Read Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline Online

Authors: Simon Parkin

Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues, #Popular Culture, #Social Science

Death by Video Game: Tales of Obsession From the Virtual Frontline (23 page)

Ewing initially considered re-creating the moon landings in video-game form.

‘But JFK’s assassination made the most sense because there was so much information in the public domain about what happened that day. Not only that, it was also a ballistics exercise. Video games are really good at ballistics exercises.’

Ewing was also confident that the subject matter had been discussed enough in other media to warrant a video-game approach. ‘I figured: “If this subject could be discussed in film and documentary, why shouldn’t it be a candidate for a game?” ’

Ewing’s studio was too small to take on such an ambitious project alone so he approached a friend who worked at Stainless Games, the creators of the controversial
Carmageddon
series, in which players score points by mowing down pedestrians using an overpowered car, to see whether they might partner in the development of his vision.

‘My friend loved the idea,’ says Ewing. ‘So Stainless dusted the
Carmageddon
engine and together we did everything we could to make the most realistic interpretation of what happened that day as possible.’

The team carefully reconstructed Elm Street in Dallas, Texas, where JFK was shot, placing each lamp-post in location, and setting the wind speed and direction to reflect that day’s conditions.

The team opted to ignore the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination and to focus entirely on Oswald’s role as the sniper.

‘The more that I looked at the day’s events through the lens of the game’s engine, the clearer it seemed to me that Oswald had fired all three shots,’ Ewing says. ‘In fact, part of the logic for us was to disprove the conspiracy by demonstrating how it was possible for Oswald to make all three shots in the context of the car’s speed, the wind, and the specification of the rifle he used. When it comes to the ballistics, I think we made a good representation of what it must have been like to look down the barrel of the gun and fire those shots at the president.’

Ewing is unequivocal when it comes to the moral dimension of the game: he sees no difference between
JFK: Reloaded
and Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning 1991 film
JFK
, which was based on the same events.

‘I’ve mercilessly shot people in the hands or face or wherever I could get a bullet into them in countless games,’ he says. ‘This is
no different in that sense. Beyond that, in a filmed documentary we have the position of a member of the crowd. We are there, spectating, as the motorcade goes past. But in the video game, we have Oswald’s perspective. For me it’s valuable to look at real-life tragedy from a variety of different lenses and perspectives.’

JFK: Reloaded
, as the game was titled, launched in November 2004. A demo was made freely available while the full game cost $10. In order to encourage people to invest in the full version, Ewing devised a competition around the game.

For one month, players were able to submit their ‘assassination attempts.’ The player who most closely matched the shots taken by Oswald, as reported in the Warren Commission Report, would win a prize pot, linked to how much revenue the game had generated (up to $100,000). The final prize money amounted to just $10,712 and was won by a sixteen-year-old Parisian boy, who went by the handle ‘MajoKoenig.’ He posted his score the day before the competition closed.

Awarding prize money for replicating JFK’s wounds is the one decision that, a decade later, Ewing regrets.

‘I was naive,’ he says. ‘I underestimated the deepness of affection for Kennedy held by many American people. Maybe in Scotland we didn’t think through the reaction. Questions about the prize money were always the toughest to answer. It was a marketing trick, but it muddied the discussion that maybe we could have had if it hadn’t been there.’

That discussion, particularly in America, centred on the transgressive nature of the game, of how it trivialised a taboo subject. The right-wing Fox News channel invited Ewing onto one of its shows and presented him with animated mock-ups of other assassinations, demanding to know why these shouldn’t also be turned into video games.

‘This sort of media attempts to shift the news agenda in order to create entertainment,’ says Ewing. ‘The whole thing is so complicit. They’re using something you’ve created to create news stories and ratings.’

Not everyone was dismayed at the game.

‘I had some touching commentary from people who wrote to me afterwards,’ Ewing says. ‘That day is such a powerful memory in the national consciousness that people would write to me and share what they were doing at the time, cathartically reliving the memory. In time I began to understand that, when people became upset with the game, they were generally just upset at their own memory of the events it depicts, rather than anything in particular we were doing.’

