"I think you should go. Because even if you go and it's not good, at least you'll know. But if you don't go, you'll always wonder what it would have been like."

These words were spoken to me weeks before my trip by a woman I had met a few months before while standing in line at my bank in Atlanta, a drop-dead gorgeous girl by the name of Samar (yes, I was shyly trying to hit on her). And trite as they might seem, there was something about hearing conventional wisdom from the mouth of someone else that, in that moment, did the trick. I cast my misgivings aside and decided to proceed with my plan.

And that is how, ten years ago today, I found myself arriving in Yemen, one of the two countries that Samar called home; her father was Yemeni.

I was only there for five weeks--far less time than my preceding or succeeding sojourns in the Arab world. But those five, incredibly eventful weeks left a deep, deep impression on me.

It was in Yemen where, for the first time, despite the racism that I experienced at times, I generally felt something akin to the Arab hospitality of lore. I chewed qat. I fired guns--a pistol and an AK-47--for the first time. I got caught in a locust swarm. I got so sick that I shat myself to the point of losing consciousness, which finally made me understand how it is that children in poor countries can actually die from diarrhea. I was attacked by mini horses at an equestrian park. I went on the most arduous hike in my life through a mountain range with a group of tribesmen who slaughtered a goat for me and my small group of classmates. I ate at my first Syrian restaurant. Never before had I passed through military checkpoints just to move from one town to the next.

I saw a lot of the country, but not nearly enough. I made friends that I haven't seen since but haven't forgotten.

Yemen is a beautiful country. It is currently being torn apart by war. US-made bombs dropped by Saudi Arabia and UAE claim hundreds of innocent lives and destroy its infrastructure. Hunger stalks the countryside and cities. Cholera rips through the intestines of the young--leading to, yes, death from diarrhea. It breaks my heart.

I'm glad that I listened to Samar. I'm glad that I got to know what it was like. It is a privilege that I'm sure many Yemenis in the diaspora will not know again for some time.

I wish I could tell her. We had a falling out in 2009, after I returned from Syria... which was, coincidentally, the last place I saw her, on her father's large, lucrative farm outside of Damascus. It's where she was raised; the other country she called home. Her father was an official in the Syrian Baath Party--its representative of the Yemeni "sector" (قُطر) of the Arab nation, such as it exists in Baathist ideology. She resented the flurry of posts I made after being free of that country that denounced its government and complained about its people.

I'm sure that she is heartbroken, too.

Posted
AuthorAustin Branion

[Note: I wrote the draft of this blog post on March 5, 2016, but never got around to posting it. Perhaps I wanted to work on it more? In any case, here it is.]

I have an uncomfortable ethical problem that I need help thinking through.

For my Game Development class, each student had to pitch a game that they would like to make. The class will now anonymously give weighted votes to each of the proposals, and the top three or four will be the ones made once we divide into teams.

I pitched a game that I envision as interactive memorial for the Syrian Civil War. To my surprise, my pitch received some positive feedback, so I think there's a chance it could be made.

I'm not going to give away the full extent of my designs for this memorial, but one thing that I would like to include as part of the audio is the sound of death and despair: the screams of people trapped under rubble; the loud sobs of dying children; the shouts of rescue crews as they frantically try to extract someone from a flattened building; the wailing of people mourning their dead.

Being that I have seen thousands upon thousands of such videos, gathering authentic content for this purpose will not be difficult.

And that's where my questions begin.

What are the limits of fair use?

Assuming that "fair use" isn't an issue, is it okay to use the audio likeness of a real human being without their permission?

What if they're dead already?

Is it wrong to extract mediated versions of another person's most traumatic moments in life for a purpose they have no clue about?

I don't plan on this game being a commercial venture... but what if it were? Is that beyond the pale? The very prospect makes me feel icky, but maybe I'm wrong?

What if (and this is true) most of the source content I have in mind is originally from Islamic State videos? Does that change anything?

In short, what are my responsibilities to direct victims of mechanized violence when they are in no way accessible for me to consult in telling a story--through an unusual medium, at that-- that is at once about their experiences yet larger than any individual?

People with insights into the intersection of art, media, victimhood, and the ethics of representation: please help.

