Byrd’s Nest: Is it time for a game about 9/11?
Originally published in September 2011.
Art has always been used to not only portray tragedies, but also to help people to understand the nature of tragedy, the emotions associated with it and how people react to tragedy. From Picasso’s Guernica to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, art has been used to help people, not only look at the great tragedies of human history, but it also helps us to understand it. The terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001 have been the great tragedy of the 21st century. That event has not only shaped the modern world, but it has left a dark mark on the hearts and minds, of not only people in America, but people across the world. So why shouldn’t art, particularly video games, be used to help heal the wounds of that dark day?
The key to moving past a tragedy is understanding it. Not only understanding why it happened, but the emotions by the people who lived through the event and their mindset. The perfect medium to help bring about this understanding seems to be video games. Video games put the player in the shoes of another person, they make the player embody their character and become them. If the game is made well the player feels the emotions and adopts the mindset of their character. Also, video games are great at transporting the player into a different world. The work towards making a great video game environment is painstaking, but it does make the player feel like they are actually in the world. What better way to understand the way the people at ground zero felt that day by becoming them and entering the hell that was that day. The game could feature firefighters, climbing up the doomed towers, trying to decide who will live and who will die while also trying to save themselves. Have a computer randomly generate scenarios for the players to experience, and play the game out in real-time so the player has only minutes to decide. The people in the towers who could not get out, and had to choose between throwing themselves out a window, or letting themselves burn to death. The people in United 93, knowing they were going to die, and choosing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. A game based on the events of 9/11 could help sensitize people to experience of being at 9/11. People who have lived through a tragedy say that if you weren’t there, you can’t understand. Video games are as close as you will get to experiencing 9/11.
Of course, art that portrays tragedy has always been met with criticism. It has been called exploitative, and distasteful. This criticism has been worse for the video game medium, a medium derided for its lack of intellectual depth and for inciting violence due to its interactivity. Just look at the history of Six Days in Fallujah a game based on the Iraq War battle, which was cancelled due to an enormous controversy. Video games have always been considered and have been pop entertainment, meant to please. How can you make someone feel pleasurable about terrorism? You can’t. But what you can do is use the art form to convey the emotions of the day, and make people think about the tragedy in a way someone never would because they had not lived through it. There are many ways a game about 9/11 could be seen as exploitive, but if done right it can be used as a tool to bring a greater understanding to the event. The game is not meant to be “fun” but it is meant to convey the emotions of that day. If the game accomplishes that it is not exploitive, rather, it is something quite tremendous. It uses the central tenant of the medium, interactivity, to create a better understanding of not only the awful events of that day, but also the mindset of the people who experienced it. The events are not being exploited for profit; rather they are being used to help look at the tragedy through a lens that most people have never experienced, the lens of being there.
The question of whether a video game should portray the events of 9/11 seems to come down to a central question. Are video games pop entertainment or a serious art form. The answer is yes. There are games, which are simply mindless entertainment. And that is fine; there is nothing wrong with making games like that. However, that does not mean that every single game should be mindless entertainment. There should be games, which are serious, and explore meaningful themes such as morality, heartbreak, tragedy, religion, war, politics etc. With movies there are blockbusters and art films, in music you have pop hits and more meaningful music, the distinction between the thoughtful and the thoughtless exists in all art forms. Why should video games be any different?
Should a game based on 9/11 be made right away? No. The technology has not advanced enough yet to create a realistic portrayal of 9/11. But when it does (in a very short time in my opinion) games should take the step to become more serious. Not just by portraying 9/11, but other human tragedies and events. The Holocaust, The Bataan Death March, racial violence, crime etc. I’m not saying that all games have to be super serious, but in order for the medium to mature there must be serious games about real-life. I refuse to believe that the pinnacle of video game achievement is Call of Duty. Art has always helped to mend the wounds of tragedy and to create understanding. It’s video games turn now.
About the Author - Matthew Byrd
Matthew is a senior at Jones College Prep. He regularly writes about Movies, Politics, Sports, and Video Games at his blog byrdsplace.tumblr.com and records podcasts for libraryofgames.org and does a film podcast called "The Final Cut Film Podcast" with fellow LoGer Taylor Bayless.