World of anti-Warcraft: the activists turning online video games into protest sites
By refusing to play them as they “should” be played, Joseph DeLappe and Angela Washko are transforming games such as America’s Army, Grand Theft Auto 5 and World of Warcraft into a new type of public square.
When Joseph DeLappe was a boy he really wanted to go to war. His parents had seen more than their fair share. DeLappe’s mother migrated to the USA from Hungary after the fall of Nazi Germany, having survived the gruelling 50 day siege of Budapest. His father and several uncles were soldiers. Born in 1963, two years before the onset of US combat operations in Vietnam, DeLappe grew up surrounded by memories of violence and death, but also tantalised by imagery of the troops on TV.
“It was this thing I kind of fantasised about,” he says. “And when I was in my last year of high school, Army recruiters would come. They’d hang around at lunchtime, and do presentations to classes. I had actually invited one to my house because I was really interested in signing up. I was 17.”
The fateful meeting didn’t go as planned, however. The recruiter, a Vietnam veteran, looked at the eager young man and couldn’t bring himself to play along. “I still remember him saying ‘I probably shouldn’t say this’ and he essentially talked me out of joining. He said: ‘It’s not for everyone.’ He saw something in me – maybe I mentioned art, or something, I have no idea. But my mum was forever thankful, and I am forever thankful, because when you’re that age, you’re sort of shit-for-brains. You’re easy prey in those situations.”
Twenty-six years later, DeLappe loaded up the shooter game America’s Army and typed a name into the chatbox: José Antonio Gutiérrez. A Marine lance corporal, Gutiérrez was killed on 20th March 2003 in Umm Qasr, Basra, during the US invasion of Iraq. He was 22. Over the next eight years, DeLappe would enter the names, ages, ranks and death dates of thousands of US Iraq war casualties into America’s Army – a “killfeed” of a different sort – much to the bemusement and rancour of other players.
Called dead-in-iraq, the project was designed to “close the loop” between the game’s teen-rated portrayal of military service and the reality. DeLappe wanted to challenge the overwhelmingly young and male player base as he himself had been challenged, back in high school. He wanted to offer perspective within a work of propaganda by transforming it, match by match, into a memorial.
“To have somebody come along and pierce that fantasy a little bit, push me in this other direction – who knows what would have happened if that recruiter was a different person,” he says, speaking to me over webcam amid the light and clatter of a studio at Scotland’s Abertay University, where he is now Professor of Games Research. “So this was just a way of randomly inserting myself into that game space, with the hope that maybe I could reach some of those people.”
What value do today’s online video games have as protest sites? What activism is possible in environments that are intangible, ever-changing and vigilantly defended by controversy-averse publishers? One thing is certain: with their memes and emotes, factions and public events, behemoths like World of Warcraft are as much social media platforms as they are video games. They are places where conversations about society are held – for all the efforts of their creators to keep the focus on “apolitical fun”.
As such, they have been targeted by political groups of all stripes. Linden Labs’ Second Life has been toured by presidential candidates looking to stump up votes. (In 2007, the French far-right group, National Rally, or Front National as it was then known, bought property there and was promptly mobbed by players armed with exploding pigs.) Pastoral block-building sim Minecraft has been used to foster empathy between Israeli and Palestinian school children. White supremacists have infiltrated Fortnite, a game beloved of today’s teenagers, in search of converts.
The America’s Army series enjoys a fraction of Fortnite’s audience, but it is vital to the discussion of the political dimensions of these spaces because it is an explicitly ideological work, created by an organ of the state to boost recruitment. Devised in 1999 by Colonel Casey Wardynski, the first America’s Army aimed to bridge the divide between American society and the culture of the US Army, a divide that had widened, or so the brass worried, following the abolition of conscription in 1973. It was a means of captivating a generation of computer-savvy teens, not merely by wowing them with the spectacle of bombs and bullets, but by offering an online hangout where soldiers and civilians could get to know one another.
At the time of the game’s release in 2002, DeLappe was mulling over concepts for a protest piece directed at the US invasion of Iraq. He was deeply interested in war memorials, having found his voice as an academic and artist amid a national crisis over the treatment of Vietnam war veterans. He was also fascinated by the idea of a memorial in digital space. America’s Army brought all these trains of thought together.
“I remember thinking: ‘Woah, this is a serious game, this is taking gaming to a different level of real world consequence.’ And I just thought: ‘Something needs to happen in this game.’”
DeLappe notes that America’s Army – which features real-life military weapons, ranks and environments inspired by real-life engagement zones – continues a tradition of using games to cultivate a certain idea of American identity. He points to the bellicose theatrics that bookend major US sporting events.
