Albany Paper Backs Free Speech Claim in Controversial Game Lawsuit

In an editorial published this morning the Albany Times-Union offers support for a federal lawsuit filed last week against the city of Troy, New York and its public works commissioner, Robert Mirch (left).

GamePolitics readers will recall that in 2008 inspectors invoked the city’s building code to shut down an art gallery which was displaying Virtual Jihadi, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal’s controversial computer game exhibit. From today’s Times-Union editorial:

What constitutes free and protected speech in Troy, and what constitutes public safety and unacceptable building code violations, aren’t merely matters of fiat. They aren’t simply up to the whims of Robert Mirch. They shouldn’t be, at least…


The public works commissioner, not to mention the majority leader of the Rensselaer County Legislature, had effectively appointed himself arbiter of public morals…

Mr. Mirch, meanwhile, seems to have a new beef with the media… He’s bothered that the lawsuit, which after all is a public document, has made it into the hands of the media. Let’s hope he doesn’t try to use the building code to further retaliate…

Free speech and the building code should be kept separate.

City Sued Over Shutdown of Controversial Video Game Exhibit

The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the city of Troy, New York and its Public Works Commissioner suppressed free speech by shutting down a controversial video game exhibit in March, 2008.

GamePolitics readers may recall our extensive coverage of the politically-charged situation surrounding Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal. His Virtual Jihadi exhibit employed a modded PC game which included a mission to blow up then-President George W. Bush. Bilal said that the exhibit was intended to express his view that U.S. policy in Iraq helped create terrorists.

Bilal, a U.S. citizen and a faculty member at the Art Institute of Chicago, was invited to display his work at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in Troy but was abruptly ordered off campus after the school’s College Republican Club raised objections to the game. Bilal was then offered space to display Virtual Jihadi at a nearby gallery, the Sanctuary for Independent Media.

The gallery, however, was suddenly shut down for building code violations by Troy’s Public Works Commissioner, Robert Mirch (left). Mirch, who is named as a defendant in the suit, had earlier led a demonstration protesting the exhibit. He called the suit politically motivated.

The Albany Times-Union offers comment on the suit from Melanie Trimble of the NYCLU’s Capital Region Chapter:

City officials cannot selectively enforce building codes to shut down an art exhibition they find distasteful. Mr. Mirch abused his authority to suppress the free speech rights of people he disagree with, an unconstitutional act that must be challenged.

According to the Times-Union report, the NYCLU seeks a court order to block the city from using its building code to infringe on civil rights. The suit also seeks damages on behalf of the non-profit which owns the Sanctuary for Independent Media as well as for the gallery’s executive director. The NYCLU has posted a press release on the suit.

DOCUMENT DUMP: Grab a copy of the complaint from the NYCLU website

Gaming’s Most Politically Fascinating People of 2008

It’s Game Over for 2008, a year full of fun, excitement and more than a bit of controversy for the video game community.

A couple of weeks back we looked at the Top 15 Stories of 2008. Today GamePolitics presents the most politically fascinating people of the year:

15. Politicians Who Play – The mayor of Muskogee, Oklahoma is a gamer. So is the mayor of the Anzin Saint-Aubin in France. Both were elected in 2008, a year which saw more gamers hold political office than ever before. Hard to believe? Check out our coverage of gamer-politicos.

14. Sarah Palin – While she’s not a politican who plays video games, game designers can’t seem to resist the controversial Governor of Alaska. During her failed vice-presidential bid Palin was the subject of so many online games that we actually lost count. Big-time game publishers cashed in on Palin-mania as well. A Palin character was featured (along with Barack Obama) as DLC for Mercenaries 2. Maxis created a Palin creature for Spore and featured the world’s best-known hockey mom dancing in a bikini in a trailer for The Sims 3. And, even with the election in the rear-view mirror, Palin’s hunting habit was lampooned this week by PETA. Personally, I even got into bit of a tiff with David Jaffe over Palin. In retrospect, I think I was too rough on the God of War designer.

13. Brad Wardell – While the big-time publishers continue to alienate their loyal PC customers with intrusive DRM schemes, delayed release dates and silly threats to abandon the platform altogether, Brad Wardell, CEO of boutique publisher Stardock (Sins of a Solar Empire) is one guy who is actually thinking about ways to provide PC gamers with a better experience. The Gamer’s Bill of Rights that he and Gas Powered Games CEO Chris Taylor released at PAX 08 was a bold, if preliminary, step in the right direction. We also love what Randy Stude and the members of the PC Gaming Alliance are doing to keep computer gaming alive.

