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What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Gitmo: Games

Games and the Guantánamo Bay detention facility have a long, contentious history.

by Muira McCammon
Dec 12 2016, 10:39pm

For more on the state of prisons in America, visit VICE's series The Future of Incarceration, a collection of articles and short videos dedicated to exploring a better way forward for the criminal justice system.

Games and Guantánamo generally don't go in the same sentence, unless we're talking about mind games played by interrogators or the soccer field the Department of Defense built for detainees. But, there have been a number of games that have tried to grapple with the detention facility's complicated history. Each has its own quirks.

Let's start with the most absurd of all: Obama Guantánamo Escape (2010). The plot is surreal: with the help of a pair of pinky pointy-headed monsters, George Bush puts Barack Obama in the detention facility and proceeds to steal his identity. It's the first scene that steals the show: you have to get a jar of honey on the wooden frame, where Obama is hanging, so that a blue termite can help him escape. I kid you not.

Obama Guantánamo Escape screens courtesy of InkaGames

Inkagames launched Obama Guantánamo Escape in 2010 and has a total of 28 other Obama-centric "Choose Your Own Adventure" style games. There's Obama and the Mayan Prophecy, Obama Ghostbusters, Obama Versus Aliens, and the list goes on. But there's something special about this game; in the past six years, a video walkthrough of it on YouTube has amassed almost 500,000 views.

When Inkagames first launched the game back in 2010, it invited players to "defeat the evil Bush."

A few months ago, it was easy to laugh at this game, to find absurdity its premise, the very idea of a commander-in-chief being locked away in a U.S. naval station. But this election cycle unearthed people who dreamt of sending politicians (on both sides of the aisle) to Guantánamo (a.k.a. Gitmo). I spoke to Aldo Mujica, Inkagames, and asked if a Gitmo game featuring Trump and Clinton might be on the horizon. He replied, "Not really, but at Inkagames, everything's possible."

I've spent the past eighteen months researching Guantánamo—the people, the policies, the problems, the paradoxes, and I have to say that the Obama Guantánamo Escape feels like a missed opportunity.

It provides a narrow vision of the detention facility, wherein Obama encounters Jake Sparrow, Yoda, and Rambo, rather than other detainees from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Australia. Instead of making Obama jump over land mines, which have never been a fixture at Gitmo, Aldo Mujica could have easily included some scenario involving iguanas or asbestos.

Call me a dreamer, but I am waiting for someone to make a Choose Your Own Adventure that has a smidgen of historical accuracy, a game that includes some of the unimaginable—but yes, real— moments from the past fourteen years. Like that time Ludacris performed there. Or that time when a lawyer reported that a guard had given his client, a detainee, a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. Or that other time when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed called out the courtroom sketch artist Janet Hamlin for making his nose too big in one drawing. Absurdity is alive at Gitmo. We don't need to make it up. It's already there.

Obama Guantanamo Escape

A few other games have tried to incorporate Gitmo into their theme or design over the past few years. Homeland Guantánamo (2008) is one of them, but it isn't even about Gitmo. Players assume the role of an investigative journalist, who reports on the mysterious death of Boubacar Bah, a 52-year-old tailor from Guinea.

While in the custody of U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2007, Bah died unexpectedly in a detention facility and left many questions behind. The only direct connection to Gitmo happens in the game's intro, when the designers at Free Range Studios make the claim that the detention facilities holding undocumented immigrants in the United States resemble "the infamous Guantánamo Bay." But then, there's almost no follow through; players never hear about Gitmo again.

Header and Homeland Guantánamos screen courtesy of Free Range Studios

Then there's the story of the ill-fated Rendition: Guantánamo (2009), the videogame that was supposed to let players assume the role of a falsely-accused detainee at Gitmo. The Scottish game company T-Enterprise went so far as to bring on Moazzam Begg, an ex-detainee, as a consultant.

Games had been part of Begg's life before Gitmo. In a book that he co-authored with Victoria Brittain after his release, Begg wrote about how he survived his time in detention facilities run by the U.S. military: "I was sad and quiet and spent my time making all kinds of lists on some small pieces of paper the guards gave me. I listed new PC games and speed-up Web connections."

Before too long, the game came under fire. Many people criticized T-Enterprise for working with a former Gitmo detainee; by asking alone Begg to help reimagine the detention facility, they had left the voices and views of U.S. military veterans on the periphery. In a written statement Zarrar Chishti, then Director of T-Enterprise, announced that Rendition: Guantánamo had been cancelled:

First and foremost, the main character was NOT Moazzam Begg. Instead, his name was Adam. He happened to be involved in a case of mistaken identity and so was never a terrorist. T-Enterprise is against all forms of terrorism and would never seek to advocate otherwise. Furthermore, Guantánamo was to be a mercenary run institution and so there would have been NO American military personnel killed within the game. Again, we support the British and American troops that fight the war against terrorism to make the world a safer place and would not make a game that said otherwise.