“It’s insane. If you go to the opening game for baseball, football any of that stuff, there are formations of jets flying over the field. I saw a report about a football match where they actually did a kind of military induction ceremony. They had people line up on the field and raise their hand and they’d swear them in. During a football match!”
If America’s Army is another such initiation ritual, however, the crossover it fosters cuts two ways. As a creation of the state, the game is technically public property, which invites players to use it as a platform for another component of American identity – the right and duty to question those in power.
“It’s citizen-funded, it’s taxpayer-funded,” says DeLappe. “There’s a responsibility in terms of being a citizen to question and consider how those tax dollars are used.” This concept of the online game as “a new type of public square” is one that deserves revisiting, in an age where public spaces in general are under siege by private interest. It suggests ways of challenging both outright propaganda projects like America’s Army, and the values at play in notionally neutral, corporate-run platforms like developer Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.
As DeLappe began typing names into America’s Army, Pennsylvania-born Angela Washko was taking her first steps through Azeroth, the teeming fantasy continent on which World of Warcraft is set. Washko, who is otherwise known for her dissections of so-called pick-up artists, came relatively late to video games, but she quickly grasped their potential as public spaces. “I grew up in a pretty conservative, very rural context, and when my family finally got a computer, which I would say is later than most, I became very interested in text-based multiplayer game environments.”
Among Washko’s favourites as a girl were “multi-user dungeons” such as 1992’s Medievia, in which hundreds of players use text commands to explore randomly-generated catacombs together. “They really opened up a totally different way of communicating, experiencing play with other people, across all of these different contexts and age differences, background differences.” World of Warcraft, however, was in a different league.
“It was gigantic. The scale of the landscape, the server player capacity, the communication channels – it was just super-massive in structure.” Washko was particularly enthralled by the game’s raids, Mines-of-Moria-esque forays featuring dozens of players. “It was really like being on an organised sports team.”
The deeper she delved into Azeroth, however, the more aware Washko became that World of Warcraft was not the accepting, wholesome alternate reality it and other MMOs [massively multiplayer online games] promised to be. Rather, it proved to be something of a “safe space for extremely conservative and exclusionary, hate-based ideologies”, bolstered by Blizzard’s laissez-faire handling of all but the most appalling misbehaviour.
“One thing I found very frustrating was that in competitive play there weren’t a lot of women, and if you were a woman, you had to deal with players constantly asking you to get back in the kitchen and make them a sandwich. Every time they heard your voice on voice chat in a competitive context.”
Washko recalls one incident when a player unwisely asked those nearby whether there were any World of Warcraft guilds [player-run clubs] for LGBTQ+ people. “Other games have guilds like that, like Final Fantasy 14, for example – it’s an MMO that has intentionally inclusive guilds. I was just lurking nearby, seeing how this would play out. And a number of players got very upset at the suggestion that there could be such a guild in World of Warcraft, on the server that I was playing on. It exploded into this extremely homophobic conversation that no moderator was going to come in and stop.”
Disillusioned, Washko left World of Warcraft for a time. But she continued to be fascinated by the liveliness and complexity of the game’s community, which she considers far more intriguing than its quests and battles. “At a certain point in World of Warcraft, the environment takes a backseat to some of the gathering and organising that happens there. The lore of the game – to me, at a certain point, that was almost not there at all, next to this sort of avatar-based communication system. So I started thinking about it as a public space, a space where that was ripe for intervention and conversation and performance.”
The result of these ruminations was The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft – a parodically grandiose, one-woman intervention against the game’s background hum of misogyny and harassment. The concept was straightforward: Washko would roam the burgs and wilds of Azeroth, occasionally at an advertised time, asking other players for their opinions on women and feminism. She would attempt to talk chauvinistic players through their prejudices, while giving women and marginalised people a chance to express themselves. Many of these conversations are recorded on video; a few were carried out before a live audience at exhibitions and conferences.
“It absolutely started as a protest,” she says. “[I wanted] to rally all the other players who were frustrated with the way women, members of the queer community, players of colour, were marginalised in this otherwise fantastical environment, where you could play a troll or a giant cow. Initially, I wanted to form a kind of coalition to brainstorm and create some kind of accountability for these types of behaviours.”
Over time, however, Washko’s approach grew more conciliatory. She came to see the act of paying witness in itself as more important than just curbing the bigots. “I started to feel like enforcing what the language within the space should be was a colonising practice. Enforcing my perspective on what the language should be was less interesting than creating a kind of public visibility within the space, for all these perspectives that were otherwise being silenced.”
