Originally written circa 2009 for a really fun Art & New Media unit – not a perfect essay but an interesting subject, so maybe I’ll re-write it properly one day! If I could have made it longer I should have included discussion on the simplistic graphics and visual design of the game – another essay that I typed from a hard copy, so no footnotes, and there may be some typos Featured image from September 12th – A Toy World, Gonzalo Frasca, 2003
Play in September 12th – A Toy World
The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary has approximately 20 meanings for the word play, such as to “occupy or amuse oneself pleasantly with some recreation, game, exercise, etc.” and “act light-heartedly or flippantly”. These descriptions seem to fail as a description of Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th – A Toy World (2003), a “political video game about the war on terror”; however play is also defined as the performance of a role, to “participate, cooperate, do what is wanted” or to “pretend to be”. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the idea of play, and to critically analyse its role in September 12th.
Play as it exists in popular video games is generally concerned with “fun”, and within the genre of video game there exists a convention on play “dictated by entertainment consumerism”. A number of these conventions are described by Shuen-shing Lee: The first is the struggle toward the goal – he cites such games as SimCity and Pac Man as examples of games with both implicit and explicit goals. Often in games, the “protocol of difficulty level arises” to keep the player from moving too fast through the game – although there needs to be a balance, as Lee points out, so that the game is neither too easy nor too difficult. A second aspect of popular video games is that of the score chart – even in a seemingly un-winnable game, players’ abilities to “endure a particular situation” are ranked on a score chart – and the goal of the player becomes to “break the record set by previous players” – while a “victory” in the game may not be possible as such, the goal of the player is still to win.
The rise of the “art game” has, if not challenged these conventions, then manipulated them in a different way, to make social or political comment. Lee describes art games as a “small group of computer games imbued with socio-political critique”, a critical genre of games, many of which attempt to form alternative goals, such as “meditative play or off-gaming engagement”. Referred to by some as “newsgaming”, the genre is likened to “traditional printed political cartoons: short, controversial satirical pieces that convey biased ideological messages” and Frasca suggests that video games’ ability to model complex situations makes them a “perfect medium” for this purpose. Art games also transform the function of play – from being purely entertainment-based, as in traditional video games, play becomes something that Paul Virilio describes as more of a “shift in reality” than something that brings pleasure.
September 12th deals with the War on Terror – a complex and many-sided issue – but, being an art game, functions more as a vehicle for Frasca’s moral and ideological views than a journalistic representation of the true events. Also, because it holds a powerful political statement and lacks many of the aspects of play present in popular video games, September 12th functions less as pure entertainment and more as a piece of art in a new media. As Frasca states, the game is “not meant just to entertain. Through this piece we want to encourage players to think critically about the efficacy of the United States’ current strategy against terrorism”. The basic idea of the piece is that “violence against violence brings about endless wars”, which the audience experiences interactively. As the player tries to kill the terrorists, they unavoidably kill civilians as well (described in the September 12th Press Release as “collateral damage”). As other civilians mourn their dead, they turn into terrorists themselves, and, “after a couple of minutes of play, the screen is full of terrorists”. Of course these events are not representative of the real world, “but seem easily acceptable in the context of a simulation”.
The “illusion of choice” is also central to the impact of the game. “In the introductory screen, the game details the “deadly simple” rules: “You can shoot… Or not.” This is where Virilio’s “mobile reality” can be considered. The piece is complex in its treatment of reality. Truly, the reality is that the viewer is sitting in front of a screen, playing this un-winnable game, however there are many realities involved. The game itself presents a distorted reality, in its simplification of complex world issues: That civilians mourn only for other civilians, not terrorists, that all mourners automatically turn into terrorists, and that there are only two actions possible: shoot, and continue the violence, or don’t shoot, and watch as the game’s “‘toy world’ continues unimpeded, a living doll’s house of scurrying Arabs”. The true reality of the War on Terror is far more complex, and, while it is the subject of the game, in many ways Frasca’s simplification of the issues does not detract from September 12th‘s impact, in fact it makes it all the more powerful. Even if the player finds they disagree with Frasca’s biased portrayal of the War on Terror, the piece encourages critical thinking, and so still succeeds, despite a conflict of interest with the player. The fact that the piece looks and functions like a conventional video game, and yet is “not necessarily intended to entertain the player, but rather to engage them in the social and political issues…” creates a noticeable contrast between September 12th and the popular video games – most somewhat lacking in September 12th‘s depth or obvious biased opinion – that players may be more used to.
September 12th sets itself apart from traditional notions of play in video games not only through its social and political comment, but through its design. The lack of a score nullifies “the concept of competition among players”, and eliminates any feeling of accomplishment when the game is finished – “retrial improves nothing, but only intensifies the sense of impotence and tragedy”. This also eliminates the goal – which as discussed earlier, provides the motivation for the struggle that is playing the game in the first place. In a cynical comment on the War on Terror, the goal – to eradicate terrorism – is, at least in the game, totally impossible. Through this un-winnable format, Frasca states that there can be no winner in a situation where violence is used against violence, where the lives of innocent civilians are considered to be merely “collateral damage”. If a conventional video game is too hard, players may be “scared off” or frustrated that their goal seems so difficult to achieve. While this format “transcends the convention dictated by entertainment consumerism” it also establishes an “alternative goal” in the game – while some players may ‘quit an un-winnable game out of sheer frustration, other players might proceed from the level of negotiation to a cognitive interaction with the game’s puzzling design”. Perhaps it is Frasca’s abandonment of traditional notions of play that is the strongest part of September 12th. The aspects of the piece that help it fail as entertainment are the very same characteristics that make it a successful art game.
Our individual definitions of play influence the way we interact with games whether they be popular video games or less conventional games created for purposes other than to entertain. If video games are purely supposed to bring “playing pleasure”, September 12th must be considered a failure as a video game, but surely with new technology and media, the video game may be expanded to include more functions than just mindless play. Art games re-evaluate ideas of play – how we play, why we play, and what we expect from the experience of play – games like September 12th defy the conventions of generic video games to develop a new function for the video game – to expand it from being a media of pleasure to a media to be used for serious social and political comment as well. Artists such as Frasca can be considered to be pioneering a successful and memorable new media which acts not only as a vehicle for ideas and critical analysis of modern day issues, but also as a way to change the way we see play in our every day lives. Art games may just succeed in broadening play from being an experience of pure pleasure and fun, to one that includes and encourages objective and critical thinking in our every day lives.
Kent, H., The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, 3rd edn, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1999, p1028-9
Lee, S., ‘I Lose Therefore I Think: A Search for Contemplation amid Wars of Push-Button Glare’, Game Studies, retrieved 9th May 2009, http://gamestudies.org/0302/lee
Sans, J., ‘The Game of Love and Chance: A Discussion with Paul Virilio”, retrieved 9th May 2009, http://watsoninstitute.org/infopeace/vy2k/sans.cfm
‘Caught in the Web: March 2004’, Game Critics, retrieved 8th May 2009, http://www.gamecritics.com/node/3640
‘”SEPTEMBER 12th, A toy world” – Political Videogame About The War On Terror’, News Gaming, retrieved 9th May 2009, http://newsgaming.com/press092903.htm