Is it OK to Turn 9/11 into an Alternate Reality Game?

By 09/02/2011
Is it OK to Turn 9/11 into an Alternate Reality Game?

Kumail Nanjiani has a wonderful comedy bit about the Call of Duty series, where he talks about being from Pakistan and how a video game has turned his hometown of Karachi into a war zone that you can play. Gabe from Penny Arcade has a long and thoughtful blog post regarding his grandfather’s hesitance to embrace a video game about World War II.

No one has truly been able to make a final edict on whether games based on wars and tragedies are in good taste. A film all but canonizing those on United 93? Few had a problem with that. A TV show exploring the emotional trials of those who survived the falling of the World Trade Center? Very well received, and still popular.

Games dealing with modern-day warfare seem to be the only entertainment properties that take criticism for dealing with the subject matter. It’s probably due to the interactivity. While it’s only a multiplayer game, and you’re shooting at other (and more than likely also Western) opponents, is it okay to play as a terrorist, fighting for a successful bombing or to totally annihilate  a member of an American special forces squad? We don’t really have an answer, though philosophers are working on one. But if game sales are any indication, the whole thing is largely viewed with a collective shrug.


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So I suppose my question is: What about 9/11? What about making the event not only a plot point of a game, but the premise?

Our very own Jenni Powell was sent clues by the game developers, beckoning her to join in to play The Darkest Puzzle, an alternate reality game that seeks to “solve 9/11”.

One of the first videos from The Darkest Puzzle‘s YouTube channel immediately shows the falling of the first tower, with a flashback to what was on television just an hour and a half earlier, as multiple networks cut in from their frivolous programming to cover the very first plane crash. The coverage was synched up, holding for excruciating minutes until, seconds before the end, we watch the second plane crash, live, all over again. No one with a heart beating in their chest can watch this and not feel something.

The gamemasters clearly intend to elicit emotional reactions. Academic papers and snippets of old Yahoo Groups have shown that discussion of creating an ARG based on 9/11 began as early as September 12th, 2001. Many believed it was one way for some people to make sense of the attacks. Certainly, around that time information was sparse and confusion was high. But now, nearly ten years later, we have a team following through.

Videos and messages posted by (mostly) confirmed Cloudmaker accounts warn of history repeating itself. Jenni herself found these messages from a Blogspot that players were privately invited to read

And reading everything over, these seemed to be the main questions being brought to the table before the blog came to a halt:

  • Why were they so quick to attribute the attacks to Al-Qaeda?
  • Did Flight 93 really go down in Pennsylvania?
  • Did the Pentagon attack actually happen?
  • Were there explosives in the WTC that aided the demolition and was this possible due to security lapses the weeks before the attack?
  • Why was the wreckage sent to China for destruction when it should have been considered evidence?

Other information suggests the war in Iraq was relevant. One article linked to is a real ABC News story about Israelis arrested after filming the WTC attacks and celebrating. Discs sent to early-adopter players had screencaps of old Blogspot commenters in 2001 discussing the moral quandries of making a 9/11 ARG. The creators are, in fact, questioning their own creation.

The lack of a central information source makes it so ARGs are never simple to play. It’s largely left up to players to propel the story forward and casual observers may never find out where the story goes. Whether The Darkest Puzzle succeeds, unlike many ARGs that use the same techniques of storytelling, will depend largely on its destination. Some truth-seeking 9/11 conspiracy hullabaloo? Or an engaging piece of interactive historical fiction? Only time will tell.

As it stands now, “on-the-fence” probably most accurately describes many of the players and lurkers attitude towards the game. But the game will be played, the hardcore will defend it, those who refuse to understand will despise it, and while it may be at the point for us to be wary of playing into and encouraging some conspiracy theories, those of us always in search of the next ILoveBees will shrug, laugh uncomfortably, and watch the next video intently, waiting for a clue that probably doesn’t exist.

UPDATE: A previous version of this article referenced Cloudmakers as involved in the creation of the ARG, this is not the case and has been corrected.

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