12. Wafaa Bilal – In an effort to show his belief that American foreign policy actually encourages terrorist recruitment, Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal’s controversial Virtual Jihadi game puts the player in control of a reluctant suicide bomber who must target President Bush. The game was at the center of a free speech controversy when Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in upstate New York invited him to display Virtual Jihadi but abruptly un-invited him when campus Republicans protested. Bilal (left), a naturalized American citizen, then set up shop in a small, off-campus art gallery, but Republican city officials closed the place down, dubiously citing building code violations. The New York Civil Liberties Union is suing the city.

11. Hal Halpin – Yes, some will criticize Hal’s selection since the Entertainment Consumers Association, which he heads, is the parent company of GamePolitics. But the ECA represents the first organized movement to protect and nurture the interests of the gaming public, so it’s impossible to ignore. What Hal started in late 2006 really gained momentum in 2008. This year the ECA lobbied on behalf of game consumers and took positions on important issues like Net Neutrality, EULAs, Universal Broadband and game censorship.

10. Cooper Lawrence – The author of fluffy books about dating and celebrities clearly had no idea what she was stepping into when she smeared RPG hit Mass Effect during a Fox News-orchestrated video game beatdown in January. Thankfully, Spike TV’s Geoff Keighley was on hand to provide some rational counterpoint. Lawrence’s ridiculous comments about the best-selling Xbox 360 title were widely reported in the gaming press. Outraged gamers took guerilla revenge by flocking to where they trashed listings for Lawrence’s books with one-star reviews. In the end it turned out that Lawrence was completely unacquainted with Mass Effect and relied instead on a lurid Fox News briefing, a fact which she later admitted to the New York Times. Whether or not one approves of the tactics employed against Lawrence, the episode provided an object lesson for the mainstream media: Gamers will not sit idly by while they and their hobby are slandered. (more after the jump)

GamePolitics: Top 15 of 2008

2008’s Game Over is just around the corner and that means it’s time to look back at the top gaming stories of the past twelve months.

With so much happening in 2008, it wasn’t easy to trim the list down to just 15 stories. But we managed, so, without further ado:

15. No Taxation Without Representation: Several states looked into levying "sin taxes" against the purchase of video games and consoles in 2008. Such measures were proposed by legislators in Wisconsin and New Mexico, but ultimately failed to pass. In New York, Gov. David Paterson’s 2009 budget proposal would add a sales tax to digitally-delivered content, including DLC. On the other side of the coin, an increasing number of states are offering tax breaks as an incentive to lure game developers to set up shop.

14. War. Huh. What is Good For? As the US Army made increasing use of its popular America’s Army recruiting game, anti-war protesters marched at a number of Army-sponsored gaming event around the country. Protesters also gathered outside Ubisoft’s San Francisco offices to protest the console version released by Ubi a couple of years back. In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union charged that the Defense Department’s use of the game violates United Nations protocols which bar the recruitment of children into military service.

13. Defectors! The Entertainment Software Association began the year with 28 member companies. Following a number of defection by companies both large (Activision, LucasArts) and small (Crave, NCsoft), it will finish the year with, at most, 21. The economy certainly had something to do with it, but some reports indicated dissatisfaction with new ESA boss Mike Gallagher.

12. Spore Triumph Turns to Controversy: It was supposed to be legendary game designer Will Wright’s crowning achievement, but Spore will be remembered more for install limits and loading unwanted Securom DRM on player’s computers than for its game play. Yes, EA eventually backed off on some of the security measures but not before several class-action suits were filed by consumers. The game’s DRM issues fueled a debate about piracy that is still raging.

11. ESRB and Retailers Earn High Marks: The Federal Trade Commission released the results of its annual secret shopper study and the video game industry did itself proud. According to the FTC, retailers properly enforced M ratings 80% of the time, with GameStop earning an eye-popping 94% grade. Clearly, the ESRB is getting the word out to parents and retailers are doing a better job of training their clerks to enforce game ratings. The ESRB also expanded its parental outreach program with a very cool ratings widget and continued wooing political figures with the lure of free advertising via ESRB-funded public service announcements.

10. Rise of the Game Consumer Movement: The Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA) continued to expand its representation of issues important to gamers by addressing DRM, Net Neutrality and Universal Broadband, among other concerns. Gamers showed themselves to be a very powerful grassroots force, using the power of the Net to mobilize against Spore’s DRM and respond to author Cooper Lawrence, who blithely – and incorrectly – trashed Mass Effect on Fox News.

9. In the Eye of the Beholder: Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in upstate New York invited Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal to present his controversial Virtual Jihadi game exhibit and then booted him from campus when the school’s Republican Club protested. Forced to use a private art gallery in neighboring Troy, Bilal again found himself shut down when Republican city officials drummed up a long-ignored building code violation. Bilal eventually returned to Chicago where he teaches art. The ACLU sued city officials in federal court.