The official statement on the cancellation is on this now defunct webpage. Chishti has since left T-Enterprise, and trailers advertising the game have been scraped from the web.

Back in 2009, those involved in making Rendition: Guantánamo said they had their reasons for wanting to launch the game. Moazzam Begg explained that his aim was to "make sure it is as true to life as possible." Zarrar Chishti tried to justify the game's design in a number of statements. First, he remarked, "We have set it in January 2010 because that's when we think the camp will be closed….We did not want Guantánamo to be forgotten." Later, he added, "The game was simply designed to be an action video game that adults could enjoy."

When it comes to Gitmo, any game designer has to think deliberately about the narrative, framing, and a number of thorny questions. Do you make a game that privileges the detainee experience, and risk reducing the history of the facility into a "good guy, bad guy" trope? Is it even possible to simplify the narrative of the camps in a way that will satisfy "serious" gamers and also people who are looking for an action game? People have tried to make games touching on the subject—like Nuremberg: Trial of the Century (1999) and Prison Architect (2015)— with varying degrees of success and critical reception.

"What sort of game system might be able to model the complexity of Gitmo?"

So, what sort of game system might be able to model the complexity of Gitmo, to give voice to the challenges that detainees, journalists, lawyers, and guards have faced in the detention facility's history?

My answer: the wargame.

Wargames are a great way to parse asymmetrical conflict in a political system, and in many ways, Gitmo can be understood as a series of power struggles. A wargame has the potential to model the tensions between journalists, detainees, lawyers, and members of the U.S. military. It could give us an outlet to reflect on serious episodes in Gitmo's history, like that time when Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon accused journalist Carol Rosenberg of "multiple incidents of abusive and degrading comments of an explicitly sexual nature." It could help us examine the history of coalition building in Gitmo, like when detainees held an election to select two leaders, one who was revealed to the Americans and one who worked in the shadows.

In their recent book Zones of Control (2016), wargame designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train admit that wargames are far from perfect:

First, there can be difficulty with the concept of wargames themselves, whatever the type of war depicted. Wargames evoke strongly negative reactions, especially when they appear to transgress existing and popularly held moral codes or political agendas, or even concepts of fair play. In order to avoid such a reaction, perhaps, wargames will rarely if ever feature game mechanics representing terrorism or genocide, though these are common features of actual warfare.

What Ruhnke and Train speak to is a problem that extends beyond wargames. A lot of us with differing ideological, religious, ethnic, and other backgrounds are uncomfortable with the idea of people "playing" games about serious things like war crimes and human rights violations. Anyone trying to make a wargame out of Gitmo would have to simplify the place, and that carries a number of inherent risks. Another problem: Gitmo is still a morphing, changing place with an uncertain future.

But that hasn't stopped the wargaming community from grappling with conflicts that aren't wholly over. A Distant Plain: Insurgency in Afghanistan (2013) takes on the tricky feat of modelling interactions between four factions: the Warlords, the Taliban, the Government, and the Coalition. Then, there's Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- ? (2010), a game whose very name prompts another question: what is 'wartime' really, and will we—civilians, gamers, soldiers, and strategists—ever be able to say that the "War on Terror" is over?

Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001- ? image courtesy of GMT games

Some of the oldest games are about war, troop formations, and conflict, but that doesn't mean everyone is ready for games about episodes in U.S. military history and our post-9/11 world. In 2009, Don Reisinger of CNET asked "Is it too soon for a realistic Iraq War game?" and traced the controversial and abbreviated history of Six Days in Fallujah (2009), a game that faced a fate similar to Rendition: Guantánamo.

He noted that veteran groups were divided over whether a game should be made over such a sensitive topic. One organization, Gold Star Families Speak Out, released the following statement, criticizing the attempt: "We question how anyone can trivialize a war that continues to kill and maim members of the military and Iraqi civilians to this day." Veterans and veterans' families were divided. One gamer and combat veteran, Sergeant Casey J. McGeorge weighed in and said, "As long as it's made as realistically as possible, I believe that this could be a good thing for both combat veterans and for the war in general."

War, detention, death—these are sensitive topics, but we shouldn't give up on Gitmo games. In January 2017, the detention facility will turn fifteen, and games could help us remember, recontextualize and attempt to understand the complicated history of this appendage of U.S. military policy. The U.S. government has detained individuals from forty different countries there.

Volko Ruhnke, former CIA analyst and master wargamer, tweeted many months ago, "So many fascinating affairs yet to be modeled eh?" and I have to agree.

Ultimately a Gitmo game could help us think less in terms of rigid dichotomies and more in terms of how lawyers, journalists, detainees, members of the U.S. military, and other stakeholders are trying to achieve their goals. It could open discourse and debate about Gitmo to a larger subsection of the U.S. and global population and make sure that its complex history isn't reduced to a single line in a textbook—or a simplified headline on the page.

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