PLAYING DEAD: Ed Halter on how protest is entering the (video) game of war — plus, a brief history of video games and the Pentagon (Arthur, 2006)

Playing Dead

How protest is entering the (video) game of war

by Ed Halter

Illustration by Geoff McFetridge

Art direction by Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington

Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (July 2006)


Like millions of others around the world, Joseph DeLappe spends multiple hours each week logged into online multiplayer games. His current game of choice is America’s Army, the squad-based tactical shooter produced and promoted by the real US Army as a tool for PR and recruitment efforts. America’s Army has been available for free download from AmericasArmy.com since July 4, 2002, and in its three-plus years of existence has developed a devoted global following; if nothing else, it has successfully enhanced the Army’s brand by associating it with something engaging, cutting-edge and youth-friendly. Millions of users who might not otherwise have a personal connection to the American military have found one through playing the game: they’ve gone on missions based on realistic contemporary scenarios, learned to fight together using official Army protocol and rules of engagement, and even had the chance to play alongside real US soldiers, who signal their participation via exclusive insignia worn by their online characters. While deadly and chaotic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fill the headlines and TV screens, with reports as intimately gruesome as HBO’s Baghdad ER, America’s Army has provided a counter-image of the military that is as idealized as a textbook, as thrilling as a Hollywood movie, and as addictive as any commercial video game around. It is a paradoxical media object, mirroring its eponymous nation’s own divided consciousness: a game that celebrates realism through a carefully constructed fantasy that omits more than it reveals. In America’s Army, characters don’t end up with brain damage, missing limbs or post-traumatic stress disorder, or have to deal with an administration that sent them to a war that most back home don’t support, and then slashed their veteran’s benefits to boot—because none of that would be any fun at all, compared to the high-adrenaline, deep-strategy game-time of make-believe battle.

DeLappe, however, chooses to play the game rather differently than most. His virtual warfighter—whom he has named “dead-in-iraq”—logs onto America’s Army and simply stands there and does nothing. DeLappe nevertheless takes part in the game in other ways. Drawing from publicly available rosters of US casualties in Iraq, DeLappe types out the names of killed servicemembers into the game’s text message chat window, entering one name per line. For example, during one of DeLappe’s missions of virtual conscientious objection, some fellow America’s Army players saw this appear in their text message scroll as they organized for battle:

[US Army] dead-in-iraq messaged: JONATHAN LEE GIFFOR, 20, MARINES, MAR 23, 2003

[US Army] dead-in-iraq messaged: JOSE ANGEL GARIBAY, 21, MARINES, MAR 23, 2003

[US Army] dead-in-iraq messaged: DAVID KEITH FRIBLEY, 26, MARINES, MAR 23, 2003

If his dead-in-iraq character gets killed in battle or is voted off the server by fellow gamers (a procedure typically employed with players who aren’t taking the game seriously and thereby inhibiting others), DeLappe logs back on at another time and continues where he left off. He started this text recitation in March 2006, and by the middle of May had typed out the names of over 350 war casualties. He’s inputting the names chronologically, from the first casualty onward, and intends to type out a complete naming of the military dead. DeLappe says he will continue this online memorial until there are no more names to memorialize—in other words, until the war stops producing American corpses in uniform (and at the time of writing this article, that means he has more than 2100 names to go). So DeLappe has found his own way to play America’s Army, creating an experience that owes less to Quake than it does to the Quakers.

A media artist and professor at the University of Nevada Reno (a town better known for a different kind of gaming), DeLappe displays a small archive of screenshots from his dead-in-iraq project on his website, http://www.delappe.net. The now-frozen responses from virtual army men range from confusion to anger. “I think they are the dates of deaths of soldiers,” types one player under the name of hk-burritoman#1. “Are those real people?” asks BgRobSmith. “U arent encouraging me to join the service,” messages one Mojo216. Gen.MstrChief (a Halo fan, one assumes, slumming it PCside) responds more aggressively, texting “dead in iraq shut the **** up!” after each casualty’s name. DeLappe’s dead-in-iraq never responds to any of these comments or outbursts; he just keeps listing names until he’s somehow forced to leave. 

