Race, Terror and Counter-Strike: Interview with Minh Le (Gooseman), Co-Creator of Counter-Strike

In 1999, Minh Le (Gooseman) was twenty-one when his pet project, Counter-Strike, was released into the world, spurring the growth of PC rooms across the globe and becoming one of the most successful video games of all time. Since the game was acquired by Valve in 2000, it has yielded three reiterations: Counter Strike: Condition Zero (2004), Counter Strike: Source (2004), and Counter Strike: Global Offensive (2012). Over the past eighteen years since the original’s release, Counter-Strike has been credited for forming a movement of young gamers who play team-oriented first-person shooters, many of whom have put tens of thousands of hours into battling each other in games like the Halo and Battlefield series, and now Overwatch.

For many years I concluded that like many gamers of color, Minh was denying his heritage in order to fit in to the gaming communities of that era, when so much as mentioning your race or gender was met with disdain because we were ruining the immersion or breaking the magic circle.

Minh Le has intrigued me since the old PC room days, as he holds a Vietnamese name, yet never discusses his background in interviews, and goes by the name Gooseman, a cartoon character based on Clint Eastwood cowboys. For many years I concluded that like many gamers of color, Minh was denying his heritage in order to fit in to the gaming communities of that era, when so much as mentioning your race or gender was met with disdain because we were ruining the immersion or breaking the magic circle. After much research, I came to realize that Minh was not reluctant or regretful about his background, but that interviewers simply never asked him about it. I understood that no amount of research could yield the answers I was seeking, and sought out the man himself.

Like Minh, as a young gamer I too felt my heritage “had no relevance to the present,” and only after exploring parts of Asia did it dawn on me how history can repeat itself (or at least “rhyme,” as Twain said).

Minh’s answers, as in all of his interviews, are candid, friendly, and reflective of how young (and “naïve”) he was when Counter-Strike was in development. The game’s popularity in the early 2000s coincided with the War on Terror, and even though not all terrorists in Counter-Strike were Arab, the game came to mirror the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of this reflection of Arab terrorism was not, in fact, in Minh’s imagining, but was pushed by the community. The game’s only Middle Eastern inspired map, “de_dust,” was submitted by a member of the community (as they all were), only to be rejected by Minh numerous times over a month for being “too ugly.” Minh released it despite his doubts, only to watch it grow into the game’s most popular map (even today, a google image search of “Counter Strike” will yield far more shots of “de_dust” than any other map). The terrorists too were not meant to simply reflect Arab bodies. In Minh’s presentation to SINFO in 2015, he revealed an unreleased terrorist character from the original, who appears Asian (reminiscent of Street Fighter’s Ryu). Minh decided to trash the character when community members called it “ugly” and thought it looked like Luke Skywalker.

Minh Le aka Gooseman at SINFO 2015

Minh’s answers in this interview reflect many of the same anxieties I felt as a young gamer with Asian heritage. Minh asked his collaborator, Jess Cliffe, to provide the voices for Counter-Strike, as his own voice sounded “very prepubescent.” This arches back to my own fears as a mixed race youth of appearing too young or too feminine. There were times I too felt such a notion of belonging in a PC room of white, Hispanic, Korean, and black kids, that I also tended “to shy away from controversy” (it was graduate school that made me a controversy-addict). Like Minh, as a young gamer I too felt my heritage “had no relevance to the present,” and only after exploring parts of Asia did it dawn on me how history can repeat itself (or at least “rhyme,” as Twain said). Minh and I have both lived in South Korea, and we have both wandered our “homelands” in Asia (his Vietnam, mine China, Hawaii, and the Philippines). And for some reason, we both feel a strong connection to strangers whose presence usually manifests as friendly fire.

I want to point out how generous Minh Le was with his time. These were not easy questions (some of them a tad nosy). He answered them all, and did not ask for any compensation.

KG: Thanks so much for agreeing to interview. As you know, my current project is on Asian North American game designers, and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include “Minh Le” as part of the project. However, after much research, I’ve found very little information about your background. Even in a Reddit AMA, it took over 200 questions until your racial background came up. Do you think this is due to the indifference of the community, or something else?

ML: I’ve never really thought about that. I don’t think most people who read my interviews care about my nationality. I don’t notice there being much inquisition into other game developers’ nationalities either. I reckon most people can assume my race by my name.

I even went to the movies and watched Rambo and enjoyed it. I was able to convince myself that it was about something that happened in the past and it had no relevance to the present. I believe a lot of time had passed since the Vietnam War and growing up in Vancouver, Canada, no one really talked about it at all.

KG: I was shocked reading that your interest in video games began with the game “River Rescue,” which featured American military killing Vietnamese soldiers. What was it about this particular game? Was CS in any way responding to games like this?

ML: Yea, it’s kind of ironic that I grew up playing a lot of Vietnam War games like River Rescue and Rambo. I just enjoyed the action bits and never gave much thought about the political aspect of it all. I was very young at the time and didn’t fully understand the Vietnam War. I even went to the movies and watched Rambo and enjoyed it. I was able to convince myself that it was about something that happened in the past and it had no relevance to the present. I believe a lot of time had passed since the Vietnam War and growing up in Vancouver, Canada, no one really talked about it at all.