Posted
AuthorAustin Branion

In April 2013, I was laid off of my job, a job in which I spend a lot of time looking at Islamist militant propaganda. I immediately began applying for aid jobs in Turkey in Lebanon, as I was moved by the plight of Syrians fleeing that country, where I used to live. I’m a relatively fluent Arabic speaker and, moreover, had some experience working with refugees before—in, irony of ironies, Syria itself—so I thought I might be able to help somehow. I never got any of those jobs; in fact, I never even got a call or e-mail back. Three months later I was rehired at my old workplace.

A couple of weeks ago, I had drinks with a friend I rarely see, a white(-passing) woman, maybe once a year or so. We were catching up on each other’s lives, and she told me a story that I won’t soon forget. Sometime last year, she was on an aid mission in an internally displaced person’s camp in northern Syria, organized by a Turkish organization. Another worker on the trip was a Turkish black man; she didn’t know what his heritage was, but she was certain that he had lived in Turkey for most or all of his life, and spoke both Turkish and Arabic fluently.

She then told me about how this man, a man who was using his skills and time to help others, was constantly treated with disrespect and disdain from the Syrian IDPs. The most disgusting thing of all that she witnessed, she told me, was that during a round of food aid distribution Syrians refused to accept food that he had touched.

Let that sink in.

Homeless Syrians in camps.

Would-be refugees, were it not for the technical distinction that they had not yet crossed a border.

Refusing food because it was touched by a black man.

Those of you who have known me for a while know that I often complain about my experiences in the Arab world, especially in Syria, which was hands down the worst year of my life. The most pertinent aspect of my experience in the Middle East has been my blackness. And so, unsurprisingly, my complaints are often met with a certain skepticism or inability to empathize by my white peers who have also spent time in the region. It’s always strangely gratifying and vindicating when a white person opens up to me about having witnessed an act of such egregious racism perpetrated by Arabs; “NOW do you get why I hated it?” I ask. They usually do.

I’m glad I never got those jobs I applied for.

A grim coincidence was that this friend-date I had was on the very same night of the Paris attacks. Over the next few days, my Facebook feed would be inundated with plaintive posts from my super progressive friends, lots of Arabs among them, and media commentary about the “hypocrisy” of Western media coverage of, and sympathy for, Paris, particularly when Beirut had been bombed the previous day.

As though it were a true allegation that Beirut wasn’t covered in the media. And, more importantly, as though it’s actually hypocritical, as a person or as a media institution, to have deeper emotional attachments to one place over another.

Paris is my favorite city outside of America that I’ve been to thus far. One of the reasons why is because of how wonderfully I was treated there; in stark contrast to my Syrian experience, it is the only place I’ve ever been in my life where I feel like I received special, preferential treatment for being African-American. This is simply my own, individual feeling and experience, and not at all related to what I know intellectually about France’s long and storied history of violent, racist, colonial terrorism abroad, and how that legacy is refracted in its own domestic brand of racism against Muslims and Africans.

By the same token, Beirut is the Arab city where I experienced the least racism; only one incident in the roughly two weeks of time I spent there. This, too, is not a reflection of Beirut’s sordid reputation as one of the most horribly racist places in the Arab world, but of my own personal experience. And that is why Beirut, against the odds, is my favorite Arab city.

Nevertheless, it’s still a city where I experienced racism, if only one time. Paris never once made me ill at ease; on the contrary, I felt thoroughly welcomed for the short week I was there. It was incredibly refreshing. In less than a week, Paris did more to make me feel at home than Damascus did in a full year. This is even more striking when you consider that I know Arabic well but can't even ask for a bathroom in French.

I've noted in the past that it feels eminently self-indulgent and stupendously petty to complain about my individual and singularly awful formative experience in Syria at a time when that country is the site of the most brutal war of the 21st century thus far.

But the truth is that I felt heartsick and shocked by the attacks in Paris, which occurred at specific locations that I’d never even heard of before. What does it mean that I only feel that same shock and panic in regards to Syria when the bomb or atrocity I hear about happens somewhere that I have actually, specifically stepped foot in or near? What should I make of the macabre realization that, at this point, I have seen more Syrians in bloody pieces than Syrians that shared a kind word with me for the whole year that I actually lived there?

I don’t have an answer.

