GP Reader Offers First-Person Account of RPI Video Game Controversy

March 13, 2008 -

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!


Comments

I think a better example for this art would have been to have three screens, one with the original, one with alqueda remake, and one with his remake. Thus it would be less about "assassinating the president" and more about art, videogames, and how they are used as recruitment tools as well as tell a story.

freetroyletters.blogspot.com has lots of other 1st hand perspectives on this Wafaa's art and the Sanctuary getting shut down by the City.

If you're inspired, please speak up and contribute to the pile of letters regarding this censorship!

@Aliasalpha

Ah, but didn't the Rebel Alliance kill thousands of contractors when they blew up the second Death Star? I mean, with a project that big, they would have had to have independant contractors, right? ^_^

Seems like he is honestly trying to use video games as a format to express a political point and I guess you could call that serious art. Art always reveals a lot about the creator and by making the suicide bomber look like himself you can tell his feelings were vulnerable to anti-american propaganda after his brother died. I think an exhibit like this is actually beneficial to understanding the motivations behind people who strap a vest of dynamite to themselves and maybe taking steps to reduce the practice. Then again most people will only look at the appearance of such an exhibit and not the deeper meaning.

Would have liked to attend the exibit myself, unfortunetly I couldn't.

Lord knows what they'll do if they find out CounterStrike has an option to be the terrorists holding hostages. I see why this is controversial, but shutting it down? Had they done nothing it would have been the marginal blip in day to day activities that they are probably wishing it was now. Shame on the censors.

Glad to read a first hand account of the exhibit. I am also glad to see that someone was able to see it before Troy shut it down.

I wish that Bilal would release the game for download. He could include all the relevant material in PDF format and also start up a forum or blog to allow for the public debate of the game and its message.

Almost wish I could of gone. Unfortunately, even if I lived anywhere near Troy, New York, I'm probably too sick to have gone to the exhibit. *sigh*

I'm happy to finally have some concrete information about the game and the creator. I can see why some people would be worried, and even offended, by the game, but that's not a good enough reason to censor it.

It seems he has some real programing skills if he was able to alter the game as much as it sounds like he did.

This changes things. So you're not even the suicide bomber, you're the recruiter?

That fits a lot better with the "illustrates the vulnerability of Iraqi citizens to recruitment" idea than the original game description.
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

Respect.

What I thought was interesting is that while game critics CLAIM that games let you play the terrorists, as soon as one comes out that really does, you have a big news story. I guess the others didn't really have you play terrorists.

What is next? Horde Guilds broken up? No playing Zod in C&C? Bowser and Dedede to be removed from SSBB because they are dictator rulers? Zergs removed from SC2? SFIV pulls out Bison (Vega)?

Games are often about conflict. For conflict you have two sides (at least). For point of reference, we usually assign one good and one bad.

Zod? What's Zod? Also your forgetting GLA from generals, and come to think of it Nod and GLA in C&C3 and C&C Generals have suicide bombers why is no one raising a fist about those 2?

@ myrpok:

"Lord knows what they’ll do if they find out CounterStrike has an option to be the terrorists holding hostages. "

Particularly considering the obscene prevalence of CS at RPI. Everyone and their dog was playing it non-stop when I was there.

@Ebonheart

Zod is master of the 5th galaxy! ALL BOW TO THE MIGHTY ZOD!!!

Hmm, would "Assassin's Creed" assassins count as terrorists? They act to inspire fear. How about Crypto in "Destroy All Humans", he terrorises the populace. Chaos & Dark Eldar forces in Warhammer 40000 could well be considered terrorists since they both act in creul ways to break the morale of their enemy.

in "ffvii", right at the beginning you have to sabotage a reactor to disrupt the activities of a huge company only interested in profit. isn´t that an act of terrorism? (i suppose you might call it eco-terrorism, since you´re doing it for the planet)

The thing is, it really doesn't matter whether the art is good, or even whether it's really art or just terrorist propaganda. The point is that he was supposed to be able to show whatever it is and he got shut down.

@ curious plague spitter

I've thought of that game many times when discussing video games and terrorists. In all honestly, you are basically acting like terrorists at the start. I've often wondered if that wasn't prevented Square-Enix from updating the game and releasing it on the present gen systems.

I wonder, what does the creator of Super Columbine Massacre RPG think about this whole controversy, since wasn't he trying to accomplish something similar?

It's nice to finally hear a first hand perspective of the game. Considering that you (the player) are not the one killing the president, and that you play as a recruiter looking for someone to carry out the attack, it does sound like a piece of serious commentary. I previously thought it was just a run-and-gun of killing American solders and the president (as the original game was), and assumed that Bilal feeding into your run of the mill Bush bashing. But now that I've heard about the changes he made to the game, it definitely sounds like real art.