KG: Putting together your responses from multiple interviews, I was able to determine that your family left Vietnam in 1979, when you were 2 years old. Yet in my research I have not seen any media spotlighting your success within a “refugee narrative.” In fact, your name and the word “refugee” come up with no results in google. How do you see Vietnamese and refugee identity? Have you ever considered making games more outwardly political (as is the current trend in Indie-games)?

ML: I’m very proud of my Vietnamese heritage. I emigrated to Canada along with several other vietnamese refugees and we formed a close community in Vancouver. I’m very fortunate to have grown up in such a diverse and welcoming city such as Vancouver. I’ve not given any thought into making any games that address social / political issues as I tend to shy away from controversy.

KG: You were first known to much of the world as Gooseman. What made you start using the name Minh Le more often?

ML: It comes from a cartoon I used to watch as a kid, Galaxy Rangers.

KG: I was a huge fan of Counter-Strike, but I was always a tad disturbed at how the game seemed to mirror the war on terror in its content, even though CS was made before 9/11. Why choose to focus on terrorism?

ML: I found the Special Forces that fight terrorism very unique and have a mysterious aura about them. They represent the best of the best and utilize specialize equipment and tactics. That always intrigued me. I didn’t really care much about the terrorist aspect of it all. Tbh, I don’t have any fondness towards that bit. I just have to include it as it’s pertinent to the theme of Counter-Terrorism.

KG: When creating CS, did you imagine the Counter-Terrorists and Terrorists as Americans vs. people in the Middle East? Were the terrorists originally imagined as Arab?

I found that picking a terrorist that many people would relate to would make the game more popular. Unfortunately, I was naïve in not giving much thought to the negative repercussions of using Middle Eastern terrorists.

ML: I was young and chose terrorist factions that were popular in media. I found that picking a terrorist that many people would relate to would make the game more popular. Unfortunately, I was naïve in not giving much thought to the negative repercussions of using Middle Eastern terrorists. I do think it’s necessary to portray the reality of terrorism in a game about terrorism, as it was part of what made the game instantly recognizable and relatable. I’m sure CS would not be as popular if I made all the terrorists Eskimos from Iceland.

KG: You seem to be known as the brains behind CS, while Jess Cliffe has been known more as the voice, though he also had a hand in design. Why was Jess’s voice chosen as the “voice of CS” and not yours?

ML: He has a much better voice than mine. I sound very prepubescent.

KG: What motivated you to move to South Korea to work on Tactical Interventions? How did you find its gaming culture compared to Canada and the U.S.?

ML: They’re much more passionate about PC gaming and they’re also much more socially connected. They really form a strong bond when playing with each other and you can see it in all of the PC game rooms that exist in Korea.

KG: I’ve read in interviews that your love for games is due to games being a team sport emphasizing cooperation and communication (as well as fun). Why does this feature of games intrigue you more than, say, story-driven games?

ML: I enjoy the adrenaline pumping when I play games that require teamwork and fast reflexes. I don’t drink coffee so I consider it my natural high. It helps me stay focused when I’m feeling drowsy throughout the day.

KG: Do you feel being Vietnamese Canadian (or non-white) affected your love for games, or your choices in designing them?

ML: No, I don’t think so. I grew up in Vancouver, Canada and I consider myself very North American. I was raised by North American pop culture ( TV / movies / comics). All of my friends came from different backgrounds and it allowed me to see the world in a broader sense and enjoy people of different cultures. I grew up being influenced by so many different cultures ( Japanese manga / anime, early British game culture: Amiga / C64, Hollywood movies, Chinese culture ). I think it gave me a very global view of the world and allowed me appreciate the different things of each country. That’s one of the reasons I chose the different units in Counter-Strike. UK SAS, French GIGN, etc…

It’s kind of weird actually, as a kid that grew up on games, 99% of the time my protagonist was a white male and I became comfortable with having my avatar as such.

KG: I believe you’ve been working with Gary Newman on Rust, and are well aware of the controversy of that game concerning players being randomly assigned their race or gender, and then being unable to change it because it was tied to their Steam ID. What is your opinion on this controversy? Were you in any way part of the decision-making or implementation?

ML: I had no influence in this decision, as it was entirely Gary’s. I believe Gary was sick of how every game looks the same with predominantly white male protagonists. He wanted Rust to look more like real life. I actually quite like how it all turned out because watching videos of Rust, you really get a sense of the uniqueness of each character.

It’s kind of weird actually, as a kid that grew up on games, 99% of the time my protagonist was a white male and I became comfortable with having my avatar as such. In fact, in games where I was given a choice between choosing a white male and an Asian male, I kinda have to hesitate a bit….

KG: Thanks so much for your time. I have one last question. What have you been up to since Rust, and how do you see the major changes in PC gaming sense CS?

ML: I’ve not been up to anything aside from working on Rust. It’s kept me very busy and I enjoy working on a popular game such as Rust. I’ve not kept up with the CS community / development so I can’t comment too much on how I see it evolving. I do think there will always be a place for game like CS because it addresses the intrinsic nature of wanting to shoot someone and working together as a team. I also think the relevancy of the terrorist theme helps to make it palatable to a broad playerbase. EVERYONE knows what terrorism is, and many people have strong feelings about it, so it helps a lot in convincing people to play the game.