On
Good Morning America
, Ewing calmly answered the interviewer’s pointed question about why he killed the president.

‘I explained that I hadn’t killed Kennedy, because he was already dead when we made the game,’ Ewing recalls. ‘The guy continued: “But don’t you think you’re teaching children how to assassinate people?” My best response to this one was to point out that we had in fact reignited this moment in history for a nation of children who were otherwise detached from the events. That one worked sometimes …’

The desire to use video games as a medium for documentary, or to dispel mystery, rather than encourage it, is laudable, but
JFK: Reloaded
is difficult to class as a serious piece of work. While the game’s physics were set to ‘realistic’ by default, the developer also included a ‘chaotic’ mode, wherein they’re greatly exaggerated. Switch
this mode on, and the game becomes a riot of crashing, bouncing cars and high-speed antics. In one fan-made YouTube movie, Jackie Kennedy is catapulted through the front windshield of the presidential limousine, before flying into the air and smashing into the sixth-floor window of a nearby building. It is as if Oliver Stone had included a series of anarchic outtakes in
JFK
’s DVD extras.

Perhaps for this reason, Ewing was awarded a solemn official condemnation from the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

‘It’s a beautiful document with an official seal,’ he says. ‘It reads: “This resolution condemns the Traffic Gaming Group for attempting to profit from the assassination of JFK and for sensationalising the tragedy of November 22nd, 1963.” It’s the most official document that I own. It’s my degree.’

I ask Ewing whether he knows if Oliver Stone received a similar document. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘He got the fucking Oscar instead, didn’t he?’

Righteous condemnation is not the only reaction that Ewing’s game has received from the establishment. A few months after the media furor died down, Ewing was invited to speak at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris.

‘I spoke in front of an unbelievably charming academic audience,’ he says. ‘I explained my intentions with the game and talked through what happened. When I finished I was given a standing ovation.’ After the applause died down, an elderly gentleman shuffled towards the stage. ‘He spoke through the translator. And do you know what he said? He said: “I think what you’ve done is as important as the moon landings.” How’s that for vindication?’

Regardless of whether you share this viewpoint,
JFK: Reloaded
resolved one mystery about the day of the assassination attempt for Ewing, at least. He believed that, from his experience playing the game, Oswald must have panicked.

‘He would have been better taking the shots when the car headed towards him rather than after it turned the corner,’ he says.

Many video games, especially those with vast and complicated worlds that are filled with secrets and Easter eggs, satisfy the human desire to hunt for the truth, and offer the comforting notion that there is logic and design behind these simulated worlds, the same hope that has inspired humans throughout history to search for God. Video games bear secrets left by their creators—everything from hidden codes to secret rooms—while some, like
JFK: Reloaded
, allow us to recreate the circumstances of historical mysteries in order to view them from different angles and, perhaps, happen upon a solution.

Occasionally, however, players’ desire to discover game-makers’ secrets spills from within the virtual dimension into the real. Whether it’s searching Google for clues to unreleased games, or physically turning up at a developer’s door in order to find out some previously unreleased detail about a forthcoming game (as some players did during the development of
BioShock
), games encourage players to become amateur sleuths—even, in some cases, to the point of criminality.

At 6 a.m. on May 7, 2004, Axel Gembe awoke in the small German town of Schönau im Schwarzwald to find his bed surrounded by police officers bearing automatic weapons.

One officer barked: ‘Get out of bed. Do not touch the keyboard.’ Gembe knew why they were there. But, bleary-eyed, he asked anyway.

‘You are being charged with hacking into Valve Corporation’s
network, stealing the video game
Half-Life 2
, leaking it onto the Internet, and causing damages in excess of $250 million,’ came the reply. ‘Get dressed.’

Seven months earlier, on October 2, 2003, Valve Corporation director Gabe Newell awoke in Seattle to find that the source code for the game his company had been working on for almost five years had leaked onto the Internet. The game had been due for release a couple of weeks earlier, but the development team was almost a year behind schedule.
Half-Life 2
, one of the most anticipated games of the year, was going to be late, and Newell had yet to admit to the public how late it would be. Such a leak was not only financially threatening, but also embarrassing.

