Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre, and Brody Condon

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Velvet Strike, 2002

Technologies: Counter Strike, DVD, HTML, Photoshop, paint, Wally

Keywords: game, hacktivism, intervention, tactical media

"Reality is up for grabs. The real needs to be remade by us."

"In the wake of Sept 11, are these games too 'real'? Or is the real converging with the simulation?"

In the late 20th century, technologies used by both the U.S. military and the entertainment industry began to converge in video and computer games. American pilots and other military personnel trained in combat simulators featuring highly convincing digital graphics. In battle, they often experienced the real world through the mediating interfaces of game-like targeting and navigation systems. At the same time, increasingly realistic games known as "first person shooters" featured immersive, three-dimensional worlds in which players engaged in violent conflicts, depicted with near-photographic realism. After September 11, 2001, the artists Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre, and Brody Condon were both fascinated by and critical of an internationally popular first-person shooter called Counter-Strike, in which players choose to undertake either terrorist or counter-terrorist operations in an urban environment. The artists saw the game as an overly simplistic ""convergence of network shooter games and contemporary Middle Eastern politics in a game... that leaves out a number of complexities such as economics, religions, families, food, children, women, and refugee camps."

When playing Counter-Strike (a "mod," or modification, of another extremely popular first-person shooter called Half-Life), multiple players connect via the Internet to occupy the same virtual environment, fighting with or against one another in teams and communicating through text messages and voice channels. In addition, players can upload images to insert in the game space as "spray paints," or graffiti tags, to commemorate a kill or mark territory. Velvet-Strike is an artistic intervention that enables participants to insert what the artists call "counter-military graffiti" into the virtual space of Counter-Strike. These range from phrases like "hostages of military fantasy" to images of terrorists and counter-terrorists embracing. The project's title invokes the Velvet Revolution of 1989, in which protests in Czechoslovakia led by the playwright Vaclav Havel resulted in the bloodless overthrow of that country's communist government.

The Velvet-Strike Web site also includes instructions that serve as recipes for performative interventions within Counter Strike. The prescribed processes suggest how players might stage virtual protests using game figures. One set directs a group of players to gather in a heart-shaped formation while repeatedly sending out the chat message "Love and Peace" and stoically refusing to move or return fire. These directions recall instructional art works of the 1970s like Yoko Ono's Draw a Map to Get Lost.

In addition, the site features screen-capture movies showing sprayers in action and examples of hate mail from Counter-Strike players angered by the artists' provocative actions, which some fans of the original game interpreted as denouncing video game violence. Schleiner, Leandre, and Condon, however, have made it clear that Velvet-Strike is not critical of violence in video games, per se. Instead, the work prompts us to wonder what exactly is at stake in the fictive virtual worlds in which both soldiers and civilians immerse themselves, at a time when real-life warfare increasingly resembles games and games increasingly resemble real life.

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