(Content note: This article includes discussion of terrorist attacks, murder, torture, prison abuse, sexual abuse, drug abuse, racism, and genocide.)
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On September 11, 2001, four passenger airplanes were hijacked by religious zealots and flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a small field in Somerset, Pennsylvania, killing thousands of people. America’s collective scream of grief was expressed through the ensuing invasion of Afghanistan and the War on Terror — the world’s first military campaign against a concept, prefigured by the domestic War on Drugs. This act of bereavement is estimated to have killed millions.
This conflict, termed a foreverwar by some commentators, marks the first time video games were factored into a country’s wartime propaganda efforts. Tens of millions in tax dollars were spent perversely developing first person shooter games to recruit children into the military.
Contemporary amateur microgames, underfunded and independent, were another beast entirely, and in the long run they may have more to say about the spirit of the times.
But first, a little context.
On September 2, 2001, Newgrounds user BuffaloWingKing uploaded a game called Assassinate Oprah. In it you select a series of options for how a cartoon ninja should murder TV mogul Oprah Winfrey. The art is crude and often difficult to parse. At the end, like some mad Oscarbait film, you are informed THIS HAS BEEN A DBZINSANE PRODUCTION.
The draw of software like Flash was that anyone could make a game in a short time. These games were not tempered by the delay and time for introspection that even the shoddiest Steam releases get. Newgrounds was an eternal game jam producing formal experiments and bursts of visceral emotion. The community produced hundreds if not thousands of games like this, mowing down countless celebrities.
What did we get following the event that sparked America’s foreverwar, as her citizens found themselves disoriented and starving, lost in the desert of the real?
We got a whole lot more.
It was a Tuesday.
The first game posted to Newgrounds on the morning of September 11, 2001 came at 6:40 AM EST, 2 hours before the first Tower was struck. The last hurrah of the invincible America was Bush Aerobics, a browser toy where then-President George W. Bush dances to some jaunty tunes.
Remember this toy. He will be important later.
The second game came hours after the last plane struck, at 9:57 PM EST. Posted into the Games category on Newgrounds, Grandfather Killed was a static drawing of the South Tower falling, with an explanation that this was posted in memory of the creator’s late grandfather, Bill Willett.
There is debate in the comments regarding the legitimacy of this “game.” The only Willett listed on the 9/11 memorial is John Willett, who was only 29, although there is nothing to say this creator did not know their grandfather under a nickname. The only certain fact is that as smoke still filled Manhattan, Newgrounds user CharacterKiller was driven to a public display of bereavement.
We all grieve in different ways.
For everything that is lost, and for every person who recognizes its loss, there is a matrix of grief. Whole shelves of books discuss the ways we feel and work through grief. Some feel little or nothing when faced with loss. Others are so profoundly affected that they develop heart problems and even cancer.
By 2009, the national wound had scarred to such an extent that user shoop-da-woop-555 commented,
YOUR GARANDPA EPIC FAILD Not im really feel bad about it *tear*
Responses to tragedy are not always healthy, and do not always reflect people’s best instincts.
The ONLY Solution!! was the third game released on 9/11, posted by user StvC only a minute after Grandfather Killed. In it, you press a button (more accurately, THE button) to drop a cartoon nuke on a two-tone landscape, causing a crudely drawn brown person to melt in agony into a red blob.
This is, again, barely a game. You click a button and you “win,” which here means you have pretended to kill one man as a cipher for a country of them.
About his work, StvC had this to say:
What A DAY!! I’m really drunk right now, I need to BE!!!
I’ve been saying it for YEARS, now, perhaps the World will realzie what to do.
Sorry for the poor grafix & prodution value, i’m angry & drunk.
We WILL Punish theze Animals!!!
The word “animals” to refer to Al Qaeda or, it is safe to surmise when discussing nuclear weaponry, citizens of Afghanistan in general, recurs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, even in the comments of Grandfather Killed. According to a report by the South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, there were 645 “incidents of backlash” against Americans of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent reported in American papers, including 3 murders.