While the Council is not a memorial work, this emphasis on “creating visibility” links Washko’s project to dead-in-iraq. Where Joseph DeLappe sought to honour the fallen within a simulation that turns war into a clubhouse, Washko hoped to break through World of Warcraft’s stifling patriarchal elements to the relatively diverse community beneath.
As Washko began her career as Azeroth’s unofficial feminist-at-large, DeLappe was nearing the end of his time in America’s Army. He kept up his vigil until 18th December 2011, the official withdrawal date for the last US troops in Iraq. The final tally stood at 4484 names. “How many people have actually read through all these names? Just to do that is hard enough. When you see somebody who was 17, or somebody who was mentioned in the news… It was gut-wrenching, just experiencing that chronology of people who’d been killed, and then putting them into that space, and being killed virtually by the other players.”
While not all the reactions were hostile, DeLappe had no illusions about how more gung-ho players would view his protest. “The abuse was mostly written. I got a number of emails, but it was something I learned to steel myself to.” The blowback intensified after mainstream outlets like Salon and NPR covered the project. “The comments sections on those stories were really brutal. Just: ‘Urgh, somebody should break this guy’s legs!’” But DeLappe came to see even the threatening responses as valuable – he was hitting a nerve.
“The reactions to me were an acknowledgement that I was getting under their skin, and the ultimate success would be if I was kicked off a server,” he says. “That requires everybody playing in that particular game to vote to kick me, which means they were all paying attention to what I was doing. I’d interrupted that magic circle to the point where they all wanted me out. And then I would go onto the next match.”
The toughest feedback of all came from those who had lost friends or relatives in Iraq, and objected to what they saw as the crude politicisation of their deaths. “I had a very long email from a guy whose brother had died in the war, and he very respectfully said: ‘I understand what you’re doing but I don’t agree with it, my brother believed in what he was doing. I don’t know if he played the game, but he would not have wanted his name to be used in this fashion. Could you please not include his name in the project?’
“That was probably one of my biggest concerns going in; how it would affect people who’d directly experienced the death of a loved one. It was a situation where I really had to justify what I was doing.” DeLappe sent the man a lengthy defence. “My point to him was: ‘Your brother died for all of us, and I’m part of this situation. This is a way for me to try to connect and pay respect to these soldiers, and also to question, for sure – it’s a protest’. We agreed to disagree.”
These conversations were about more than justifying dead-in-iraq as a project – they were about ensuring that it would be remembered beyond the game itself. DeLappe likens the act of typing in names to “carving them into the granite of first world war memorials”, but the problem with digital objects and spaces, of course, is that they lack this durability, existing only as long as they are useful to their operators, and forever being overwritten as business priorities shift and different technology comes into use.
America’s Army has undergone four major iterations since 2002. Like any substantial software enterprise, it is always burying itself, always rushing to keep up, both with the shooter genre as a whole and the on-going antics of the US war machine. Outmoded weapons have been removed and the latest, deadliest toys folded in. The environments, each a pastiche of real-world theatres, have been altered to reflect the Army’s movements around the globe. In the process, the histories of action within this ahistorical representation have been obscured. Dead-in-iraq lives on nowhere in America’s Army as a space; it exists now only in supplementary materials, press reports and the many difficult email or comment thread exchanges DeLappe has had with other players.
Memorials are always a kind of protest, because they foreground the difference between what is and what was. Sometimes this makes them vehicles for reactionary thinking, for beating down criticism by commanding that we revere the dead, but it also allows them to throw open the question of what might have been, and what might yet be. They are also forms of public space themselves, places where a nation’s future might be written and rewritten. In an online virtual environment, a memorial acquires an additional poignancy: it is an attempt to preserve the possibility of remembering in realms whose pasts, assuming they are recorded in any way at all, can be altered or erased with a single keystroke.
“The stories of what was happening were so ephemeral,” Washko says of her work chronicling prejudice in World of Warcraft. “The text disappears seconds after it’s typed – Blizzard supposedly doesn’t keep logs. I wanted to come up with a way for the stories of those actions to potentially become prototypes for anyone, in any other multiplayer online environment. While recognising that there’s a specificity to how those things take place; I don’t think you should copy and paste the same approach into another game space.” It was this, as much as the desire to expand her academic CV, that saw her reaching out to press to discuss the Council’s activities. “I had to come up with a way of talking about the project that would be attractive to mainstream media.”