I still support RPI's right to call off hosting the exhibit, even if I think it was unnecessary. But the actions of the Troy government are unacceptable. That's flat out censorship, and THAT should get more attention and protests than Bilal's game ever did. I'm not sure if Bilal is a US citizen or not (I know he's a professor), but I think he has a good case for suing Troy for shutting down his show. It was unconstitutional, and even if there were building code violations, the motivations for using them was clearly to censor Bilal. Perhaps he should contact the ACLU.

@ Aliasalpha

Hmm, I always thought you were the master of the 5th galaxy. I demand we over throw Zod!

Hmm what other games can we say has terroristic threats, Mario is stuck in my mind but im seeing more drug usage than terrorism.

Ahh yes Mercinaries! You can blow up buildings, kill AN (bad rename of the UN) soldiers! I can't think of any more examples.

On Final Fantasy:

The FF series is rife with what could be called terrorism. Although, it is usually referred to as rebellion or resistance fighting. I think the only possible difference is, the FF series rarely ever has you attack civilian targets, only soldiers, monsters, and automated defenses. The bombing of the reactor in FFVII is the only time I can think of were your actions effect the bystanders directly, as the citizens of Midgard lose power at the same time as the government that the characters are fighting against. Still, they never killed any citizens directly.

Doh! Right after suggesting that Bilal contact the ACLU, I scroll up to the next article and see... that the ACLU is now involved.

Makes you think if the Minute Men in the American Revolution were considered terrorist by the British Government? The Boston Tea Party an act of terror? The "Americans" were traitors to the British.

"Some times what is right and wrong all depends on what side you stand on"

"What is good and evil, is what I say is Good and Evil"

I think he made a game to be like his own life in some way, and that is why he made it like that.

While I don't think he is ever a threat, he did make this game to confront his own personal problems like when his brother was killed, he could have easily been a suicide bomber but he chose not to even though the Anti-American sentiment was really strong in his home land at the time of the US invasion of his home country.

I think he is a brave guy for trying to make a game like that in his collage, while he might not have been a good programmer like his game has a few controlling bugs, the only criticism I could say that when you are making something for an arts exhibition, making interactive games may not be the best thing to do because people who go to college arts exhibitions don't have enough time to look at one thing alone, their eyes more want to see art, not play art.

I hope my words describe it well.

Also those Republican people who wanted the game to be banned, they most likely would never play the game in the first place, therefore the game is criticized before being played.

It is sad but that is how hard it is to make a serious political game, it is different from a serious political movie because people are too lazy so they rather see things, not play thing or even read things.

That is what I would say about society, we are too lazy to play games before we criticize them. And that is me talking to those older generation people who never liked Videogames in the first place.

@Ebonheart

Nah mate, the 5th galaxy is a dump. Besides I'm already master of galaxies 6-13. You can have galaxy 5 if you like.

The important thing with terrorism vs freedom fighter is the willingness to strike civilian targets or lack of concern for civilian collateral damage. That leaves a lot of games out of the terrorist category because the developers couldn't be bothered to program innocents. Also we can't count the rebel alliance from Star Wars since they strike military targets.

Oh! How can we have missed the biggest & most obvious terrorist game... GTA3!!! I mean you have to steal cars & have bombs planted in them, blow up the triad fish place, kill hundreds of civilians just because they disagree with someone. In VC you start gang wars just to terrify people and lower property values, you regularly destroy local businesses & break pretty much every law there is. When you think of the heinous terrorist threat that is San Andreas do we have to say more than 'Hot Coffee'?

@ Are'el

Since you asked, Bilal is an American citizen.

Re: RPI there are a few additional items that I don't think have been mentioned including that Bilal was brought in as a visiting artist, that his previous works have all been in the same vein and address similarly themed issues (one which he had mentioned was "Shoot an Iraqi" where visitors to his website could control a large gun remotely to aim at him in the studio and shoot -- 60,000 Americans shot him), and that several RPI students worked with him on the project.

Well yes but these were building contractors. They're so evil they make palpatine look like a 2 year old when you take his toys away.

Realistically speaking (as much as one can speak realistically about a fictional universe) any contractors they used on a top secret military project would have had to have maximum possible security clearances and that would mean trust. For the Empire to trust them, the contractors would probably have had to make sith torture chambers or something & therefore they'd probably be evil anyway.

I'm kind of annoyed that I missed that remote control gun exhibit, that sounds like it'd have been a laugh

[...] A firsthand account of the exhibit at SfIM (from gamepolitics.com). [...]
 
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