Tuesday, June 25, 2013

These Games are a Riot

"When does a crowd become a riot?" asks Ronald Paulson in his essay-lecture The Art of Riot in England and America, to which the answer is "When it gets out of control." What appears, on face, to be a cheeky answer to what many would assume is a rhetorical question actually brings about a complex field of interactions and expectations on behalf of those who would analyze riots and their articulations in life and art. Paulson's essay focuses on depictions of riot as found on engravings and in literature from the 18th century onward in both English and American culture. Over the course of his 121 page analysis he outlines a 'taxonomy of riot', an attempt to balance what we know about real riots against various artists' representations of those riots, that takes at its core three elements: actual riots, fictive riots, and the aesthetics of riot.

Taking a cue from E.P. Thompson, Paulson seeks to "outline the myths of the insurgents' (the 'radicals') imagination- the formal structures that shaped 'riots', in particular traditional forms of 'crowd ritual'." As an event, riots are both festive and seditious. They are defined in relation to the in-place social order, symbolized in our modern era by the presence of police. Yet the most important aspect of the riot is its affective/effective impact, a subjective measurement that depends wholly on the presence of aesthetics in relation to spectators- both those depicted in the artist's rendition and the outside viewer gazing upon the artist's rendition. The presence of the spectator is crucial for Paulson, who defines aesthetics as the philosophy of spectatorship. After all, a riot would have little impact were it not for the affective power (as opposed to its often diminished effective impact) it holds over those who are witness to its events.

Paulson's work raises interesting questions when extended beyond the engravings and novels covered by his essay. What happens to his analysis when the taxonomy of riot shifts to the medium of games?

That's a question I would like to address now, using three examples that span analog and digital mediums: Brian Train's Battle for Seattle board game, as well as Rockstar's State of Emergency and 2K Games' Spec Ops: The Line video games. What makes these artistic depictions of riot intriguing is how they take the spectator of the player and transform that player into a participant of the riot with a viewpoint that is, nonetheless, wholly defined by the aesthetically influenced spectator experience. The player literally controls an event that is the antithesis of a controlled state.

These ludic depictions also shift the interpretation of riot beyond Paulson's investigation on how festive and seditious acts depicted representation, or the relation of the individual to society as a whole. With the emergence of ludic riots, the interpretation now centers on concerns of a post-Cold War society in which new questions are raised regarding the re-articulation of liberalism and the relation of society to the individual. This seeming reversal (because ludic models are hardly reactionary in their approach) of riotous depiction in our current era still, nonetheless, draws upon the rich history and legacy of riot as encountered in the Western tradition.

On the left, a scene from the upcoming game RIOT. On the right, 'The Zenith of French Glory' by James Gillray

Paulson notes that whereas pre-18th century depictions of riot generally used scenes from the Passion narrative of the Bible, the rise of Humanism/Enlightenment ideals transformed depictions of riot into "a form of burlesque that repeated the Passion as farce." After the French Revolution, when the potential transformation of riot into revolution was fully realized, depictions of riot carried with them this psychic weight of revolutionary memory. It became harder to depict popular violence in a positive light after the events of late 18th century France (a sentiment Paulson attributes to Ian Haywood's Bloody Romanticism) because "the pleasure and festive air of riot is evacuated in revolution, which is without ambivalence."

Ludic riots continue this tradition, utilizing forms that vacillate between actual and fictive depictions placed on the border of what we might call burlesque interpretations. Their representations are often filled with 'revolutionary memory', meaning that the player frequently engages in action that goes beyond limited expressions of pleasure and festive sedition found in riots, moving, instead, towards a more forceful expression of violence that is 'without ambivalence.' All the games examined here begin in riot but either progress towards or allow the player to engage in something much more deadly.

Let's begin with Brian Train's 2000 release of Battle for Seattle. Dedicated to 'the violins in the streets', Train's ludic riot is actually a representation of a real riot that occurred in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting held there. Two players take on either the role of the 'Authority' (representing the Seattle Police Department, Washington State Troopers, or the National Guard) or the 'Protester Factions' (representing a loose coalition of Anarchists, Environmentalists, Radicals, Liberals, Organized Labor, and Yahoos). The goal of the game is to for each side to gain enough points on the 'Exposure Index', representing favorable publicity and image leverage, to qualify for a win.

