Will a Video Game Make Sense of Qaddafi’s Death?

This past Thursday, on the very day we learned of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s capture and death, the popular video game blog Kotaku reported that the story of the dictator’s demise is already being transformed into a video game by Kuma Games, the company that also brought us a gamified version of Osama bin Laden’s capture and death. Kotaku reports that the game will be ready to play as early as this Tuesday.

Media theorist Alexander Galloway has suggested that forms of configuration such as those found in video games “express processes in [broader] culture that are large, unknown, dangerous, and painful.” If Galloway is right, then Kuma Games’ immediate impulse to create a video game about Qaddafi’s capture may be more than just a marketing ploy (though it is that as well). The desire to translate events like Qaddafi’s and bin Laden’s deaths into video games is also part of what we might call algorithmic sorting: the cultural attempt to simplify complex historical and social issues into patterns that we can recognize and make sense of. Typically, this is accomplished by vastly reducing the variables and historical contexts involved and effectively transforming lived events into games with predictable rules, defeatable “bad guys,” and the hopeful celebration of an “epic win.”

Part of the problem with representing an event like Qaddafi’s capture in a game is the widespread degree of ignorance that contemporary media allows, especially in hyper-wired places like the United States where we vigorously defend our myopia even as we deny we have it. We see only those news stories we wish to see, and we see them in as fragmented a form as we wish. This, we claim, is “freedom.”

We often feel we need know nothing at all of the historical or social situations that give rise to important climactic moments in countries other than our own. How many of the people who play the Kuma Games Qaddafi mission will know much more of the story than what they play in the game? A game that is, by necessity, being designed and filtered through the lens of the game’s creators, who may be as ignorant as we are of the complicated and many-faceted events and movements that brought the Libyan people to this moment in time. 

Some players will have seen the shaky cell phone videos of Qaddafi’s discovery now circulating, with all the bumps and blurs you’d expect from someone filming a violent attack close up. The horrifying footage shows the dictator’s last moments, complete with flashes of faces splattered with blood, punctuated with off-screen shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” and revealing glimpses of Qaddafi’s pummeled and resigned visage blunted by repeated beatings.

While the footage itself seems to bleed with the desperation and anger of a people who have felt powerless for too long, from the gamer’s perspective, this is merely a familiar storyline. The footage can easily be read as a cut-scene of a game well-played, with the fat-cat “boss” ultimately defeated by triumphant third-person shooter heroes. Well played. Level up, Libyans. 

It remains to be seen if Kuma Games will incorporate any of this real video into their framing of the game, but even if they don’t, for many players the footage will become a part of the “backstory” as they “help” the Libyan people defeat their dictator in a virtual context, proving to themselves through game-play and the repeated digital defeat of Qaddafi that without American help, nothing revolutionary can happen in the world.

I am no specialist on Libyan history or politics myself, but I know that nearly anything that Kuma Games is likely to do with this scene will be overly simplistic and will do little but further encourage a dualistic view of world events: the insidious and increasingly ubiquitous sorting of everyone and everything into the categories of “with us” or “against us.” This perspective is already encouraged by many violent video games and is a pervasive form of interpretation in mainstream news media. Reality is gamified, and games depict reality. Is it any surprise that we find it more and more difficult to tell the difference between them?

Truth is, for many of us it’s just plain fun to play games. It’s something of a relief to temporarily enter into a space where the rules are discernible, success is measurable, good guys and bad guys are easily recognized, and where defeated enemies vanish in a puff of smoke or are left behind in conquered digital territory, forgotten but for the points they give us or the resources they provide. We all know the ecstatic thrill of defeating an enemy, the intoxication of knowing, if just for a moment, that we are the “best.”

But real life is, or should be, more complicated. Games like the one that will “tell” the story of Qaddafi’s death are dangerous; less for any single political view they proffer than for the simplistic, dualistic, atomized worldview they promote. Some events just aren’t games.