Procedurality and September 12
To experience procedural rhetoric in action, I decided to play a game called September 12. Here, the context is evident in the title of the game, and the setting is any/every-middle-eastern town. The game environment is necessarily lo-fi and cartoon-y, because one of the points of the game involves disassociation and abstraction from the idea that the only task you can perform is to fire a crudely aimed missile every few seconds.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the introduction/instructions:
I suppose they’re not so much instructions as a statement of purpose. A statement of values. In short, a very rhetorical beginning to…well…here I struggle to call it a “game” simply because of the point-and-click interactivity.
Recalling the continuum between ‘toy’ and ‘game’, toy detonating activities associated with pure play (think: a dog and a tennis ball); game detonating activities associated with rule-based, objective-pursuing (i.e. you can win/lose), and otherwise tightly structured activities (think: a tennis ball and..tennis), Sept. 12 seems to be just what it calls itself above an interactive “model.” Albeit a model with an agenda–a purpose–though as distinct from an objective–the purpose being to get you to see the repercussions of blitzing an Arab town.
The game is progressively heavy-handed, in that it’s not immediately obvious what happens when you shoot the rocket and when you’re simply meandering around the game space. But within a few minutes, it dawns on you all of the effects of your one action, and the message becomes clear.
So the game starts out looking like this:
Notice the following:
- The buildings are in tact
- There aren’t too many people wandering about
- Of the people who are walking around, there are only a few we can identify as terrorists
After you start firing, the game looks something like this:
- The town is becoming decimated
- There are more people
- Most of them are terrorists
What happens to effect this change is this:
- You fire your poorly-aimed missile
- You inevitably hit civilians (and maybe a terrorist)
- There is the sound a vision of someone crying over the innocent dead
- An angry populace turns from (possibly?) neutral observers to active terrorists — hence the proliferation of terrorists as the game goes on and the ironic “final” result
- The more you kill terrorists, the more terrorists there are to kill
We arrive at #5 through the procedural rhetoric of the game. In other words, the rule-based representation of reality that you interact with in order to apprehend the message.
In terms of rules, you can only perform one activity: shooting. In terms of message: in this world, there’s no such thing as diplomacy.
Another rule: you will always kill civilians.
Message: Just as the terrorists have terrorized us, so we terrorize a citizenry with our “peaceable” efforts and so end up turning those who would otherwise support us (given different methods of conflict resolution) against us.
And there you have the expressive power of video games.