There is a limited combat system, in which the Authority player can attempt to disperse or arrest protesting groups or crowds. The protester faction can counter-attack, potentially forcing Authority units to be returned to the 'force pool'. Only the Authority player can 'escalate' the conflict, which allows the Protester player the option of building 'barricades' and the Authority player the option to call in additional police units and utilize 'special munitions', like tear gas or rubber bullets.

From an aesthetic viewpoint, Battle of Seattle gives both players a clear sense of order and the breakdown of that order through the unified blue of the Authority pieces versus the multi-hued and diverse Protester factions. The map, which utilizes a point-to-point system, emphasizes some spaces over others. For example, the Protester gains more 'exposure' by having units occupy the Convention Center rather than the adjacent Seattle University space. This designation that some spaces are more valuable than others also reinforces the notion of spectatorship; one's exposure is increased if actions take place in noted areas, as opposed to nearby, but less important, areas considered distant from the real center of action- the WTO talks being held downtown.

Conversely, the Authority player must battle to keep its exposure from decreasing by losing 'control' of the situation either through Protestor 'victories' or through excessive use of force via 'special munitions' use/calling in state troopers and national guard units. The ability of the Authority player to engage in 'escalation' hints towards an acknowledgement of 'revolutionary memory'- after all, the Authority player will only escalate the conflict in an attempt to forestall a complete breakdown of control which could allow for far more dangerous situation to develop. (One of the higher levels of victory for the Protester details a situation in which WTO delegates run scared in the streets) Regardless of which side the player is on, their ability to win is directly indexed to the opinion of 'spectatorship' represented by the 'Exposure Index'.

So far, Battle of Seattle demonstrates several degrees of continuity with the sort of riots examined in Paulson's essay. However, one clear difference is that the players of this ludic riot go beyond mere spectators- they become active participants in this fictive depiction of an actual riot. The presence of the WTO as the catalyst for the riot depicted also shifts the question of what the riot represents. Unlike the previous two centuries, this riot is not a question of an individual's place in relation to the state, rather it's about an individual's place in relation to supra-national forces, represented by the WTO, which have called into question the role of liberalism in the post-Cold War world order. All of the various Protester factions see in the WTO personification of agendas that seek to reshape their oft marginalized role in the larger liberal conception of society. This theme of the riot as a means to question and re-evaluate the terms of liberalism continually resurfaces in the other games examined here.

Yet it should also be noted that Battle of Seattle maintains the festive and seditious air particular to the composition of riot. In the designer notes, Brian Train states that, "although this game attempts to model some of what happened in Seattle, it is also partially a SATIRE on the events, perhaps best displayed by the irreverence of the Random Events Table." This irreverence can be seen clearly through use of the Goofy holding an M-16 graphic used to denote National Guard Units, or the 'Coffee Break'/'Hey Beavis…' events found on the aforementioned Random Events Table. Even though the design carries strong connotations of rising violent potential, the entire game is cloaked in burlesque swatches that continually remind the players that this is a construct primarily centered on abstracted spectatorship. Violent outbreaks are always on the horizon, yet never amount to an actual spilling of blood.

Things change decidedly once you start playing State of Emergency. Released in 2002, State of Emergency contains the relatively simple plot whereby the player represents a member of an underground organization bent on the destruction of the 'American Trade Organization' (a rather thinly veiled reference to the World Trade Organization), another supra-national group that ostensibly controls America and that sets off the action of the game by declaring a 'state of emergency' in response to escalating riots against ATO authority. Constructed as an 'arcade'-type game, the player is given a set amount of time to run around various levels and inflict the most amount of damage via destruction of property and elimination of police forces sent out by the ATO. Different weapons, ranging from baseball bats to rocket launchers, are scattered throughout the level, the acquisition of which greatly increases the player capacity to deal out destructive damage. There is no goal other than to rack up points for a high score, and the entire game is depicted in rather cartoony elements with the figures and weapons used taking on exaggerated appearances.