The decision to boot players is usually done by fellow gamers; so far, DeLappe has not dealt with any higher administrative authority. According to DeLappe, the game’s legally binding end-user license agreement addresses copyright infringement and hacks, but not in-game actions. Within the game, the stated Code of Conduct forbids such things as player harassment, derogatory language, “spamming chat” and failure to follow the orders of squad leaders; at presstime, no administrative authority had yet tried to ban DeLappe by citing any of these infringements. When gaming news-and-reviews site GameSpy asked US Army reps for comment on DeLappe’s project, Public Affairs Specialist Paul Boyce gave a somewhat evasive reply: “America’s Army is open to virtual participation in an authentic U.S. Army experience to players throughout the United States,” he told the reporter. “The Army does not limit participation unless there is negative impact on other players’ experiences. As such, unless an individual uses foul or insensitive language, or is otherwise ruining gameplay for others, the management of America ‘s Army takes no action.”

He sees this ongoing, obsessive online roll-call as digital performance art, a protest, and a memorial, not unlike the live readings of the names of the dead that have become standard antiwar ritual. “It is like street theater,” he told me recently, “or having a soap box in the public square.” It is also something of a social experiment. “No matter how radical or innovative these games might be,” he says, “they’re very similar, they’re very controlled.” Since most memorials happen well after the war is over, a curious part of the project is to find out what it means to do a memorial as the war is still going on.

Like many contemporary artists influenced by the history of conceptual art, DeLappe believes that the process of performing dead-in-iraq is in itself meaningful, even if not all of his activity is visible to other viewers. An important factor, he says, is that he manually types in each word, letter by letter, rather than cutting and pasting. “For me this is kind of like writing something over and over again on a chalkboard,” says DeLappe, a Catholic school grad. “I guess I look at it as a kind of penance.” He reports that he can type in “around 75 or so per sitting taking at least two hours before my hands ache” and doesn’t have a set schedule of when he logs onto America’s Army to continue the project. “It is a bit depressing to do,” he says, and “not something I eagerly anticipate.” And the actions of other players unwittingly add other layers of meaning to the performance: by booting him out of their game, they’re metaphorically denying death’s reality, policing their digital fantasyland Valhalla of eternal warriors from any reminder of real-world mortality.

Using computers to make art is not new for DeLappe. One of his group of works from the late-90s took the form of customized Apple mice augmented with nipples, vaginas or the Unabomber manifesto: a Cronenbergian comment on how enmeshed these bits of plastic and circuitry become with our bodies and minds. He also created a series of abstract motion-tracked designs by attaching a pen or brush to his mouse and then playing Quake or Chessmaster 2000 with his mouse-marker atop a canvas; here again, the immaterial and material meet, the former leaving its literal traces on the latter.

And he has staged “interventions” inside synthetic game worlds before. In 2003, he organized a group to re-enact an episode of Friends inside of Quake for a performance called “Quake/Friends,” which attracted attention from both an art critic for the New York Times and a lawyer for Warner Brothers. Another piece involved DeLappe “reciting” the full text of the poem “Howl” inside the futuristic shooter Elite Force Voyager Online, typing it out by hand, line by line (his character’s name in this case was simply “Allen Ginsberg.”). Later versions of this idea took an overtly political tack. For “War Poets/Medal of Honor,” DeLappe typed verses by World War 1 poet Sigfried Sassoon into the instant message window of the World War II game Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. In a three-part series called “The Great Debate,” DeLappe re-enacted the 2004 presidential debates between Kerry and Bush inside of Battlefield Vietnam, Star Wars Jedi Knight Outcast and The Sims Online. This last project involved a bit of improvisation as well: when other players began asking questions to the virtual doppelgangers of Kerry and Bush, DeLappe ad-libbed responses in character.

