Theaters of Cruelty
The gift economy of the Internet also encourages the sharing of URL's, so that those surfing the web can direct like-minded correspondents to political games or interactive webpages. Once there, netizens can manipulate images of their legislators in virtual environments, sometimes with the explicit intention of providing a venue for vengeance to those who feel that they lack political representation in the real world.
In the spirit of these exchanges, I am grateful to Ian Bogost, a fellow presenter at DAC 2005, for his excellent material on political games, which is part of a larger site that Bogost co-authors with Gonzalo Frasca called Water Cooler Games. It was there that I learned about Ragdoll Bush, an application in which the user can toss a hapless, limp, flailing Bush doll into a free-fall void where the miniature president periodically collides with bubble-shaped masses. Thanks to my children, I already knew about the "political skins" that you could put on characters in Interactive Buddy, and thus subject a tiny George Bush or a John Kerry to grenades, mines, bombs, firehoses, medieval flails, and other instruments of concussive destruction. From a neighbor, I found out that the face of President Bush could be distorted and deformed in Stop Esso (although the presidential body is spared abuse).
As satisfying as it may be to torment political adversaries on the small screen, particularly when those politicians are promulgators of torture themselves through the practice of Extraordinary Rendition, there is something to be said for thinking critically about how these games enable us to participate in our own theaters of cruelty. On many websites, such as one in which the visitor can punch Osama Bin Laden, the "conservation of violence" (to use Girard's term) may appear relatively benign.
Yet on websites for terrorist organizations, such as those monitored by the SITE Institute, viewers can see unsimulated acts of violence on the bodies of real victims. Film montages and iconic images of Arab resistance frame the pleadings or beheadings that take place center screen, thus establishing a visual rhetoric of "just war."
To date, one can't interact with those acts of violence. A mouse or a cursor key can't affect the fate of victims of political conflict. But interactive exercises of virtual violence are already close at hand in our own culture. Are there games in that other geopolitical parallel universe in which one can do political violence to American hostages in the "safe" and cathartic world of a virtual reality environment? If there aren't already, are these all too serious games really that far off?