Art and Terror: September 12, A Toy World

In 2021, death by extremist is a thought which we pay little heed. It’s been a strange few years; with COVID and a near-constant barrage of tragic news, sometimes it seems like terror is all there is, and ever will be. These days, it seems we take terrorism for granted, and in this light it can be difficult to sit back and consider how broken anti-terror efforts have been over the past two decades. Since 2001, we have had two failed invasions and near-total instability in the middle east. Perhaps it is then valuable to remember that at one moment, the fears were still fresh, the emotions visceral.

Following the devastating World Trade Centre attack on September 11, 2001, Republican president George Bush Jr. declared a “war on terror.” Shortly thereafter, on March 19 of 2003, American boots touched down on Iraqi soil for the second time in twenty years (Timeline, 2019). It is within this context that a variety of programmers and new media artists began experimenting with technologies of the time to grapple with the tragedy and injustice of war. Released in late 2003 by developer and academic Gonzalo Frasca, September 12: A Toy World represents one well-known example of this trend.

But what can a video game really say about war? In the following article, we’ll take a look at this piece, analyzing some of the artistic techniques unique to video games to understand its message. As we will see, Frasca wields video games as new media art in order to produce a poignant argument against the conflict in Iraq. In doing so, he posits that violence in the “war on terror” only begets more violence.

September 12 is a game developed on the flash engine. The title opens with a sombre message: “This is not a game. You can’t win or lose… It has no ending. It has already begun.” The game’s world is modeled after a Middle Eastern city, presumably Baghdad or an equivalent. The environment is made up of tall buildings, sandy marketplaces, and a population of palm trees. This map is populated by sprites of civilians and terrorists, modelled to look like toy miniatures. The “game” element consists of a simple point-and-shoot schema, where the player is positioned as an air force pilot tasked with shooting terrorists. However, due to the proximity of terrorists with civilians and buildings, the area-of-effect damage caused by missiles will inevitably cause collateral damage. When this occurs, nearby sprites mourn the dead and are “converted” into terrorists. Inescapably, the longer the simulation is run, the more city infrastructure is destroyed and the more terrorists appear, turning the map into a living hellscape (Frasca, 2003).

Ann Richardson (1982) argues that visual art can act as a form of communication to transmit important ideas. Indeed, one advantage to art in any medium is that its emotional impact is “immediate and often intense.” As an audio-visual system, video games rely on this principle to form rhetoric. According to game theorist Henry Jenkins (2002), games wield their aesthetics in order to generate meaningful player experiences. This is accomplished through a technique known as “narrative architecture,” where stories are discovered through environments accessible to players, rather than explained via dialogue or text. September 12 opens to the scene of a Middle Eastern city, a site which the player can “explore” by moving their cursor left or right. The indicators of this setting are simple, yet clear. Citizens are clad in niqab or thaub, and the sandy environment is dotted with palm trees (Frasca, 2003); a stereotypical representation of the Orient to American audiences. Importantly, this decision reflects contemporary American involvement in the Middle East, as the U.S invaded Iraq earlier in 2003 (Timeline, 2019).

 What makes this decision important is the game medium’s natural ambivalence to cultural or political indicators. Fundamentally, the mechanics, or rules, of any game are “imminently themeable.” As Espen Aarseth (2004) put it: “you can play chess with some rocks in the mud, or with pieces that look like the Simpson family… It would still be the same game.” At its basis, September 12 is a target shooting game; the same mechanical objectives of point-and-shoot could still be applied if the player was tasked with killing aliens on a moonbase. By designing an architecture that symbolically refers to a politically significant theme, September 12 becomes rhetorically active (Frasca, 2003). Therefore, Frasca’s decision to wield aesthetics in world design is a valuable component in understanding the game’s anti-war argument. The choice to place a city in the player’s crosshairs would never be relevant or artistically appropriate if it did not refer to recent American intervention in the Middle East.

Closely related to the visual “language” of the cityscape are its inhabitants. September 12 employs a design vocabulary which focuses on toys. For instance, the tiny sprites used to represent NPCs (non-playable characters) are made to look like miniature dolls rather than real people. This creates an interesting juxtaposition between infantile aesthetics and serious political discussion (Frasca, 2003). This bears two important consequences. First and foremost, these “toy-like” elements make the title more approachable, especially in a moment when the war in Iraq was divisive and controversial. Artist Sylvia Sippl (2015) likened the game to an editorial cartoon; easily digestible and readily available. Thus, the aesthetic helps to reel an audience in, while creating a platform for discussion on a serious topic.