Dead-in-iraq is not the first time an artist has imported anti-war protest into a military game space. “Velvet Strike,” a project by artists Brody Condon, Joan Leandre and Anne-Marie Schleiner, brought a more absurd form of political action inside the world of terrorist vs. anti-terrorist game Counter-Strike (a wildly popular free mod for Half-Life whose success, incidentally, appears to have been an inspiration for America’s Army). In 2002, Schleiner began to ponder the growing trend towards war-themed “realism” in games, exemplified by Counter-Strike as well as the various whack-Osama online mini-games that proliferated after 9-11. In response, the Velvet Strike team offered up a variety of ways to stage actions inside Counter-Strike, including downloadable “sprays” that enabled players’ characters to shoot posters onto walls, and “recipes” for acting out pacifist scenarios during games. Schleiner even developed a “game within a game”—a program that allows players to shoot a hopscotch diagram on the battleground floor, adding a subversive girlie touch to the ammo-laden hypermasculine realm. The proposed recipes skew towards the prankish—one suggested that during a battle, you should “tell everyone you are martyrs for peace, then jump off the tallest structure in the level, killing yourselves”—and the original sprays have a geek-punk wit, including a childish drawing of a pink teddy bear with the slogan “Shoot Love Bubbles” and another with the homoerotic image of a terrorist and counter-terrorist embraced in a kiss.

Unsurprisingly, dead-in-iraq and Velvet Strike drew the ire of many gamers who accused the artists of ruining their pastime and injecting unnecessary political statements into entertainment. On her website (http://www.opensorcery.com/velvetstrike), Schleiner writes that she received a “flood…of sometimes hilarious hate mail” in response to Velvet Strike, and posted some of the best of these “flaming jewels” for her readers. DeLappe likewise reports that “other gamers almost always get furious if you do this sort sof thing,” and typically respond by voting him off the server. 

Though DeLappe’s in-game actions are only visible to about a dozen players at any given time, the dead-in-iraq concept itself has taken on a life of its own outside of America’s Army. Once news of dead-in-iraq hit the blogosphere, DeLappe’s project became an object of intense debate on forums like Gamepolitics.com and Terra Nova, a blog about virtual worlds. Many respondents were supportive of his project: after all, a number of them pointed out, since this game is funded by American tax dollars, can’t we do what we want inside of it? And if DeLappe’s activity is disruptive, isn’t that was protest is all about? “On some level it is obnoxious to break into the game with some very real-world content,” DeLappe says, “but that’s what it’s about at some level.” Many have complained, he says, that “‘we come here to escape, so how dare you bring this stuff into here.’ I understand this, but at the same time, I find escaping from what is going on to be problematic.”

Others criticized the effectiveness of protesting inside a game that would provide audiences of merely a handful at a time: wouldn’t his energy be better spent protesting outside of, say, a real recruitment office, instead America’s Army? (On Gamepolitics, another commentator countered this argument, pointing out that, even though none of them actually saw dead-in-iraq as it happened, “here we are talking about it…The way to effectively protest is to capture peoples’ attention. It’s like marketing, the target changes, the idea has to be fresh and new.”)

However, questions about whether dead-in-iraq or Velvet Strike will attract new converts to the cause or merely preach to the choir are the least interesting ones raised by these projects; they’re probably the most typical critiques of any kind of protest, virtual or otherwise, and only extend the win-or-lose logic of games onto another level. A more significant issue is raised by the very possibility of such activity inside these virtual spaces in the first place. Video games have evolved to such a point that they are offering possibilities for activities that go beyond what we typically conceive of as traditionally rule-bound games: think of it as the exploratory logic of World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto projected back into a space supposedly reserved for mere combat simulation. 