But if you do, I hope it’s better than calling me a hypocrite

Posted
AuthorAustin Branion

Look at the camera
No, let me be more precise:
Look directly into the lens
Your future audience will want to know if you knew
And though you never thought ignorance bliss til now
You know that you know

Hold your head high
Do not hope
It is the enemy of dignity
Do not despair
You are dead already

If the method be blade
Close your eyes on steel's cool approach
They may plunge fingers into your eyes regardless
How rude.
You will probably scream
Try not to
Gurgles are unbecoming

If the method be flame
You will scream
That's okay

If the method be bullet
Lucky bastard

Are you looking into the lens?
Keep your eyes locked
Ignore your executioners
Lest your stoic facade break

Are you religious?
Mouth something   
There is no god but God            
And Muhammad is His Messenger

Unable to speak?
Your finger is a totem
There is no god but God  
And Muhammad is His Messenger

Not religious?
Mouth it anyway
There is no god
But your death is not your own
Your future audience will want to know if you knew

Posted
AuthorAustin Branion

I've previously mentioned that I am very excited to return to NYU for this year's edition of PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail. I recently discovered that one of the speakers will be none other than Jonathan Blow, poster child of the indie game scene thanks to his critically acclaimed, watershed game Braid. I should probably admit that, despite being released in 2008, I didn't hear about the game until about two years ago. In preparation for PRACTICE, I've decided to do my homework and play the speakers' games; I've been playing Braid for the past two days. My thoughts so far can be distilled into two brief sentences:

This game is brilliant.

This game is hard.

So hard, in fact, that I'm not sure I'll finish.

I've never been very good at puzzles, and those in Braid have made me want to rip my hair out. I've had to look at more Let's Plays than I'm comfortable with. And I'm not entirely sure that the sense of accomplishment engendered upon completing a given puzzle on my own outweighs the overall frustration involved in getting to that point. Here is an analysis that carefully dissects the design elements that made some of the puzzles so maddening.

It's been a while since I've played a game that made me feel this way, and it's left me wondering about just how much difficulty—honest-to-goodness challenge, not "cheap" and artificial barriers/constraints—can inhibit appreciation of the artistry and creativity of a generally well-made game. Perhaps this will always be a curse of gaming, unlike passively consumed media whose appreciation does not demand audience input or agency. 

I remember scoffing at Polygon's review of my favorite game of 2013, The Last of Us, given its seemingly undue unction at the supposed difficulty of combat. But now that I'm banging my head against the wall due to puzzle difficulty, I'm not laughing.

Posted
AuthorAustin Branion

"Everyone probably knows what roguelikes are, right? I used to have to explain that, but now I don't, which is kinda cool." The innocuous question, posed by designer Keith Burgun during one of the talks at the 2013 PRACTICE conference, was directed to an audience of professional and student game designers, as well as people otherwise interested in the discipline. The room responded with a silence that confirmed, indeed, that this bit of knowledge was commonly held by the assembled crowd.

For the briefest of split seconds, I actually considered raising my hand and outing myself: I am an impostor in your midst. I have no idea what a roguelike is. It was high school geometry class all over again, and I still didn't know the answers.

It was about a year ago when I began to seriously contemplate exhuming a long interred dream of my youth: working, in some capacity, in the video game industry. At the time that this dream was among the living visions I had for my future life of impossibly far-away adulthood, I imagined that I would like to be a designer or perhaps a producer. But life had other plans

Finally, more than a decade on, I am returning to my first love, reacquainting myself with its broad features and learning more about the discipline and medium. In the course of this new and heretofore autodidactic enterprise, I've read a lot: digital media scholarship that is canonical and on the frontiers alike, books on incorporating ethical play and values in game design, game design primers, and personal essays on player experience.  

Yet as an aspiring designer and critic, nothing has given me the distinct pleasure engendered by page 135 of Clara Fernández-Vara's recently published Introduction to Game Analysis:

"Games such as Rogue are famous for generating most of their content procedurally—this also means that it may not be possible to complete the game, since the levels generated are not optimized or play-tested to be completed. Games that use this approach to design are called roguelike, and include the so-called dungeon crawlers such as Diablo."

Perfection.