StvC’s call to nuke our enemies sparked healthy debate. As user Arsonstar eloquently noted an hour or so after the game’s release, in the midst of a heated gaming moment:
You DUm ignorant bastard
Sober up and then watch your flash you fuck.
if some few Renagade Americans bombed something in another country it doesnt mean they have to NUke the ENtire USA you get what i’m tryin to say?
CHrist people are such idiots some times
Theodore Sturgeon warns us that 90% of anything is crap. That’s why museums have curators.
In 2000, Newgrounds automated its user submission system to become an early example of what we might call Web 2.0. Users contributed their own cartoons and games, and discussed them faster than ever before.
Comment pages were an early Web 2.0 innovation, allowing users to spin their flaxen thoughts into glimmering, golden #content with minimal effort. Of course, as in the fable of Rumpelstiltskin, we could later regret this trade, and the truism “never read the comments” quickly became Internet lore.
I got to talk to Tom Fulp, founder of Newgrounds and co-designer of games like Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers, about this democratization and the more unsavory things it can unearth:
NG has a policy against racist content and we’ve removed a bunch over the years, although we’ve hosted plenty of questionable things, too. As far as internet views on race in the 2000s, I think some things have changed but much has stayed the same. Racism is alive and well on the internet but it moves through different corners and takes different shapes. Some of it hides on dedicated sites but you can find plenty of it out in the open on social media too. A lot of internet racism considers itself “playful” but playful racism emboldens serious racists so you gotta ask yourself if you really want to be playful about it.
The First Actual Games
There were no new games posted to Newgrounds on September 12. US and Canadian flights were grounded. Although Osama bin Laden would not formally take credit for the attacks until 2004, he was the leading suspect, providing America with something new: a face to blame.
September 13th saw the release of the game Turbin Hunt. [sic] In this riff on Nintendo’s own Duck Hunt (even using the same music) the disembodied face of bin Laden is launched into the air, several at a time, waiting to be shot down like skeet. Bin Laden’s eyes widen and his head explodes as he falls.
It would not be the last Duck Hunt game to use bin Laden’s face, but it was the most interesting. The player is forced to enter a name before beginning and at the end, if you have shot down all of bin Laden’s disembodied heads, the creator, Atreau, gives you this message:
NICE JOB! Very Good [user name], You shot 10 Bin Ladens and scored 1000 points. You are now officially no better than him.
It is unfair to think of these games as morally simplistic. These were people in a time of turmoil, operating with very few resources. Where Call of Duty devs Infinity Ward spend hundreds of millions of dollars to reward “killstreaks” and make military occupation exhilarating, these one-person teams clumsily asked real questions. Turbin Hunt points to the player, signing their name to the violence — no small gesture in 2001, sandwiched between the moral panics over Doom and Grand Theft Auto.
Equally ambiguous, although less intentionally so, was “We are coming after you” by StvC, creator of The ONLY Solution!! above. The author provided this epigraph:
To ALL Of you Bleeding-Heart Liberal’s, Who don’t think it’s “RiGHT” to kill people or “Children”, don’t even BOTHER looking at this Game. If you dopes don’t get it NOW, You NEVER, EVER WILL!!!!
The game is another shooting gallery, with a clumsy twist: The second “enemy” to walk out cannot be shot. You can click on them in order to shoot, but nothing happens. The game stops.
Due to a programming error, it is a game where violence does not work.
An Arms Race
The shooting gallery was a popular approach. War on Terrorism and its 2002 sequel WOT_II Spec Ops play the concept straight. Intriguingly, the terrorist shooting games open with an ad for their creator’s business, “TechRadium: Web Site Design, Multimedia Design, CD/DVD Replication and more…”
Mission:01 Kill Bin Laden has players attempt to draw a bead on a rather nimble bin Laden, before the camera draws in close — bin Laden says, “My friend, don’t shoot. Let us negotiate.” The game, puppeteering the player, audibly cocks its gun. Wherever you click on his body, the same sequence of MS paint gore ensues, chunks of his head disappearing, the edges dripping with red pixels, until he is left a headless torso. Then funk music plays and a final screen invites you to “play again or buy the shirt at www.thelandphill.com” [site no longer active]
At the time, before Google AdSense or even Project Wonderful, T-shirt sales were one of the few means of income available for online content creators.
