Combat is a staple ingredient for all types of gaming and the urge to realism in virtual recreations of real-life battlefields has become an extensive sub-genre of the online gaming experience. These virtual fields of glory play on exercises of strategy and coordination to the extent that they are equally useful as training and recruitment tools for the military, teaching skills and attitudes that have real-world implications and applications.
Over the last month, American artist Joseph DeLappe has been resident at Beijing’s Where Where Space, and the show Screen Shot presents the results of his time here. DeLappe has a long history of working in the digital realm and this show presents a series of new drawings, photographs and a video in part based on his ongoing performance Dead-in-Iraq. Dead-in-Iraq is the artist’s intervention in the freely downloadable US Army recruiting game America's Army. DeLappe enters the game in the character of an American soldier, but refuses to take part in the battles. When he witnesses another player killed by the enemy fire, the artist uses the in-game chat system to post the name of a real-life soldier killed in Iraq as part of the American presence there.
The drawings presented as part of Screen Shot, serve as documentation of the deaths of the avatars in the game, and as such seem to play with the conventions of reportage and the tradition of embedded war artists. For DeLappe to accord these avatars a record of their immobile bodies grants a certain value to the figure as representative of more than simply their digital lifetime. However, the drawings seem to exist at some remove from the game, and don’t significantly further the aims of Dead-in-Iraq; they lose the immediate effect and interactive element that the artist’s intervention in the game succeeds in producing.
The other major works in Screen Shot are two enlarged hands, made up of polygonal facets typical of computer-generated objects. These two posed hands resting on the gallery floor are extracted Taliban fighters’ hands from the game Medal of Honour. These hands pursue a similar tactic as several other pieces by DeLappe, including the realisation of his Ghandi avatar from Second Life and other fallen soldiers. The physical disparity between their realisation in real life and their counterparts virtually seems to go hand in hand with an ethical disparity, where real world actions represented in virtual space lose much of their meaning. In these works Joseph makes an attempt to subvert the anaesthetising effects of war-based computer games, reconnecting them with their real life templates. This act has the effect of foregrounding the issue of responsibility and ethics on both sides of the digital divide suggesting that social rules should not be forgotten in our virtual activities.
Game technology and design has developed a level of realism that toys with the borders of bad taste and controversy. For instance, following an outcry over the fact that players could take part as Taliban fighters in Medal of Honour, the game was updated to rename them as “opposing forces.” New generations of games tend to supply an incremental improvement in the gaming experience. This continually works towards an “ideal” situation where the gamer is willingly or otherwise fooled into believing that what they experience is some kind of reality. This suspension of disbelief leaves the gamer a certain ethical freedom to operate without compunction; there is an “enemy,” they must be eliminated, the method is usually to “kill” them.
Accepting a hard division between actions online and offline tempts a divorcing of the one from the other which could lead to concomitant distancing of ethical prerogatives. What happens online, stays online. To directly link online activities with real world effects as DeLappe attempts to do in Dead-in-Iraq, may seem heavy-handed in its deliberate provocation – as the reactions to the naming by his fellow gamers suggest. The artist’s announcements come just at a moment of dénouement within the game universe; these small victories within the arc of the game are disrupted and deflated by the naming.
The urge to reinstate this ethical aspect of virtual worlds might be rejected as something of an anthropomorphism, applying real-world values onto inanimate objects. But the meaning of this action comes from the understanding that ethical stances adopted in the virtual world can bleed back into the real world. There is an on-going debate about the real-world effects of computer games; DeLappe’s work would at least suggest consequences for the voluntary disconnection that comes from immersion in fantasy. The reminder that DeLappe inserts as part of Dead-in-Iraq triggers a resetting of the game’s internal ethical parameters, and an invasion of the game by the real world.
Thinking about the show appearing in the Chinese context, I would have liked to have seen more of an engagement with the local situation and sensibilities; this might have had the benefit of allowing a certain perspective on the works away from their original context. The works have the effect of counteracting the gung-ho nationalism associated with war games, the emphasis on taking sides, the "us" versus "them." DeLappe’s work deals with the American experience of these games, but such tools are equally available in China and other countries. This would then not just be a matter of pointing out the idiosyncrasies of the American image of war, but the broader effect and understanding of such tools worldwide.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Where Where Curatorial Collective and the artist.)