And large-scale multiplayer games have themselves seen their share of in-game protests. In January 2005, World of Warcraft players staged a massive march of gnomes in order to call for changes in the abilities of one of the available character classes; because all the protesters logged onto the same server, their collective presence caused it to crash. After World of Warcraft’s parent company banned a gay-friendly guild from forming inside the game, certain players sent characters to protest at in-game weddings, claiming the company was unfairly allowing for displays of heterosexuality but no other orientations. Edward Castronova, an economist who studies how culture and money work within such virtual worlds, has noted on Terra Nova that similar protests have occurred inside games like Ultima Online, Second Life and Star Wars Galaxies. With tens of millions of users, Castronova asks, “will these cultures begin to think of themselves in terms of statehood?”

Perhaps in the near future, we may have to question the authority of virtual governments as well as our real ones, as many do when discussing the implications of dead-in-iraq. But the most powerful aspect of DeLappe’s project is that it does not offer any easy pro- or anti-war message. He has simply devoted himself to reiterating a hard reality—these people died in Iraq—and does so inside of a game explicitly created to aid Army recruitment efforts. In a way, isn’t he ultimately assisting the Army’s cause by improving the quality of new recruits? After all, let’s be realistic: anyone who is squeamish about dying in Iraq at this point should definitely not sign up.


sidebar:

A Brief History of Video Games and the Pentagon

America’s Army isn’t the first convergence of video games and the US military—nor is it likely the last. 

The very earliest computer games emerged as side-effects of Cold War defense funding; before the ’70s, the Pentagon was the single largest investor in the development of American computer technology. MIT hackers brewed the sci-fi shooter Spacewar! on computers paid for by the Pentagon in the mid-Sixties. Around the same time, inventor Ralph Baer proposed the first prototypes for Pong while working for a military defense contractor.

During the age of arcade gaming and the first home console systems, representatives of the US Army approached Atari to see if they’d make a training system for the Bradley Armored Infantry Vehicle out of their 3D vector-graphics classic Battlezone in 1980. Only a few prototypes were built, however. During the height of Pac-Man fever, military recruiters sent representatives to arcades, hoping to sign up the next generation of joystick jockeys. By that time, America’s high-tech military used a number of flight and tank simulators for training whose graphics outclassed anything available to mere Nintendos.

PC gaming came into its own just as the Gulf War brought US troops to Iraq for the first time. The first-person shooter genre emerged with early PC titles Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. In the mid ’90s, clever Marines modified Doom into a boots-on-the-ground training device for four-man fire teams. Simply dubbed Marine Doom the mod removed non-regulation weaponry (so long, chainsaw) and replaced alien monsters with generic enemy soldiers. The game saw only limited use, but inspired others who saw new ways to teach warfare to a generation raised on computers and gaming.

In 1996, the National Research Council hosted a conference called Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense, organized by Michael Zyda of the Naval Postgraduate School. The goal was to explore the potential for collaboration between the defense sector and the entertainment industry: reps from Pixar, Disney, Paramount and George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic rubbed shoulders with officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, National Guard and DARPA. 

Afterwards, Zyda went on to oversee the genesis of America’s Army project, while in 1999 the Army poured $45 million into USC to create the Institute for Creative Technologies, a military-enterainment think-tank that produced, among other projects, Full Spectrum Warrior, the first console game created as both a internal training system and a commercial product (initially for Xbox in 2004). 

Other branches worked with commercial gaming companies as well. The Marines helped produce Destineer’s commercial title Close Combat: First to Fight, which also saw use as a trainer, while the Navy had a hand in the popular SOCOM: Navy Seals franchise. Even indepenetly produced military titles like Conflict: Desert Storm or Delta Force: Black Hawk Down tout retired generals as design consultants. Currently, the Army is looking into converting America’s Army into a training device, and using Full Spectrum Warrior to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.  —Ed Halter


Ed Halter’s book From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games, was recently published by Thunder’s Mouth Press. 

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