8. If You Can Make Video Game Law There, You Can Make it Anywhere: Led by Republican State Sen. Andrew Lanza, New York passed a video game bill in 2008 and Gov. David Paterson (D) signed it into law. However, the law, which takes effect in 2010 is essentially a showpiece and lacks teeth. Game sales will not be restricted in any way. How can you be sure? Easy: the video game industry did not file its usual constitutional challenge.  See the Rest of the List After the Jump…

MSNBC’s Citizen Gamer Dishes on Controversial Indie Games

In a terrific roundup, Winda Benedetti, MSNBC’s Citizen Gamer, surveys some of the more controversial independent game offerings and asks whether such games are an appropriate medium for sensitive topics.

Among other titles, Benedetti looks at Danny Ledonne’s Super Columbine Massacre RPG (left), The Torture Game 2, Wafaa Bilal’s Virtual Jihadi, Operation Pedopriest, and Harpooned. There are, of course, critics:

"You don’t gain appreciation for the [Columbine] tragedy by repeating it and participating in a recreation yourself and taking the role of murderers,” says Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, in an interview for a documentary film Ledonne recently completed about his experiences making the game, and the aftermath.

“This is totally immoral and should be banned to everyone, especially younger teenagers,” wrote a reader calling herself Ms. Johnson in response to my recent column about “The Torture Game 2,”  a controversial Web game that allows players to torture a man-like person tied up with ropes.

David Kociemba, an art prof at Emerson College who appears in Ledonne’s film, says:

The controversy should be that there aren’t more games like ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG!’ that are as demanding and as artistically innovative… Why is it permitted for Michael Moore in 2002, to make ‘Bowling For Columbine’ — a film essay on this subject — and to use far more graphic footage than Danny Ledonne does three years later in a primitive low-res video game? Are we really going to say that video game designers are the one set of artists that do not have the right to engage in contemporary political issues?


Renewed Controversy over Iraqi Artist’s Virtual Jihadi Game

Controversy seems to follow Virtual Jihadi, artist Wafaa Bilal’s computer game commentary on America’s Iraq war policy.

As GamePolitics reported earlier this year, Bilal and his exhibit were uninvited from Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute following complaints about the game from the school’s College Republican club. After moving the exhibit to an art gallery in nearby Troy, New York, Republican city officials intervened, closing the gallery over alleged building code violations. Art gallery officials charged that the closure was politically motivated. The New York Civil Liberties Union eventually filed a lawsuit against the city over the issue. 

Fast forward to this month. Bilal, an American citizen as well as a faculty member at the Art Institute of Chicago, is currently exhibiting Virtual Jihadi at the Windy City’s FLATFILE galleries, accompanied by a renewed round of controversy.

So, what’s the uproar about? By way of background, GamePolitics reader Zachary Miner described the game as the RPI/Troy flap was raging earlier this year. Bilal’s exhibit is, essentially, a mod of an al Qaeda mod of a forgettable PC game called Quest for Saddam:

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.

Negative reaction to the Chicago exhibit has come from a variety of critics:

  • Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin: If you’re a left-wing artist looking for attention, you can never go wrong with assassination chic. The latest entrant is one Wafaa Bilal. He’s got issues, as they say… And Obama and his grievance-mongering supporters have the nerve to whine about that New Yorker cartoon…
  • Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit: If somebody did this about Obama it would be a national scandal and evidence of America’s incurable bigotry. But since it’s an artist named Wafaa Bilal and it’s about Bush it’s just "confrontational art"… In an earlier age, this kind of thing would have been considered unacceptable enemy propaganda. On the other hand, this is just more proof that all the lefty bleating about George Bush’s fascism is just self-indulgent — and utterly dishonest — twaddle.
  • Jihad Watch: There is freedom of speech and there is incitement to murder. A cartoon of Muhammad harms no one, although there are those who chose to consider themselves harmed by it, and think that it gives them a license to commit murder. This video game, on the other hand, encourages the murder of a living human being. Yet no one will be particularly concerned about this, while attempts to limit free speech because of the cartoons continue… It isn’t as if anyone drew a cartoon of Muhammad in this exhibit. That would be crossing the line, now, wouldn’t it?
  • Israeli game blogger Avi Green : This is really obscene and disgusting, and that it should be shown at an exhibition where I’m guessing they wouldn’t even think of displaying the Mohammed cartoons from Denmark, should tell something about the true nature of the institute. Whoever Flatfile are, anyone with common sense should stay away from them.

Meanwhile, embattled anti-game lawyer Jack Thompson has inserted himself into the situation. As reported by Time Out Chicago, Thompson issued one of his typical legal threats to FLATFILE director Susan  Aurinko:

Either you immediately remove [Virtual Jihadi] from your ‘art gallery,’ or I shall take the necessary legal action to have it removed. I have already contacted the Secret Service.  Your public display of this game is a criminal act. 

