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."