The "Velvet-Strike" underground

Taking protests to the street is old hat. Today's rabble-rousers wave their signs inside video games.

Published May 4, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

Even on a Tuesday afternoon, the line for the Whitney Biennial stretches around the corner, blocking the sidewalk at 75th Street on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The Biennial is a survey of the last two years of new American art, but what constitutes "art" is open to interpretation. When I visit, one of the exhibits is a computer showing a loop of "Counter-Strike," the anti-terrorism variant of the classic video game "Half-Life."

A first-person shooter (FPS) on display at one of the world's most preeminent contemporary art shows isn't the strangest thing one might expect to see, but it's still pretty odd. I step closer to the computer, where a woman stands frustrated, clicking the mouse impatiently. I explain to her that the game looks to be on a loop, and is not actually controlled by her. But it's not clear to me why "Counter-Strike" is in this collection until I read the curatorial card explaining the piece. "'Velvet-Strike,' 2002. Online game intervention."

I look more closely at the screen, at the dim world of concrete and crates, the space the game designers have created. A soldier changes weapons. But instead of firing his gun, he spray-paints a message on the nearest wall. It reads, "Hostages of Military Fantasy."

The Biennial is well known for featuring works of art, such as graphic novels, that don't fit into classical categories. But in this case, it's the message that appears to be the point, and not the quality of the art. In line with the theme of this first post-Sept. 11 Biennial, "Velvet-Strike" is an indictment of the pro-military sentiment of many video games. "Velvet-Strike" infiltrates "Counter-Strike," changing its dynamic. And with images such as two camouflage-covered soldiers poised for a kiss, it's an intervention that has outraged many "Counter-Strike" gamers.

"Velvet-Strike" has been irritating gamers for two years now. But its relevance seems only to be increasing, as casualties continue to mount in Iraq, and the gaming industry continues to jump on the military bandwagon. In the first days of the Iraq war, Sony copyrighted the phrase "shock and awe," for use in a (now abandoned) future video game. "America's Army," the game created as a P.R. and recruiting tool for the real U.S. Army, is now the No. 1 online action game, according to CBS News.

Games like "Counter-Strike" create their own highly militarized, highly political world, and their creators pride themselves on the "realism" of the games. Protesters who deplore that reality -- and who go inside the game to deploy "Velvet-Strike's" graffiti -- are not welcome. But while many may not agree with their actions, so-called protest mod makers don't fit in the pro-censorship camp so often reviled by game enthusiasts. "Velvet-Strikers" rely on the game to make their point. They leverage the existing design and popularity of the game to assist them in bringing their anti-militarism agenda into the game itself.

In a posting to the Nettime mailing list in May 2002, one of "Velvet-Strike's" creators, Anne-Marie Schleiner, wrote: "I'm concerned with what game violence is coupled with: militaristic, heterosexist boys clubs in the real life, outside the game, war time environment of the 'war on terrorism.' We are also opposed to military fantasy masquerading as 'realism.' I am also disturbed that the binary logic of the shooter is being implemented on a global military scale."

It's been a long trip for the team behind "Velvet-Strike," and one filled with plenty of hate mail. Brody Condon and Joan Leandre were involved with conceptualizing the mod and contributed certain screens, but "Velvet-Strike" started with Schleiner's idea. It came to her, she says, "when I was giving a shooter game mod workshop in Spain -- the same day the U.S. started dropping bombs on Afghanistan." It was there that she met Joan, and "we talked about doing some kind of anti-military shooter mod."

Mods are extensions or adaptations of an original game, made possible by game makers who allow access to portions of a game's code. But even though her project is labeled a "protest mod" by the Whitney, Schleiner admits that "we did not program anything ourselves. We used a built-in function in 'Counter-Strike' -- available to all 'Half-Life'-based games -- the ability to upload your own sprays or graffiti to servers that everyone can see, and spray them wherever you want in the game space."

"Originally," she says, "I had considered doing a regular mod and making a level of 'Counter-Strike' to replace the textures with antiwar graffiti, but Brody had the idea just to use the built-in spray function. It allowed us to open it up to anyone who wanted to download sprays from our site, and use them in playing their own games." It was, she says, "a more viral approach."

The screens in "Velvet-Strike" are, frankly, pretty basic. Poorly done, even. Many are pixelated and tough to read, and their themes fluctuate between painfully earnest and flat-out goofy. But the payoff is in the idea, in infiltrating a game in order to subvert its subconscious message with a pro-peace agenda.

"Velvet-Strike" has toured Europe, in art galleries and events like the 2004 Rotterdam Film Festival. But "we didn't make 'Velvet-Strike' with any intention to put it on the art market or show it in those kinds of spaces," says Schleiner. "I don't think most gamers care much about the art world."

Reaction to "Velvet-Strike" was more angry and dismissive than the designers had anticipated. Many "Counter-Strike" fans made it personal, deriding Schleiner's résumé and gaming preferences (erotic mods and an admiration of fantasy games).

When news of "Velvet-Strike" first made the rounds, Schleiner was often lumped in with the anti-gaming-violence crowd. It's a tricky distinction -- to accept blood and guts in games while proposing an anti-military-action agenda. (For the record, she's not against violent games.)

"I think many of the hate-mail responses came from 14-year-old boys in the Midwest, who pictured their mom coming into their room and telling them to stop playing," she says.

