Last week, I tried to keep the World Trade Center from collapsing.
A friend e-mailed me the link to an online video game called New York Defender. The game starts with a cartoon World Trade Center standing beneath an open, peaceful sky. Then planes begin zooming in, and you have to shoot them out of the air before they collide with the towers. But within barely a minute, the game becomes so difficult—and the planes so frequent—that you can't catch them all. They break through your defenses and smash huge smoky holes in the buildings. The towers collapse. Game over.
Unlike most shoot-'em-ups, New York Defender doesn't give players a sense of excitement or joy. Instead, it makes them feel powerless. It is, in essence, a grim message about the hopelessness of anti-terrorism: Try as you might to knock every enemy out of the sky, one will always slip past. "There are no ways to actually win," Jonathan Pitcher, one of the game's French designers, wrote when I e-mailed him. "The winner becomes the last one to lose." Pitcher says more than 1 million people have played New York Defender, making it an unusually popular statement about the war on terrorism.
The online video game has become the newest way to mouth off about current events. Last summer, the pass-around hit was a Lizzie Grubman game in which you mowed down hapless Hamptons townies using a grinning Lizzie in her SUV. These days, there's a parody version of the arcade hit Street Fighter— Downing Street Fighter, in which nine British politicians beat the crap out of each other in a quest to become prime minister, all the while yelling mangled Japanese-style Engrish taunts at their opponents. ("You are no match for my kung fu. Stop wasting my time!" William Hague snarls.) It's a jab at the whole concept of party politics—where supposedly principled debate frequently turns into a cartoonish smack-down and, quite literally, a game.
The war, in particular, has inspired scores of similar titles, and their makers span the political spectrum from peaceniks to hawks. One designer crafted Kaboom!, a game that allows you to gun down the Taliban with AK-47s and sniper rifles, then pummel Osama Bin Laden with your fists. ("No better way to kill time ... er, Taliban," the creator notes on his Web page.) Another designer created Kaboom!, a sardonic riff on both Pokémon and human-rights concerns over how we treat prisoners of war. ("Your very own war prisoner! How will you treat him?" the game asks. "Be careful, or you might just grow to love him!") A grisly title called Kaboom! has you play as a Palestinian suicide bomber. ("I just think people who blow themselves up are stupid," the game's author writes.) Meanwhile, the French creators of New York Defender also produced a game called Enduring Freedom, in which you try to bomb Afghan military bases while avoiding peaceful settlements. But the cartoonish little bases look pretty much identical to the townships, and they all whip by so fast that you wind up indiscriminately wiping out innocents despite your best efforts. Call it Collateral Damage, the game.
This material would have been unheard of a few years back, when only corporations could afford to code video games. But online animation software like Flash has made the means of production easy to download. In an hour or so, angry young Webmasters can spin their political opinions into interactive editorials. Many of the games are hosted at special section, a portal where thousands of people post their creations; visitors vote for their favorites, and the best ones become part of the site's permanent collection. The site has received so many games devoted to Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan that it has a special section just for it.
Mind you, the social commentary in these games isn't terribly sophisticated. Most are made by disgruntled teenage boys and young men, so they're often riddled with bathroom humor, sophomoric sexual antics, and misogyny. But some merely push the line of taste in a creative way, like Aaron Chapman, a 21-year-old atheist living in Texas. Annoyed by what he sees as omnipresent Christianity in government and society, Chapman began making a series of anti-Jesus games—including Messiah Annihilator, in which you blast away at phalanxes of attacking Jesuses. In the final round—when, in accordance with the conventions of video games, you fight the mastermind Big Boss—the game forces you to battle an Ultra-Mega-Jesus-Bot. (To start playing, you hit a button called "Begin the blasphemy!") Like South Park, it's puerile but acidly funny.
As a game, however, it's pretty dull. Most of these political games are. You'd never find yourself pumping quarters addictively into them. They're low-tech, 2-D, cartoonish, and the game-play in most is so painfully simple that you can master them after one or two sessions at the keyboard. Yet this is, weirdly, part of the point. These games aren't trying to get you hooked or make your thumbs sore. They're trying to make you think.