This small snippet is emblematic of what makes Fernández-Vara's book such a wonderful resource: it's commitment to taking as little for granted as possible. Among its stated goals are "to make the tools of academic analysis more accessible to everyone" and "to encourage everyone with an interest in games to learn more about them and produce thoughtful reflections" in order to realize a more sophisticated discourse on the medium. This is largely, though not exclusively, framed in terms of scholarly exercise; more specifically, the tone of the book is unequivocally that of a professor addressing undergraduate students, although its lessons are undoubtedly useful to those pursuing advanced degrees or completely removed from academe. 

The meat and potatoes of the book is its survey of three different areas that may serve as sites for analytical writing in games: the context, defined as "the circumstances in which the game is produced and played, as well as other texts and communities that may relate to it;" game overview, "the content, the basic features that distinguish the game from others, and how it has been read, appropriated, and modified by different audiences;" and formal elements, "how the text is constructed, the pieces that make it up." Each of these is in turn unpacked into smaller, discrete, and interlocking elements. Indeed, the various aspects of game analysis that Introduction to Game Analysis seeks to introduce readers to is wide-ranging indeed: from orienting oneself for meaningful and conscientious play to proper theoretical grounding, from cognizance of genre history to sound research methodology to myriad other topics. 

The purpose and presumed audience of the book—a survey and guide to thinking and writing analytically about games for those with little prior experience doing so—necessarily demands that breadth takes precedence over depth in some areas, such as in its treatment of the various theoretical frameworks referenced throughout. Yet if one looks at the copious notes and suggested reading, Fernández-Vara's book is a veritable gold mine for those seeking a pathway into more intellectually rigorous and satisfying contemplation of the games we play. 

Introduction to Game Analysis is a triumph—with its lucid prose unencumbered by arcane academic jargon (save for that which the author actually takes time to explain), Fernández-Vara has made cracked the gate of sophisticated discourse on video games, from within ivory towers or without, appreciably wider. I highly recommend it.

Posted
AuthorAustin Branion

I can still hear his mama cries
Know the family traumatized
Shots left holes in his face about piranha-sized
The old pastor closed the cold casket
And said the church ain’t got enough room for all the tombs
It’s a war going on outside we ain’t safe from
I feel the pain in my city wherever I go
314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago

The first time that I ever really thought about these Kanye West lyrics and the gun violence ravaging Chicago's black community was as I was preparing to go on an activist delegation to Palestine in October 2012. Among more than 40 others, I had the pleasure of traveling with Aisha Truss-Miller, a community organizer involved with black youth empowerment in Chicago. During our pre-trip orientation, our diverse cohort engaged in a group activity wherein we all shared a 90-second-or-less version of what our motivations for joining the delegation were. Aisha's minute-long story certainly made the most impact on me: she told us of how her 17-year-old cousin, Leonard "Man-Man" Truss, was gunned down that summer; a random, innocent victim felled by bullets from an automatic rifle. I can't remember her exact words, but I remember the chill I felt as she recounted, voice faintly cracking under the calm surface, the pain of having to bury her young cousin with a large hole in his face. You can hear Aisha and her mother tell the story of how they received the news and their initial reactions below.

"Think globally, act locally," she said toward the end of her allotted time in order to summarize why tragedy and injustice at home was motivating her to learn more about the systemic injustices leveled against the Palestinian people. I must admit what she meant wasn't entirely clear to me then; and if I'm being really honest, I should also admit that my intellectual concerns and activism more often revolves around the global than the local. But as time goes on I continue to grow in my understanding of the connections between the struggles of ghettoized, criminalized peoples from Palestine to right here at home in the United States.

It was with this backdrop in mind that a recent feature on Polygon, "We Are Chicago: A Game About Gang Violence," resonated with me. Polygon writer Charlie Hall profiles the game's designer, Michael Block, and how he came to understand how a community rendered invisible despite being a stone's throw away could provide ripe material for a narrative-heavy, biographical game. Through his nascent involvement in local charities and community improvement initiatives on Chicago's South Side, Block—a white dude from Wisconsin (which is, really, just perfect)—met a local activist and rapper named Steve Young, a black dude who grew up in the very milieu which Block was seeking to make a game about. With guidance from Young and interviews with Chicago residents, Block has created a composite character that players will inhabit, "a teenage boy on the South Side, a boy who lives in a single-parent household struggling with poverty."