Which is not to say that no one attempted shock value to drive up clicks. COKEHEAD 2, by DRUGFILMS, requires a player to click on Osama bin Laden in order to force-feed him cocaine, in order to keep his heart moving through nuclear bomb blasts. COKEHEAD 2 was released in 2003, by which time the US had new countries to fear while bombing.
As time passed after 9/11, games would become less reflexive and more outlandish, as in the case of Extreme WTC Jumper, a game where a cartoon character jumps from a Trade Center tower and attempts to perform “tricks” for a high score before hitting the ground. By 2010, rather than providing catharsis, children were attempting to dredge up trauma, with games like 9/11 Simulator.
Playing with Dolls
If every crank in the world is making Flash games, then you will find some gold. However, as Borges adroitly implied in The Library of Babel, 99% of the resulting games will be dress-up dolls of anime characters.
The first game released after 9/11 that was not about 9/11 was Vegeta’s Strip Down, a dress-up doll starring Vegeta, Prince of all Saiyans, from Akira Toriyama’s manga phenomenon Dragon Ball.
Vegeta’s Strip Down has received over 68,000 views over the years, less than half as many as Turbin Hunt but many times more than any of the other games we have looked at so far. The comments include “hot hot hot — i just creamed myself” (user Veggiters) and “People please — the only people who will look at naked anime men are girls — my sis liked it -_- oh and every thimg is poorly drawn” (user shampoo16).
Doll games cast the player as a god, omnipotent over the fate of a toy. Bush Aerobics, discussed above, is a near cousin of this genre, imbuing a doll with choose-your-ending mechanics like Assassinate Oprah.
We were due to get a whole lot more like Assassinate Oprah.
On September 21, the Assassinate Oprah creator, now calling himself Lord Kooler, released Death to bin Laden. In it, a helpless Osama bin Laden is subjected to various forms of mutilation, including the “gas chamber,” where President Bush farts on him.
The conclusion of the game — the winning choice that gives you end credits in the form of another A LORD KOOLER PRODUCTION card — is to nuke Afghanistan, even though within the game bin Laden is already in custody. The mushroom cloud is punctuated by a cutscene of the cast of Star Fox sharing gamer memes as they fly away.
EviLDoG’s Dress Up Bin Laden was a purer dress-up doll game. Here bin Laden, enemy of the world, displays breasts which drip life-giving milk when clicked on. The emasculated terrorist has a crude illustration of a vulva, yet receives blowjobs from camels, who then smile at the camera, mouths dripping semen.
This was not the height of the absurdity the doll-game would reach.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
The impotent terrorist was a popular image. Tom Fulp himself, the Newgrounds founder who would join the vanguard of indie games in the late 00s, released into this realm Al Quaidamon, a microgame about alternately punishing and resuscitating a nameless man whose crimes are left unmentioned, like the forgotten prisoners in many actual U.S. detention centers.
The USA PATRIOT Act suspended habeas corpus worldwide in the name of preventing future terrorist attacks. U.S. coalition-run prisons such as Abu Ghraib and “black sites” including the famous Guantanamo Bay are famous for the hideous human rights abuses committed within them.
But we didn’t know about Abu Ghraib and it was still over a decade until Guantanamo Bay became a video game demo. Looking back on Al Quaidamon, its designer Tom Fulp would tell me,
Personally, 9/11 was a notable turning point for me because I had been raised conservative but had been trending more and more left with age. My remaining hawkish instincts wanted to seek vengeance but I wasn’t feeling comfortable with the idea of going to war in Afghanistan, let alone Iraq later. I also wasn’t comfortable with the racist sentiments going around in the US.
