Military agents slip into an airplane hanger and hide behind boxes to shield themselves from terrorists who are holding a group of scientists hostage.
Anticipating the attack, the terrorists had laid a trap, positioning snipers behind several barrels scattered throughout the room. When the agents make their move, storming the room, the terrorists pounce with ruthless efficiency and kill the agents and hostages.
That’s the way Counter-Strike, a wildly popular counter-terrorist shooter game, tends to work now. If Anne-Marie Schleiner were in charge, the scenario would unfold differently.
Instead of mowing down the agents, the terrorists might lay down their weapons, team up with the military agents, release the hostages and maybe even go to a nearby bar to celebrate the happy ending.
Schleiner is the programmer behind Velvet-Strike, an online protest modification that players can use to subvert the normally violent Counter-Strike game.
Velvet-Strike replaces bullet-ridden body counts with peaceful protests, spray-painted anti-war messages and civil disobedience.
Player protests have been a staple of text-based online games through the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a way for players to make their voices heard and influence the virtual world they have paid to inhabit.
Like the games themselves, the protests have gotten much more sophisticated than they were in 1997, when players would gather on the steps of Lord British’s castle in Ultima Online, one of the first successful gaming worlds.
Spearheaded by Schleiner, the college professor behind the Anime Noir game where successful sexual foreplay wins points, Velvet-Strike is the latest way for players to influence their online gaming environments. Velvet-Strike could launch as early as this month.
Players can download spray-paint skins that have anti-war messages, which can be placed on the walls, ceilings or floors of the game environment. Schleiner has also put together a list of “intervention recipes” that outline specific tactics that protesters can use to undermine the traditional shoot-first, ask-questions-never mentality of shooter games.
One recipe has players ask their enemy for help in planting a bomb, using that as a way to start a conversation. “I already tried (the friendship recipe) out on a server in Hawaii,” Schleiner said. “I got my enemy to help show me how to plant the bomb in a bomb scenario.”
Not that Schleiner, who has a predilection for the AK-47s that terrorists get to carry in Counter-Strike, is completely against violence. She didn’t try to make friends with her enemies until after she laid waste to eight other players, a fact she pointed out was very impressive since she’s a relatively new player.
Still, the Velvet-Strike protesters are part of a growing movement to bring a message of peace, love and happiness to online shooters by any means necessary. Graphical User Intervention, a more radical group of protesters, will go so far as to sacrifice their characters for the greater cause of getting out a message of non-violence. The group outlines strategies for suicide missions, among other things.
“Our mission is to seek out those who would attempt to propagate the vile seeds of strife and division upon the burgeoning fields of online entertainment,” the group’s mission statement says. “Why are these gaming environments so savage and ruthless? We all exist within these virtual domains and as members we have a duty to each other to coexist in a Utopian world free of hate and struggle.”
Online protests are becoming more frequent these days, but they have a relatively simple history, dating to Ultima Online, a world created by Richard Garriott and Starr Long. During the beta testing, Garriott’s Lord British, a supposedly invincible character, was killed by a player during a town meeting. Garriott forgot to click on his “immortality” switch, which led to his untimely death when he stepped into a fireball.
What really irked the players was that Long, seeing his friend’s character fall, called in a gaggle of demons who whomped the innocent bystanders.
The beta testers began staging protests along the city’s main drag, gathering in small groups to protest both the indiscriminate killing and the subsequent banning of the assassin.
The event reverberated through the gaming world, giving players an unprecedented ability to change and influence the game. Scads of protests brought the phenomenon of player killing – whereby experienced players prey on new gamers, killing them to collect points in the game and keep them from progressing to new levels – to the attention of game designers.
Sometimes the games became places for people to gather to make statements about events in the real world.
After the terrorist attacks in New York City last September, players in Everquest and Anarchy Online brought their games to a halt, holding virtual candlelight vigils. Players scattered around the country found that the online gaming environment gave them a chance to deal with their grief.