After he had spent a few moments pondering these immediate concerns, an avalanche of questions tumbled through Newell’s mind. How had this happened? Had the leak come from within Valve? Which member of his team, having given years of their life to building the game, would jeopardise the project in the final hour?

If it wasn’t an inside job, how did it happen? Did someone have access to Valve’s internal server?

The question that rang loudest of all will be familiar to anyone who has ever had something stolen from them: who did this?

‘I got into hacking by being infected myself,’ Gembe tells me. ‘It was a program that pretended to be a
Warcraft 3
key generator and I was stupid enough to run it. It was an sdbot, a popular general-purpose malware at the time.’

The young German soon realised what he had installed on his PC. But instead of scrubbing the malware and forgetting about it,
he reverse-engineered the program to see how it worked and what it did.

By following the trail back, Gembe was able to track down its operator. Rather than confronting the man, Gembe began asking him questions about the malware.

‘At the time I couldn’t afford to buy games,’ he explains. ‘So I coded my own malware to steal CD keys in order to unlock the titles I wanted to play. It grew quickly to one of the most prominent malwares at the time, mostly because I started writing exploits for some unpatched vulnerabilities in Windows.’

In Seattle Newell’s first thought was to go to the police. His second was to go to the players. At 11 p.m. on October 2, 2003, Newell posted a thread on the official
Half-Life 2
forum entitled ‘I need the assistance of the community.’

Yes, the source code that has been posted is the HL-2 source code, he wrote in the post. Newell went on to outline the facts that Valve had been able to piece together so far. He explained that someone had gained access to his e-mail account about three weeks earlier. Not only that, but keystroke recorders had been installed on various machines at the company. According to Newell, these had been created specifically to target Valve, as they were not recognised by any virus-scanning applications.

Gembe’s malware crimes, while undeniably exploitative and damaging, were crimes driven by a passion for games rather than profits. His favourite game of all was
Half-Life
. In 2002, like so many fans of the series, Gembe was eager for new details about the forthcoming sequel. That’s when he had the idea: if he was able to hack
into Valve’s network, he might be able to find something out about the game nobody else knew yet. He would have his moment of glory but more than that, he would have the reassurance that the game’s creators had everything under control.

‘I wasn’t really expecting to get anywhere,’ Gembe says. ‘But the first entry was easy. In fact, it happened by accident.’

Gembe scanned Valve’s network to check for accessible web servers where he believed information about the game might be held. ‘Valve’s network was reasonably secure from the outside, but their name server allowed anonymous AXFRs, which gave me quite a bit of information.’

AXFR stands for Asynchronous Full Zone Transfer, a tool used to synchronise servers. It’s also a protocol used by hackers to peek at a website’s data. By transferring this data, Gembe was able to discover the names of all the sub-domains of the company’s web directory.

‘In the port scan logs, I found an interesting server which was in Valve’s network range from another corporation named Tangis that specialised in wearable computing devices,’ he says. ‘Valve didn’t firewall this server from its internal network.’

Gembe had found an unguarded tunnel into the network on his first attempt. ‘The Valve PDC had a username “build” with a blank password,’ he explains. ‘I was able to crack the passwords in no time. Once I had done that … well, basically I had the keys to the kingdom.’

There’s something about the secrets and codes that video-game developers leave in their games that allows players a kind of glimpse behind the curtain. For a moment, the game’s fiction is broken and a player is able to see the cogs and workings behind the virtual world.
Arguably the earliest example of an ‘Easter egg’ in a game was in the 1979 Atari 2600 game
Adventure
. The game was programmed by one of Atari’s young employees, Warren Robinett. Like many of his colleagues, Robinett was disillusioned with his employer’s policy of not crediting the game’s designers and creators. He added a secret room to the game that, if discovered, revealed the text: ‘Created by Warren Robinett.’ It was a way to leave his own mark on the virtual world he created and, for players who first discovered the room (long after the designer left Atari), it was a link to an unseen creator.

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