In September 2006 Al-Qaeda became a game developer.
Its first release? First-person shooter "Night of Bush Capturing", a game free to anyone with an Internet connection and an open mind. Its six-mission campaign is constructed from genre features familiar to any gamer: work your way deep into enemy territory, shoot enemy soldiers before they shoot you and assassinate the leader.
Only, in this case the territory is America, the enemy soldiers are US troops and the leader in question is George W. Bush. Oh, and the developer is a notorious Islamic militant terrorist alliance.
Programmed by a team from Al-Qaeda's Global Islamic Media Front, Night of Bush Capturing is in fact a modded version of an older, US-made game, Quest for Saddam, released by Petrilla Entertainment in 2003. Al-Qaeda's coders swapped out the artwork and textures of this earlier game - made with the Torque Game Engine - replacing the crude representations of Arab soldiers and anti-Islamic propaganda for equally crude versions of American soldiers and anti-American propaganda. This straightforward re-skin turned what was intended to be a rallying, pro-Iraq war game into a diametrically-opposed (but curiously symmetrical) attack on George Bush, his foreign policy and the nation behind his presidency.
At first neither game attracted much media attention, the former seen as little more than a basic, home-coded game that typified the popular American anti-Arab atmosphere of 2003, the latter a cheap and cheeky knock-off response from an international terrorist organisation. But recently both games found themselves at the forefront of a global debate on freedom of speech, artistic expression and the importance of story and setting in videogames.
Wafaa Bilaal is an Iraqi American artist and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His latest artistic creation is a hacked version of Al-Qaeda's Night of Bush Capturing, in which he integrates himself into the game's narrative to present his own commentary on the conflict. He renamed the game 'Virtual Jihadi' before presenting it to the world as a piece to challenge viewers and inspire debate and conversation on some difficult issues.
In real life, Wafaa's 21-year-old brother, an ordinary Iraqi citizen, was killed by shrapnel during a firefight in Najaf. In his game the lead protagonist, upon learning of his sibling's death, is recruited by Al-Qaeda as a suicide-bomber, joining in the hunt for George Bush. Through his work Wafaa intends to "bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians, highlight racist generalisations and stereotypes promoted in videogames, and demonstrate how British and American foreign policy is pushing Iraqi citizens into the arms of violent groups like Al-Qaeda".
It's a bold and broad purpose and one that saw Wafaa invited by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to present a lecture and exhibit on this work at the end of February 2008. But the exhibition was only open for an hour before it was shut down by city officials. According to newspaper reports, the decision came after the College Republicans called the Arts department "a safe haven for terrorists". Eurogamer caught up with Wafaa this week to unpick the drama and examine some of the issues that have been raised by his game under these unusual circumstances. We started by asking him why he decided to use a videogame to get his message across.
"While I'm not a big gamer, I realise that games are now a huge part of our lives," he explained. "Videogames are moving from being reactive to more dynamic and interactive. For a long time we did not have interactive mediums but only reactive ones. I think that videogames can be more effective and powerful than other mediums such as film in conveying a message, in part because they are an active experience that allows the participant to create the narrative. Also, videogames are the medium of our time. As Quest for Saddam and Night of Bush Capturing were already out there, modifying these controversial examples added weight to my message."
And what exactly is that message? "I am trying to engage people in a conversation," says Bilal. "We, in the United States of America, have become isolated in a comfort zone. We are so far removed from the conflict. In a way I wanted to hold a mirror to people's faces to let them see the reality of this war's repercussions and explore the fallacy in our culture's denial of that disconnection and their stereotyping of other cultures. In a sense I want to reverse the role of the hunter and the hunted."
"The original game, Quest for Saddam, did not get any attention from the media and the state department because the ideas it promoted (that all Arabs/Muslims are terrorists) was the norm. Then when the game was modified to become the Night of Bush Capturing, the State Department labelled it as a terrorist propaganda and a recruiting tool. I thought that was strange because the only thing Al-Qaeda did is to replace the Iraqi skins with American soldiers' skins and Saddam's skin with Bush's skin. What exactly made it propaganda where it wasn't before?"