I am personally very excited about this game and I wish Culture Shock Games, the studio developing it, much success. Judging from the Polygon profile, it seems that they have both their heads and their hearts in the right place; the former manifested by the seeking of voices from the community they intend to represent to be involved with the project from its earliest stages, and the latter by their apparent intent to not only feature an appeal from Chicago violence prevention and mitigation groups from within the game, but by giving some of the proceeds to such nonprofits. 

Two larger questions came to my mind, though, as I pondered the development of this game. Neither of the concerns reflect negatively on the developers, mind you. They are both related to systems.

The first system-related concern is the make-up of the developers. As I've stated above, I admire the people working on this game based on what I've read so far and have every reason to believe that Block and co. are sincerely concerned with the people they seek to represent. Still, a larger question that begs to be answered is what more can be done to give marginalized peoples the means to represent themselves through creative media. Naturally, this question isn't limited to video games alone, although it is particularly salient here since the demographic homogeneity of this medium's producers seems to be peculiarly resilient whereas the same cannot be said for the demographic makeup of its consumers; not to mention the gradual democratization of production seen in other creative media. This very subject was addressed in a recent talk by Shawn Allen, an independent game developer based in New York. Unfortunately the sound levels are way off in the recording, but you should sit down, crank up your headphones, and give Allen a listen. 

The second system-related concern is related to a design challenge that doubles as a political one. Returning to the Polygon article, the following two quotations touched a nerve:

Suddenly the evening news meant more to Block than ever before. It wasn’t just an endless string of killings and arrests that plagued Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. There were areas of Chicago’s South Side where the cycle of poverty remained unbroken for generations. There were people lost in there.
These things are actually happening every day, and it’s such a different life than the life that I live, and I’m 10 miles away. It’s not even ... somebody living in China or somebody living in rural Afghanistan. It’s my neighbors that are 10 miles away from me. How is this such a drastically different life?

This rubbed me the wrong way. The state of Chicago's South Side is not the result of a mere "cycle of poverty": it's an intentional trajectory of poverty set in motion by a business and political culture whose operative ethos was (and, to a lesser degree, remains) rooted in anti-black racism, a trajectory set in motion during the Great Migration—which itself was the result of oppressive, systemic, white supremacism of the worst kind. 

While it is the images of white supremacist degradation and terror in the public sphere that live the strongest in public memory and attitudes about America's congenital racism—lynchings, segregated facilities, police brutality and the like—what has arguably had an outsized impact on the living conditions of black people in this country far grander in the scale of its detriment than the psychological, physical, and social wages of such terror is the psychological, physical, and social cost of economic exploitation and housing discrimination

The full scope of such housing discrimination practices—red lining, block busting, restrictive racial covenants—is beyond the scope of this humble blog post. Suffice to say that this sordid and storied history of systemic, urban housing discrimination is at least as old as the Federal Housing Administration itself, established in 1934. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes

If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination.Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn't need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.

Apartheid policies that intended to segregate and ghettoize have been strikingly effective over the last century. Without denying poor, urban blacks agency over their actions on the one hand, and without gravitating to the acontextual ruminations of Paul Ryan or the concern-trolling histrionics of Bill O'Reilly on the other, we should acknowledge that these grand forces of public policy and the culture of the communities thus targeted have a dialectical impact on one another, resulting in what we see most chillingly exemplified on Chicago's South Side: an economically disadvantaged community cannibalizing its young. As Aaron Huey says in his amazing Ted Talk that documents the history of poverty of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation: "The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say: 'My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They're killing each other. They're killing themselves while we watch them die.'" For a thorough, lengthy, and historically well-informed examination of the issue of housing discrimination (and other forms of institutional racism), one could hardly pick a better place to start than carefully reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's magisterial article for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." A shorter read that can serve as a primer is "How We Built the Ghettos."

Which brings me back to my second concern: the design challenge of constructing a game whose narrative and mechanics honors the history and politics of ghettoization, or any other trans-generational social injustice for that matter. We Are Chicago certainly seems like a good start toward humanizing this marginalized population for a game-playing public that may not otherwise be inclined to reckon with the lives of people ostensibly so different from themselves. But part of me fears that designers and consumers alike are more amenable to the relatively simple and cognitively challenge-free task of sympathy for characters thus humanized as opposed to having their understanding of how large and impersonal structures impacts the intimate social lives of said individuals, and the continued resilience of "elegant racism," perturbed. But how can we design for the latter?