[Al Quaidamon] was intended to be a silly and semi-thoughtful exploration of how we were treating prisoners of war, although it makes me cringe now when I play it. I was being hyperbolic about the requests of human rights activists and it’s not the sort of thing I would make today. I also just checked and Abu Ghraib happened two years later. Having knowledge of Abu Ghraib puts all this in a different light, since at the time I hadn’t actually seen what was going on.
Yet parallel to the revelation of the horror of Abu Ghraib, the internet grew desensitized, frantic to break new taboos. Enter Osamagotchi, by COKEHEAD 2’s DRUGFILMS. In this 2003 game you visit unimaginable violence upon a strangely handsome, trim bin Laden, who responds to attacks by chainsaw and dynamite with little more than a deathless sneer. In an immortal’s approximation of BDSM aftercare, blood transfusions and marijuana help heal your swarthy victim/lover faster. As the guards of Abu Ghraib had found, torture exists for its own end, not to force a confession or to demand information.
Creator DRUGFILMS commented:
Ok I know Osama is old and shit…
So you got any better ideas? I plan on making Saddam soon also. Who else should I make? Britney? Bush? How about Richard Simmons???? HAHAHAHAHA
User Pikka commented on release day:
Now this is really good. Now, I´m not talking about how good it is torture and killing another, but the interactivity is so amazing man!
If I for example aim with a shotgun at his right lower torso and shoot then he gets a bullethole on the right side of the lower torso. You must have spent alot of time on this, my man.
Another thing. Sure you can do almost everything to torture and humiliate Osama. But you have made him strong enough to survive all the attacks and still move. I´m sure that you would please many Osama-haters out there by putting in a “Kill” button in the game. I´m not saying anything that Osama deserves to die. But it just don´t seem complete with this sort of game and you can´t ultimately kill him. And that would be the same for me if there were another person in the game, not just Osama.
Osama bin Laden is no longer a person. Perhaps he never was. He is a receptacle for no specific fear or hate. He is a sprite, a mother-lothario, transcending sex, immortal, enthroned on the same seelie court as the funny nuke, or the farting, dancing, genocidal clown-emperor George Bush.
Holy War Games
The only game ever released by Newgrounds user behemothproductions was Holy War Games. Released on October 21, a fortnight after US troops entered Afghanistan, the game provides a map of Afghanistan and has you click to launch bombs on the hiding Osama bin Laden. You are told to avoid killing civilians but there is no indicator of the death toll you have caused. You simply drop a bomb and leave a permanent crater.
Should you succeed in your mission, you are brought to Iraq, to drop nuclear bombs in a somewhat oracular hunt for Saddam Hussein.
It is echoed in 2002’s TerrorWar — Da PAYBACK, where bombs you drop on cities in the Middle East, Northern Africa, and France spark frantic communications from sneering, threatening villains. If you find bin Laden the game applauds like a golf caddy — “Great shot!”
Conversely, the most common complaint leveled in the comments on Holy War Games is that carpet-bombing Afghanistan isn’t fun enough. You receive no visions of evil dictators, nor of melting civilians. The player is insulated from the consequences of their bombs.
Yet these are not the playful nukes of Tír na nÓg. The only rewards they bring are mushroom clouds and the spiritual desolation of a victor’s war room.
In 2001, I was a child. I was kind of a stupid child in kind of a stupid world.
Osama: Nowhere To Run was a short cartoon set to a parody of the Banana Boat song made famous by Harry Belafonte. In it, the hated, invincible elf Osama bin Laden scampers around dodging little cartoon bombs.
A library teacher showed this to my entire grade school class. It was the first time I saw an adult watching a cartoon, the first cartoon I saw on a computer, and certainly the first time I ever saw a teacher approve of killing or — to my particular horror — the word “ass.”
This was all now normal.