There is a clear attempt by the creators of State of Emergency to have their game also play off of the WTO riots in Seattle. As such, several elements found in Battle for Seattle carry over here. There is the question of an individual's relation to the ATO, and the use of cartoonish animations and over-the-top voice overs (throughout the game, an announcer spouts out phrases like 'Smash the Corporation!' or declares opportunities like 'Smash windows for bonus score!') give the game a festive and seditious burlesque air. (Consider that the first level puts the player in a shopping mall, full of 'innocent' people running around, which could be seen as a farcical take on the bizarre scenes of when shoppers race through a store during Christmas sales) Yet the deadly seriousness ATO police forces utilize in their hunting down of the player place this game almost beyond burlesque and into the territory of true revolution. Were it not for the fact that the core design elements of State of Emergency center on the arcade aesthetic, which emphasizes action over narrative, the earnestness of the situation could be seen as a tete-a-tete in which the player explores the potential ramification of the ATO's influence on the reshaping of liberal ideals.

Spectatorship takes on new meaning when one combines the riot atmosphere with arcade gameplay found in State of Emergency. Beyond the numerous 'spectators' that constantly run around the game universe, the one-upmanship and competitive aspect involved in attaining high scores means that State of Emergency could potentially have several player-spectators waiting in line for their turn to participate in the rioting. The inherent nature of the arcade style means that part of the enjoyment comes from playing against others, and in this way one can say that State of Emergency actually emphasizes the role of the spectator in its fictive display of riot. Unlike Battle for Seattle, the bulk of spectator influence is sourced in real life and not abstracted, giving State of Emergency greater access to the affective impact the real Seattle riots brought about.

But what about the issue of revolutionary memory and the stain popular violence carries in our modern milieu? Paulson, again taking a cue from Ian Haywood, states that after the French Revolution, artistic depictions of riot dealt with this stain by allegorically shifting the context of riot to that of natural catastrophes. The fear of riot was displaced by aesthetizing it into an earthquake, or flood, or fire. By evoking a deliberate cartoonish style, State of Emergency finds a way to aesthetize its depiction of riot in a way that neutralizes the violent impulses made manifest. This cartoonish aesthetic can also be tied to what Paulson identifies as a "schematic version of (Edmund) Burke's sublime" found in many articulations of the aesthetized 'nature' riot (often containing a spectator within the scene who is safe from the tremendous event),
"…which leaves the viewer outside the picture as secure as the observer within, a mere mediator of the human effects of the natural catastrophe. Burke's 'delight' and 'terror' refer not to the terrified victim, but to the safe spectator who can identify with the source of danger, sublimating terror into delight." (74)
While State of Emergency uses arcade aesthetics to facilitate this sublimation of terror into delight, Spec Ops: The Line (from 2012) utilizes different allegorical techniques to twist this delight back into terror. While the previous two games discussed above featured already developed riots containing large numbers of participants, Spec Ops: The Line is unique in that it features a developing riot of just three people. In a remarkable analysis, titled Killing is Harmless, Brendan Keogh (@BRKeogh) explores how this game situated in the shooter genre actually pushes the genre forward by bringing the central actor into greater focus- the player:
There’s no shortage of shooters that want to be about something. But very few shooters are brave enough to look in the mirror—or to force the player that enjoys shooters to look in the mirror—and question what they see. Not to pass judgment. Not to ask them to change their ways. Just to understand what is going on here. (4)
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that centers on three member of Delta Squad: Captain Martin Walker, Lieutenant Adams, and Sergeant Lugo. The player controls Walker, but the other two members accompany him through much of the story, acting as sources of additional firepower in conjunction with their role as a type of Greek chorus in questioning and reflecting on the transformations Walker undergoes as the drama progresses. Their mission- and by extension, the mission the player undertakes- is to enter the city of Dubai, wrecked by sandstorms of unimaginable intensity, and look for traces of the 33rd Battalion who entered Dubai six months ago and has not been heard from since. Yet, as Walker and his squad mates progress further into Dubai they concurrently move further away from their original mission. What begins as a search for survivors turns into a merciless quest to hunt down the commander of the 33rd- Colonel John Konrad.