Honestly: I'm not entirely sure. But as I write this, I can't help but think of a talk given by the hilarious and affable game designer Brad Muir about the work of his studio, Double Fine, on Massive Chalice, which he has described as "a tactical strategy game on an epic timeline." His remarks begin 37 minutes into the video at right. He declares that one of his design goals of the game is "Character attachment through mechanics," manifested in part by the permanent death (or "permadeath") of [playable] characters who grow old and die, leaving their [playable character] children to carry the epic, trans-generation struggle against the ghouls and monsters that periodically attack the fantasy kingdom of the game's setting ("periodically" being every 5-7 years in game time). The progeny of these deceased heroes will also pass along family relics to be used in battle in future generations. Muir also states that one of his design goals is for the generational component to "inspire self-reflection" in players.

Hmmmm. Although Massive Chalice is a strategy game in a fantasy setting, I think that there's something to be gleaned from this take on mechanics and possibly applying them to not merely facilitate audience sympathy with playable characters, but to facilitate reflection about the legacy and impact of choices made long ago on the present day. 

I'm not sure how this design problem can be solved, but I certainly think it's important that we try. As Alex Cox says: "The reason I care so deeply about videogames is because I believe they are one of the strongest ways to create empathy.  No, I KNOW they are one of the strongest ways to create empathy." She made this statement at the end of a talk praising Gone Home and its deft portrayal of [spoiler alert] a teenage girl grappling in that unsure, exciting, scary, gleeful adolescent way with her own nascent sexuality. Maybe We Are Chicago will be the first game that helps build empathy for a believable, non-criminal, inner-city black character contending with the economic hardship and violent environment he was born into. And maybe someday a game that, through its mechanics, explores how that environment got that way will be in the offing.

And with that, allow me to close this post as I began: with Kanye West lyrics.

Imagine working so hard and you can't cut through
That can mess up your whole life like an uncle that touched you
What has the world come to
I'm from the 312
Where cops don't come through
And dreams don't come true

 

 

 

Posted
AuthorAustin Branion

Once upon a time—from June 2008 until June 2009, to be specific— I lived in Damascus, Syria, where I pursued my graduate studies in Arabic. During that intensely fraught and indelibly formative year of my life, I met a lovely Syrian girl by the name of Shurouq*, a student in the English department of the University of Damascus, where my master's program was hosted. Shurouq had an eminently gentle soul and warm demeanor. Soft-spoken but sweet, friendly, poised, and thoughtful, her quiet charm was accentuated by her competent yet occasionally unsure, endearingly accented English. Needless to say, I was smitten. 

Residents of Yarmouk Camp in Damascus queue for food aid distributed by UNRWA on January 31, 2014.

Residents of Yarmouk Camp in Damascus queue for food aid distributed by UNRWA on January 31, 2014.

We went out a few times together doing the simple, perfectly innocent sort of things one does with a girl they have a crush on when living in a socially conservative (relative to the West), Muslim-majority country: strolls in the park, devouring fresh cinnamon rolls at the one French cafe in town, long talks in the campus squares. She was one of the few Syrians that I made it a point to stay in touch with after leaving the country. She got married almost two years later, in the spring of 2011.

At that point, the nascent Syrian uprising was still largely characterized by a cycle of peaceful protest followed by bloody government crackdown.

An eerie, ten-minute scooter ride through Homs in the summer of 2012 gives a taste of the scale of its devastation.

By the time she gave birth to her daughter Loujain a year later, the civil unrest had turned into civil war. Large portions of Syria's third largest city, Homs, the hometown of another friend of mine, lay in ruins due to heavy fighting between insurgents and government forces. Two bombs had went off near her house. As part of the Christian minority, I imagine she and her family felt particularly threatened

And by that time, I had almost stopped talking with my Syrian friends altogether. Just what do you say to someone living in a country tearing itself apart in a whirlpool of internecine bloodletting? "Hey, how's work going? How many of your loved ones have been buried or imprisoned?"

