit he said no. His response was that he didn't want people playing the game alone, but would prefer that they play it in an area like the one set up in Troy, where there can be a dialogue about the game.
Someone else asked him about his history with games and he animatedly expressed his enjoyment of Super Mario Brothers, although he pointed out that he was too old to have played it in his childhood. He then questioned the current popularity of first-person shooters, saying that people should play other types of games - like Mario - that are available.
Bilal made some interesting points about how Tom Clancy writes books about terrorists, and there are plenty of movies which revolve around terrorist assassination plots, but these kinds of media have not evoked nearly the kind of outcry that surrounds his work. And, to be sure, some of that stems from the fact that - as the RPI professor who introduced Bilial said - people are "unaccustomed to being in the driver's seat" in terms of carrying out the terrorist plots, but are instead used to reading about or watching them unfold in films.
His game... was available for playing before the event and I did get a chance to try it out. As a game, it wasn't that good - the controls had some problems, the enemy AI wasn't that great... y'know, stuff you assume will be wrong with a cheap game. People at the event seemed unfamiliar with video games as a whole, and only a few people came up to try the game beforehand...
Also, interesting thing - Bilal made reference to appearing on Bob Mirch's radio show for three hours yesterday. He (Bilal) suggested that the show's content was being framed in such a way to rile up the listeners by, for example, evoking 9/11. Someone at the event, however, suggested that his appearance on the show had had a conciliatory effect on the nature of the expected anti-Bilal protest, which people had expected to be much more contentious. Bilal chalked it up to the creation of a dialogue where previously there had been "misinformation."
GP: Huge thanks to Zachary Miner for providing this first-hand report!