Part of the reason for the response is the underlying sexism of the gaming world, but Schleiner also poured fuel onto the flames by including things in "Velvet-Strike" such as the "little-girl game" sprays, which throw hopscotch boards and pink teddy bears on the walls of "Counter-Strike's" otherwise immersive environment. Clearly, she didn't just want to make a point about anti-militarism. She also wanted to piss off a lot of people.

"Anger is an important tool," she concedes. "First, people get angry. Then they are forced to take a position and defend why they are angry. Then, if there is dialogue, they may change their minds. This happened to me with at least one of the flamers I wrote back to. The fluffy, teddy bear-type sprays bring to mind connotations of women and children, components that are excluded from the harsh, bare military world of these types of games. And humor has a subversive effect."

"Velvet-Strike" is part of a larger protest movement, including games like "September 12," meant to raise awareness in the gaming crowd. In "September 12," bombing a Muslim house only leads to weeping women and the creation of additional terrorists. Provocative, possibly, but poorly executed. The game is boring to play.

Some agitprop gaming ideas are more inventive, such as the Web site that challenges chess players to invent a mode of play in which the pawns can collectively rise up to defeat the kings and queens. The Web site Water Cooler Games tracks games made "to make a point, share knowledge, [or] change opinions." But many of these agitprop actions are pointless and pedantic -- a deadly combination.

Take the idea of a game "intervention." "Velvet-Strike's" Web site lists plenty of ideas for engaging in "performance art action" gameplay. This includes a "martyrdom intervention" for "Counter-Strike," where players should, "during the battle, tell everyone you are martyrs for peace, then jump off the tallest structure in the level, killing yourselves." In the middle of a firefight, will anyone notice other players taking a virtual swan dive for peace? And more important: Does anyone care?

The point, for Schleiner and others, is to draw a clearer distinction between entertainment and coerced thought. "I enjoy playing violent games and I enjoy watching action movies," she says. "But I don't want to play violent games where I am an American killing Arabs in a contemporary Middle East setting. Then there is no difference between entertainment and propaganda. The U.S. government is well aware of the propagandistic potential of games, which is why they have developed free military games like 'America's Army' and 'Full Spectrum Warrior.'"

Velvet-Strikers may not fit the hardcore status of some "shoot club" fans, but they still need to be good at "Counter-Strike," to survive long enough to throw some sprays on the wall. And instead of advocating censorship, they're just adding an additional perspective. But it's hard to say whether they are successful -- ultimately, their "interventions" may only serve to alienate people who just want a break, to be gloriously detached from the real world and its consequences by diving into a video game.

On sites such as Planet Half-Life, the overwhelming sentiment is for protest-mod planners to stop "ruining the game." One flamer wrote on "Velvet-Strike's" Web site, "I don't know why you feel the need to tie my beloved video game into this, but it's pretty low. It makes me sad to think that there may not be one thing in this world that someone hasn't already tied their political bullshit to."

But political ideology is already firmly in place, care of the U.S. government, in games like "America's Army." Is the problem really the introduction of ideology into a game, or just the broaching of ideas that FPS fans don't want to hear?

The whole question of whether militaristic video games encourage militarism in and of themselves raises the thorny question of just what impact gaming has on behavior. On at least one level, no one believes that these games are real life. Should an "America's Army" player take a mortal hit on a real battlefield, he or she will not expect to respawn. But there is a debate over the issue of realism, i.e., a true representation of the world, one that contains no warlocks or space lasers. Fans and game makers assert that today's action games are, in fact, realistic.

In a recent interview, GameSpot called Michael Macedonia "the Army's military-sim point man." Macedonia believes new technologies are making possible levels of realism that will have a tremendous impact. "When we didn't have broadband widely available, we couldn't create these huge, realistic worlds and have lots of people participate. Now we're at the stage where we can actually do this and it's a much more powerful environment than to, say, go do a quest.

"Our interest really is, in the case of 'America's Army,' to give people an experience that's realistic and almost educational ... They purposely wanted it to be fun and exciting, because guess what? A lot of what you do in the Army is fun and exciting."

In other words, the thing that might be perceived as "real" is the fun, the excitement, the adrenaline rush that an FPS like "America's Army" provides -- and that, in theory, translates into life in the real-world Army. What's missing, as Schleiner is quick to point out, are things like women and children, truly realistic dead bodies, and moral conundrums. Also missing? The tedium of day-to-day Army life. These games may not have fantastical elements, and they may emulate reality, but it's only a codified, proscribed and politically expedient version of that reality.

And it's a version that will not be disappearing soon. Because they're perfectly of their time, the juggernaut of military-glorifying games will continue. UbiSoft recently announced plans to bring a commercial version of "America's Army," currently only available on the PC, to the massive console market.

Not to be outdone, other game manufacturers have big plans to cash in. Kuma\War uses real-time, real-world information for its tactical squad game, including footage from the Iraq war. It's the next step, further blending the "reality" of militaristic FPS with what is truly real.

No matter what kind of criticism artists like Schleiner manage to voice, militarism will most likely prevail in the gaming world, unless the critics start getting a lot more creative. The plain truth is that commercial games are better and more engaging than their cobbled-together, pro-peace counterparts. It's just more fun to blast away.

"Although 'Counter-Strike' glorifies war," one player wrote, "it is the time that we live in, and it is also an extremely enjoyable game."

By Jennifer Buckendorff

Jennifer Buckendorffis a freelance writer and editor living in Seattle, Washington.

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Gaming Iraq Middle East National Security Video Games