When Shurouq Facebook messaged me out of the blue late last summer, I felt a shock of pleasant surprise tinged with guilt and worry. She told me the latest news: through some minor miracle, she and her family managed to get out of the country in what she hinted was a harrowing journey a few months prior. She skimped on the details.

I didn't pry. 

*          *          *

I've been reading Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns. The book, an excellent, compelling, and dreadful account of the wars that have wracked the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the past twenty years, is full of depressing and horrifyingly violent anecdotes. The one below in particular caught my attention:

The [church] elders described successive waves of soldiers and refugees intruding on their small village. First, a wave of fleeing soldiers had come to town—Mobutu's soldiers mixed with ex-FAR. They had terrorized the local population, taxing and stealing their livestock. Then the refugees arrived, "like a band of walking corpses." They were starving. Instead of talking, they just stared and cupped their hands. They pulled up cassava roots and peanuts from the fields and and picked raw mangos from the trees. As dire as their situation was, if the villagers shared the little they had with this horde of foreigners, they knew they would all die of starvation. The men from the church helped organize vigilante groups to guard the village and the fields. They patrolled with machetes and sticks. If they found someone stealing, they would beat him to death. There were no prisons and no courts. Justice was swift and decisive.

Like a band of walking corpses. 

*          *          *

"Nooooope. Fuck that."

This was the reaction of a co-worker last night when I recommended that he play The Walking Dead

"I hate zombie shit," he said. "It's so dumb. You see, zombie shit is used as a foil to have a backdrop of complete social collapse and disorder," he said. "But here's the thing: if you want to have such a backdrop, there are so many more plausible ways to do that!"

He was so enthusiastic about communicating his point that I'm not sure if he realized I was in agreement. I mean, The Walking Dead is a great game. But on another level I am sometimes uneasy with the use of genre fiction as a way of framing stories that are, in their most salient thematic aspects, often lived by real people in real places. A Hobbesian mode of survival is not the exclusive province of fantasy; it often characterizes the lives of far more people on this globe than we in comfortable, developed, stable nations bother to think about. Chris Franklin takes on video games' depressing paucity of things to say about real-world challenges (albeit in relation to non-violent contexts) in his review of the critically acclaimed game Gone Home. Emphasis added:

The Walking Dead and The Last of us prove stories about people can be affecting even in the face of absurd genre fiction.  But too often and too easily we don’t use that artifice to construct meaning; we just take shelter in it.  We champion escapism because it feels good even as it means our coming of age stories need to be about gunning people down and our father-daughter stories need to happen in zombie apocalypses.  We use it to give crackle and zing to stories that might better be told here in the real world with people you grew up with or people know today; people whose suffering isn’t due to zombies or monsters but the way we operate socially, culturally, or economically.  Escapist fantasy is wonderful, but escapist fantasy can only hint at problems that affect real people in real ways. This game, and a precious few others, take a bold, powerful step in trying to reclaim a relatable humanity in video game characters, and it does so by insisting they’re as boring and normal and real as everyone else.

I think about how Shurouq, this wonderful girl that I used to walk in the park with, that had dreams of traveling Europe, of using the English that she worked so hard to acquire in her career somehow, of giving her daughter the world, is now a refugee in Macedonia, sharing a two-bedroom house with seven other people. I often wonder how she makes it through her days. I wonder what she hopes to impart to her precious daughter, Loujain, who may never again know the feeling of her homeland's soil beneath her feet. How will Loujain make sense of the world as she grows older? 

I continue to make my way through Stearns's account of recent Congolese history, and I think about what sort of pressures must one feel to, as an ostensible man of religion, resolve to beat and hack starving, helpless refugees to death to protect one's own community haunted by food scarcity.

And then I wonder: in a videogame landscape dominated by conflict-as-power-fantasy, how can we make room for the stories of the Shurouqs and Loujains of the world. The stories of conflict-as-trauma. Conflict-as-exile. Conflict-as-loss. Conflict-as-quiet-strength. The stories of men driven to violence by forces much larger than themselves, not preternaturally engaged in it. If I ever make it into the game industry, my hope would be to make a game that honors, in its own way, the story of Loujain, this little girl that I've never met.

Without zombies.


*Names have been changed


Posted
AuthorAustin Branion