Washko’s desire to record silenced voices also saw her thinking about the gradual inhumation of the game’s own geography. Blizzard has released eight major updates to World of Warcraft since its release in 2004, refining the game’s already labyrinthine base design in countless, intricate ways. Unlike in America’s Army, the landscapes beneath have persisted more or less unchanged, but the act of traversing them has been much-revised. Players today have the ability to leap right into certain dungeons without trekking across the geography to their in-game locations. While this is undoubtedly convenient, Washko feels it overwrote something important.
“That was a big part of the game, going from one realm to the other,” she says. “When you start you just walk around. Then at a certain point you can get a horse or something to ride on. And then you get a flying mount, like a dragon. I thought it was very interesting, the way that it reveals the scale of the world in these steps. For me, there’s something really beautiful and exciting about it.” Much as the building of a flyover or the closing of a dockyard might bleed a city district dry, so the ability to warp straight to a quest’s starting location brought about the desertion of swathes of vividly imagined terrain: “There are whole parts of the game now that are barely in use.”
Seeking relief from the stresses of conversations about sexism, Washko launched a second project, the World of Warcraft Psychogeographical Association, aimed at rediscovering these abandoned regions. Inspired by the Situationist practice of “drifting”, she would invite players to take her to their favourite places in the game. In the process, she and her guide would beat new paths across the continent, scaling waterfalls on dragonback and stumbling on buildings no longer visited by other players. Among these lost structures was a memorial to a 19-year-old player who had died of heart failure. “It is a very unusual thing to have inside World of Warcraft – something that ties so explicitly to something outside of the game space.”
There are a few of these memorials in World of Warcraft – a game now older than many of the people playing it – dotted in amongst Azeroth’s purely fictitious shrines and mausoleums. On a small bluff overlooking the sea near Dun Garok stands a monument to Anthony Ray Stark, a friend of the developers who died on a scuba diving trip. The elder of one settlement is named for Ezra Chatterton, a young player who passed away from a stroke in 2008.
Though personal in their scope, these memorials are rallying points for the idea of the video game as a public square because they resist the idea that such spaces can be endlessly overwritten. If similar memorials exist in America’s Army, they’re not yet public knowledge. In 2006, the likenesses of actual US veterans were added to the game as part of the Bush administration’s Real Heroes programme. Dead soldiers, it appears, were excluded from consideration.
If online memorials don’t last, offline memorials are hardly eternal themselves. Whether hewn from granite or manifest as a few lines of code, memorials endure and have purpose for as long as they are visited. Like any form of public space, they rely on our on-going participation. Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, envisaged her greatest work “not as an unchanging monument, but as a moving composition to be understood as we move into and out of it”.
Washko is optimistic about the long-term legacy of her Council project, suggesting that it has inspired the founding of more inclusive World of Warcraft guilds. “It felt like it was having an impact in the spaces I was in. I don’t mean to say that in an egotistical way.” DeLappe, however, is less hopeful about dead-in-iraq. “I can’t say that it directly changed anybody’s mind, though I did have one person. I was showing the piece at a gallery in Santa Cruz, California, and they told me there was a college student who came in and saw the piece, and ran from the gallery weeping.”
He notes that anti-war activism in general has so far failed to deter the USA from prosecuting its forever-war in the Middle East. “Before we invaded Iraq there were massive worldwide protests on the streets – some of the largest ever in history, all over the world,” he says. “And they seemed to have absolutely no effect on what happened. And I was deeply disaffected, upset and depressed by that.”
That disaffection is visible, perhaps, in DeLappe’s most recent video game art project, Elegy: GTA USA Gun Homicides, a mod for Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto 5, created in collaboration with digital art group The Biome Collective.
Every day from 4th July 2018 to 4th July 2019 the mod would re-enact the total recorded gun homicides in the US for that year within the game, streaming the resulting montage on Twitch. Bodies would crumple to the strains of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America as the camera retreated endlessly, never quite able to look away. Where dead-in-iraq at least allowed for and invited reactions within the simulation, Elegy suggests that its violence has become self-sustaining, beyond our capacity to address. A video game bloodbath that no longer requires your participation in order to reap its grisly harvest.
“I think it’s probably the darkest thing I’ve ever made,” DeLappe acknowledges. “But perhaps in that darkness there’s a hint of critical [reflection]. It does seem rather hopeless, but I thought if you could take those nearly 15,000 people a year who are killed in gun homicides, and literally put it in front of people in a way that they haven’t seen before – maybe it could change some of the thinking around it.” The key to any protest, he adds, isn’t so much hope as stamina – a doggedness in going against the grain of whatever space you happen to occupy, and remembering what those in power would rather you forget.
“Sometimes you just need to keep pointing at something until people figure out that they’ve got to change things.”