What starts off as a controlled experience quickly descends into uncontrolled chaos. Delta Squad, and the player controlling them, slowly transform into a riotous presence in Dubai. Seemingly a force of counter-riot, or the restoration of order represented by their military/police function, Delta Squad begins by killing masked Arabic men in the opening chapters of the game, but then moves on in later parts to killing members of the 33rd, effectively making them not preservers of order but, rather, instigators of a riot that quickly becomes an uprising. Keogh observes this progression, and the impact it has on the narrative:
Of course, it is worth noting that while the enemies I face become less othered as the game proceeds, the Arabic people are never less othered themselves but merely replaced with more relatable Western enemies (more relatable to a Western audience, at least). On one hand, this is certainly problematic. Nothing that The Line does works to de-otherise Arabic people so dramatically othered in other shooters and media more broadly. But, on the other hand, by replacing them with US soldiers halfway through the game, The Line forces the player to realise they are—have always been— shooting humans. How many players draw that connection back to consider the ‘insurgents’ of the early levels as human, however, is questionable. (23)
As Walker becomes increasingly obsessed with finding Konrad, engaging in more atrocious acts along the way, his own body is transformed through injury, first with cuts and bruises and later with half his face becoming black and burned. The further Delta Squad travels into Dubai, the more their speech and reactions to events become strained and disjointed from their earlier, sanitized military speak. 'Fire on my target' and 'Moving to clear' become 'Got one' and, later, 'Got the fucker', the changes in audible speech and personal appearance an aesthetic effect meant to impress upon the player, the spectator, that Delta Squad is moving from the seditious and festive air inhabited by many shooters towards a more violent uprising that riotous behavior induces. Dubai might have been consumed by calamitous sandstorms, a clear parallel with the allegorical shifting of riot discussed earlier, but instead of sublimating terror into delight, the journey through Dubai reveals that this allegorical shift was only a cover for the real riot occurring through player action. The delight that Spec Ops: The Line is just another shooter transforms into terror as the game continually reminds the player that they are complicit in the plot unfolding, even if they have little choice in how that plot develops.

The setting of Dubai, and the use of American soldiers as primary actants, again demonstrates that the central issue of this particular riot relates to questioning the role of liberalism in a post-Cold War order. Being a location that symbolizes the intrusion and extension of Western capitalist ideals, having Spec Ops: The Line depict Dubai as laid low by both natural catastrophe and Western-sourced sociopathic motives calls into question the goals and expectations of liberalistic influence. To make matters worse, had the player and Walker, working in tandem, not entered Dubai and engaged in riotous behavior, some semblance of liberalistic good might have been salvaged. Yet once the player and Walker begin on their narrative path, the inevitable progression from order to riot to revolution must occur, moving the festivity of the shooter towards a situation that is without ambivalence.

Clearly, the depiction of riot has well-defined articulations in the medium of games. Many of the elements analyzed by Paulson- the aesthetics of riot and the presence of the spectator- are also utilized in ludic riots, although their ultimate goals and techniques used to achieve an aesthetic effect on the spectator differ from the engravings and even novels examined in The Art of Riot. While the games examined here are done so in a somewhat cursory fashion, there is a clear path here for others to pursue. The art of riot is alive an well in games, both analog and digital, and examination of how these riots are created and ludically depicted reveals something deeper about ourselves and our society.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Drones on the Brain

A short update to highlight work of mine published elsewhere:
  1. Morally Guided Drone Strikes - Over at re/Action Zine, I've written a post about playing the card game DRONE, recording my games using Vine, and what sort of moral questions this combination of play/record summons regarding our understanding, or lack of understanding, on the sort of impact drone warfare presents.
  2. Dronefire - A short story (gasp, fiction!) I wrote for The State's 'Murmuration: A Festival of Drone Culture'.  It was heavily influenced by a recent reading of Nabokov's Pale Fire, so I hope the reader can forgive my blatant mimicry.