Second, the juxtaposition comments on a power dynamic between an untouchable aggressor and hapless civilians. Frasca (2001) writes extensively on similarities between games and “theatre of the oppressed,” a movement in drama popularized in the 1960s. Theatre of the oppressed is a system which seeks to implicate its audience in the outcome of a given production. This participatory ideal is reflected in September 12 as the player recognizes their role as the oppressor through the aesthetic juxtaposition. NPCs are low-value toys, inhuman, to be either neutralized or victimized, whereas the player is free to indiscriminately bomb (Frasca, 2003). These decisions reflect the historical reality of the Iraq war, where American forces used “shock and awe” techniques in order to suppress Iraqi resistance (Correll, 2003). The comparison of positionality is therefore clear and striking. 

A unique element of many new media pieces is their participatory and interactive nature. Games reflect this sentiment in the inclusion of a player within a system of rules. Consequently, while visual elements in art can be used to symbolically communicate, systems of interactions between player and computer (mechanics) can do the same thing. This is what Ian Bogost (2007, p. 125) describes as procedural rhetoric, or the use of formal rulesets to explore ideological belief. In September 12, the main mechanic revolves around using the mouse to aim and shoot rockets. This ruleset is developed through a discourse of “choice.” As Frasca (2003) writes: “The rules are deadly simple, you can shoot. Or not.” With this simple command, the player is effectively placed in an unwinnable situation. Due to the radius of a missile blast, collateral damage is unavoidable. Thus, once the player has committed to firing the first missile, they become responsible for the bombing of civilians. Moreover, since bodies do not despawn, civilians will continue to convert to terrorists, necessitating more destruction (Frasca, 2003). On the other hand, failure to act has deadly consequences. September 12 references the day after a deadly terrorist strike in 2001 (Timeline, 2019), echoing real concerns about what might occur if one fails to address an insurgent threat. Thus, Frasca wields procedural rhetoric to convey the moral nuance of a complex situation. 

Zimmerman and Salen (2003) describe ‘meaningful play’ as “emerg[ing] from the relationship between player action and system outcome.” September 12 accomplishes this by marrying audiovisual progression to player choice. For example, the reload speed on a missile takes roughly eleven seconds to complete. Conversely, the animation to convert a civilian to a terrorist takes around two seconds (Frasca, 2003). This means that when a shot is fired, players will never have enough time to eliminate the generated threats; they are effectively forced to watch while their strategy backfires.

The interrelationship between action and outcome is also represented in the devolution of the game’s environment. With every bomb, buildings are permanently destroyed and civilian bodies are left in the streets. By playing and subsequently devastating the map, the player quickly and consciously becomes complicit in the alteration of the game’s landscape (Frasca, 2003). This is what Henry Jenkins (2002) refers to as ‘emergent narrative’: narrative progression effectively occurs when the player participates in the system. Therefore, the notion of a ravaged environment caused by the player effectively links the game’s aesthetics to its mechanics. Ultimately, these points come together to create an effective anti-war analogy. According to September 12, there are no winners in the war on terror: violence will only continue to beget further tragedies and more enemies (Frasca, 2003).

In his PhD thesis, Frasca (2001) states that “[Games], until recently… never dared to deal with real-life contents.” As an early art-game, September 12: A Toy World does an admirable job at exploring a complicated subject, ultimately arguing for the futility of the war on terror. According to the game, violence will only lead to further civilian casualties and more terrorists. From a critical standpoint, the game’s greatest virtue is its stringent application of game-design fundamentals towards an artistic approach. Frasca wields procedural rhetoric effectively by emphasizing the systems involved; the game creates a tight unification between its aesthetics and mechanics. Through this system, Frasca ultimately argues that the process of waging war generates a feedback loop, creating more problems than there were originally. More importantly, September 12 was once an extremely accessible title, not only due to its toy-like aesthetics, but because of its web-based format (Frasca, 2003). While the game reached “viral” status following its release, the recent death of flash has made most online copies unattainable.

At the end of the day, what can a mere game say about a tragic reality? While many may question a title’s impact, perhaps more value can be found in the discussions generated by such pieces. September 12 remains a testament to the power that good game design can have in producing artistic meaning, even in spite of its potential flaws. Frasca’s game was fiercely contemporary, yet still resonates with issues faced by the international community to this day. Ultimately, September 12 would become prophetic; with Iraqi infrastructure gutted and a vastly-weakened national military, ISIS would sweep the nation and generate countless international security threats (Chulov, 2019). In this light, it may be valuable to remember the powerfully elegant arguments raised by Frasca, and take these examples to heart as we move into an uncertain future.


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