The idea that any war on terror is destined to failure has been previously explored in the flash game September 12. Players are able to fire rockets at terrorists milling about in a crowded city. Doing so will eliminate the threat but it's impossible to avoid collateral damage, as any nearby civilians are also killed. The family members of these killed civilians then become terrorists and the destructive cycle continues. We wonder if Bilal's game is trying to make a similar point?
"I like the allegory here. What the United States is doing in Iraq is very similar to the idea explored in September 12. Before the invasion of 2003 there were no terrorist organisations other than Saddam's (which was supported by the US). That the US fails to protect Iraqi civilians gives Al-Qaeda a safe haven to exist in and pressures ordinary Iraqis to become part of it. Also since there is so much death among Iraqi civilians, the population becomes outraged and adopts violence as a way of speaking out against the occupation. Sometimes I think that was the original intent of going to Iraq - to create a conflict zone and attract all the Jihadis to fight the US there. As Cheney and Bush often say 'better to fight them there than here'. Perhaps they wanted to stir up this conflict in Iraq to serve their own interests?"
Driver, the 1998 precursor to the 3D Grand Theft Autos, told the story of an undercover cop working from within the mob to bring about its downfall. Cast as one Maverick Tanner, players were given assignments to steal cars, carry out hits and scare witnesses into silence all with the aim of eventually showing your employers a police badge and your true reason for working with them.
At least, that's how the story ended up. But it wasn't always that way. During development Maverick Tanner was as crooked as his bosses, a plain old mobster, working the game, living life one death at a time. However, as the game neared completion, developer Reflections caught wind of the fact their back-story was likely to land their game an adult age rating, a decision that would hurt the game's sales significantly. The solution? Recast Tanner as an undercover cop. While every single aspect of gameplay and mission remained untouched, the shift in narrative purpose secured the game the 15 rating its creators were after, a message sounding loud and clear that, where the mainstream is concerned, the back-story and purpose driving a game character is at least as important as its mechanics in influencing public reaction to a game.
The actions you undertake in Virtual Jihadi are really no functionally different to those experienced in Call of Duty or Medal of Honor (i.e. shoot the enemies before they shoot you). But the back-story makes it somehow less acceptable. Eurogamer asks Bilal if this kind of reaction is hypocritical or natural?
"Of course it is hypocritical," he replies. "But then again we should expect it. My game reverses the roles, viewing the conflict seen in countless first-person shooters from the other side. And people in the US do not like what they see (or in this case, what they heard, since the game was open for less than one hour before it was closed down). This reaction reinforces my belief that a 'superior' culture will always impose its point of view on the rest of the world. And when someone speaks out effectively, he or she gets labelled. That is a sign of culture in trouble because it cannot accept a different point of view.
America's Army is a first-person shooter paid for by the American military. We ask Bilal if he believes games such as America's Army and Night of Bush Capturing are effective recruitment tools, or of they're simply entertainment. "The Army denies their game is propaganda," he answers. "But at the same time they labelled the Night of Bush Capturing as a recruiting tool. Personally I think what the United States is doing in Iraq is the best recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda. In both cases I'm concerned when teenagers and kids play because of the inherent idealisation of the war and violence."
That Night of Bush Capturing had only to change some textures to turn the message against the original creator reveals a kind of logical symmetry between the anti-Saddam and anti-Bush messages. "I think it's fair to say that," says Bilal. "Since I lived in both places I see more and more similarities between the decisions made by the two regimes. I hope it doesn't come to the same point that was reached in Iraq under Saddam. But Iraqis surrendered their power to the regime in the name of the nation and the national security, something that is clearly happening in America right now."
That Bilal's game has been thrown out of the RPI in a sense proves all of his points regarding closed dialogue in America, the threat to freedom of speech and underlying racism in many of the American people. Eurogamer wonders if this was the kind of reaction he was expecting? "I did not expect it from an educational institution. But it looks like the institution there has become an extension of the military and the government - in fact the RPI gets extensive funding from the government. It is taking an authoritarian direction, which I think is the future of the US if people do not start speaking out. It is sad because if that is the case, Al-Qaeda has achieved its goal in changing the way people live in the US. The treatment my videogame has received is yet more evidence of the fact the terrorists have already won."