It’s unclear on what basis Thompson assumes the exhibit constitutes a crime. The FBI reportedly reviewed Bilal’s game when it was first exhibited at RPI in March and took no action. Thompson subsequently claimed in an e-mail that Bilal "threatened" him in a phone call last Friday, although the nature of the "threat" is not specified. 

UPDATE: Executive Protection News has weighed in on Bilal’s project:

Executive protection specialists should not dismiss these games no matter how distasteful they might be. Suicide bombers have been very effective in targeting VIPs and have successfully assassinated national leaders, military officials and other key figures. The threat of suicide bombers to key persons is real…


While it is doubtful that this game will result in a direct threat to President Bush or even an immediate suicide bomber attempt, these games give legitimacy to the tactic and hence encourage those who are already predisposed to use suicide bomber tactics.


Troy, NY Sued Over City Shutdown of Video Game Exhibit

Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal’s controversial video game exhibit, which culminates in the player attempting to shoot President Bush, has triggered a lawsuit against the city of Troy, New York, according to the Albany Times-Union.

As GamePolitics readers may recall, Bilal, a faculty member at the Art Institute of Chicago, was invited to present his Virtual Jihadi exhibit at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in March.

RPI’s Republican Club, however, objected to Virtual Jihadi, which Bilal said was designed to show how US policy in Iraq has encouraged terrorism. School officials subsequently ordered the exhibit off campus. A local venue, the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, then offered Bilal the opportunity to display his work.

On opening night local Republican leader Robert Mirch, who also happens to be Troy’s Public Works commissioner, led a protest outside the exhibit. The following day, Troy code enforcement officials (who work for Mirch) shut the Sanctuary down over building code violations involving its doors.

The Sanctuary, assisted by the New York Civil Liberties Union, has notified Troy that it will file a lawsuit against the city as well as Mirch. Said Melanie Trimble executive director of NYCLU’s Capital Region chapter:

City officials cannot selectively enforce building codes to shut down an art exhibition they find distasteful… City officials cannot chill free speech in this city by using their official powers.

Bob Mirch is the head of Public Works which oversees the code enforcement. Code enforcement came the next day and shut the building down even though they had approved the building’s opening the day before. It’s no coincidence.

Sanctuary co-founder Steve Pierce added:

There is a climate of fear in the city.

For his part, Mirch said:

This is nonsense. And a publicity stunt. At no time was the sanctuary closed. The two situations are not connected. Not connected.

Capital News 9 has a video report.

After Booting Controversial Game Art Exhibit, RPI Goes After College Republicans

At Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute in Troy, New York, the fallout continues in the wake of the school’s cancellation of a controversial game art exhibit.

As reported by the Albany Times-Union, the College Republicans, who were instrumental in drawing attention to visiting artist Wafaa Bilal’s Virtual Jihadi exhibit, have had their website shut down. RPI officials said the action was taken because the College Republican site referred to the RPI Arts Department as "a terrorist safehaven."

With an official disciplinary review pending, Dean of Students Mark Smith ordered the website to be shut down, writing that:

[The terrorist safehaven remark is] slanderous, blatantly untrue, and can be construed to endanger the health, safety and welfare of members of the Rensselaer community.

Ken Girardin, co-chairman of the College Republicans, said:

[School officials] were looking at the term from the strictest interpretation. And we were looking at it with the loosest interpretation.

Ironically, the website shut down was the official RPI College Republican page. The terrorist safehaven comment resided on a separate blog not controlled by the school. 

ACLU May Sue Troy, NY in Game Controversy…

The furor sparked by Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal’s controversial video game exhibit has seemingly taken on a life of its own.

In the latest news, officials of the New York Civil Liberties Union said that the organization may file suit against the city of Troy. As GamePolitics reported yesterday, city officials used local building codes to shut down Bilal’s exhibit at a local studio. Executive Director Melanie Trimble of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union told the Schenectady Daily Gazette:

The city is suppressing free speech, and they will face consequences. You cannot prevent people from assembling. It is an infringement of their First Amendment rights.

At the heart of the issue is the role of political figure Bob Mirch (left), a Republican with deep political connections in local and state politics. As reported by the Daily Gazette:

Mirch is head of [Troy’s] Department of Public Works, works for [Republican] state Sen. Joseph Bruno as a constituent liaison and is Republican majority leader on the Rensselaer County Legislature.

Steve Pierce, director of the Sanctuary for Independent Media, which was shut down by Troy less than 24 hours after Bilal’s exhibit opened, said:

We have [Mirch] on video saying, ‘I am the director of public works, and I am organizing this protest.’ The next day they shut us down. It is an issue of selective enforcement.


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

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…