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Tag Archives: Lebanon

 

 

Mishima.

 

 

Cycle-1:

 

On my grandmother’s balcony, in the village.

Laptop open.

Mid-afternoon summer. Lebanon. End of the 90’s.

I sit back in my chair.

I watch the leaves shake on the tree.

It’s quiet. The sun is high.

I look at the screen and it’s Unreal showing where I died.

A multiplayer match against bots.

I fell off a bridge, into a valley.

I’d never played a game like this.

I enjoy its fusion of nature and architecture.

I look past the tree. I roll my eyes along the mountains on the horizon.

The abandoned hospital glimmers: Bombed and abandoned.

The afternoon call to prayer begins.

I start another match.

I try to understand the novelty and limits of my trackball.

I look up into the sky. I jump down again.

I shut the computer off. I stand up. I grab my gun.

I cross the road. I walk into the valley.

I sit in the forest.

I watch a cow skull bake in the sun.

I imagine all the dead here.

If you look hard enough through the mud, you can still find bullet casings from the war.

I found a grenade here once.

I get up.

I walk to the graveyard below.

 

Cycle-2:

 

It’s dark.

The sky is quiet at last.

Our anxieties cool.

“You want to go for a ride?”

“Where?”

“KM.”

A neighboring village.

We are rivals in every sense.

I look at my cousin:

“Just for a ride or is there something you want to do?”

“I hear they have an internet cafe where you can play games.”

“Alright.”

I tell my father I’m leaving for a while.

He doesn’t like the idea.

I get in the car anyway.

My cousin drives.

He lays into the gas. We scream through.

KM is dark. The electricity is out.

The cafe sits at the edge of the village.

They run the generator.

It’s packed and hot.

We walk up to the manager:

“How much for an hour?”

“3000.”

Two US Dollars.

We pay and sit down.

I look around at the other screens.

Half are playing Counter-Strike. Half are chatting on MSN Messenger.

I check my email. I load up CS.

I don’t play well. I look at my cousin’s screen.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m chatting with this girl…”

“You know her?”

“No.”

I nod.

Social anonymity.

I load up a new round.

de_dust.

Terrorist.

 

Cycle-3:

 

Summer ’95.

The village-wide soccer championship.

They changed the location at the last second.

It moved to a concrete bowl at the top of the village.

I follow all the kids up the hill. I talk with my friends.

We’re excited. This is a big deal.

They have a real trophy this year.

We get to the top. The organizer shouts the rules.

The match starts.

20 minutes in and an IDF warplane comes down low.

A loud explosion.

A Lebanese soldier runs out from a nearby camp.

He waves his arms for us to leave.

The organizer begs us to stay.

I turn to run away.

Crying. Shaking. Confused.

I see my aunt drive up.

I dive into her car.

She takes me back down.

She tries to calm me.

The memory burns in.

Three years later: Summer ’98.

My uncle buys a mid-grade PC in the city.

My cousins are obsessed with World Cup ’98.

They play on mouse and keyboard. The game has good friction.

It feels light. It has joy in it.

I watch an older cousin going through the rosters.

We were alone.

I ask him why he thinks Arab nations never take the World Cup.

He nods:

“We got close once in 1982…”

“What happened?”

“The West got scared.”

 

Cycle-4:

 

I hate this city.

Mid-morning and I’m in Saida.

It smells like traffic, garbage, and sea.

I stare at a green Mickey Mouse painted outside a store.

His head is too thin. His eyes are too wide.

He looks crazed. Hungry.

Deceitful.

‘Dismey.’ ‘Abidas.’ ‘Mike.’

Everything is ripped off and shifted here.

Clothing. Films. Cigarettes. Video games.

I walk on.

I walk into a media store.

It’s dark. It’s full of dust.

I look through the electronics. Mostly Chinese garbage.

‘SegaMega.’ ‘Polystation.’

I flip through the PC games.

All pirated.

All in small plastic bags with printed, confused covers.

Call of Duty‘ printed on the Army Men cover.

Commandos‘ with Kane’s face from Command & Conquer.

Barbie Riding Club‘ with ‘The Sims.’

I laugh.

I buy a martial arts book by Bruce Lee in Arabic.

I cross the street. I buy some ice cream from a cafe.

I sit down near the shore.

I imagine one day Lebanon being covered in internet cafes.

I wonder how deep the piracy will go.

I wonder if we’ll ever get a shot at legitimacy.

A few years later and there will be a consumer uproar in the village:

Football Manager sold as FIFA.

 

Cycle-5:

 

Early morning.

A quaking.

An explosion.

We wake up startled.

We ask each other what happened.

My uncle walks in:

“It was just a sonic boom.”

IDF warplanes and intimidation.

We get up.

We throw Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit into the PC.

I watch my brother and my cousins take turns.

I watch the game.

I only played it on console. I like how it filtered aggression and speed.

We turned down the resolution to make it run smoother.

The PC wasn’t holding up.

No gamepad. Keyboard and mouse again.

I watch them burn out by the ocean.

I watch the cops win.

Years later and M. and I get into his trashed-up blue Honda.

He drives like the last demon on earth.

We barrel through the village and our eyes are on fire.

“Hey, remember when we used to play Need for Speed?”

He nods. He responds:

“Yeah! And remember how we’d evade the cops. . .?”

He jerks the wheel left and right like a deranged rally driver.

My cell phone rings. I ignore it.

We make a turn. We slow down.

We hit an army checkpoint.

My cousin hides his knife in a broken AC vent.

The soldiers stop us. They ask us to get out.

Their commander asks me for my draft papers.

I tell him I don’t have any.

He grabs me and starts shoving me towards the convoy.

My cousin yells:

“Wait! He’s American! He’s American!”

The pushing stops. The soldier looks at me:

“Can you prove it?”

I pull out my wallet. I show him my driver’s license, my school ID.

He accepts it and apologizes. We ask him what this is about.

“A big fight happened and someone got stabbed…”

We get back into the car. We drive off.

My cousin fishes his knife out from the vent.

We laugh like idiots.

 

Cycle-6:

 

Summer. 2006. Downtown Damascus.

The July War still raging.

We tried to stick it out.

We decided to run away when Hezbollah hit an Israeli warship off the coast of Beirut.

Damascus is worse than Saida.

Hotter. Nastier.

Everyone paranoid.

We had to give up our passport information to buy SIM cards.

We’re waiting to find tickets back to the United States.

We’re stuck. We’re empty.

My uncle hires a guide. He takes us around.

He tells us that Damascus is surrounded by graves of Nephilim.

I imagine their enormous corpses rotting.

My mother takes us to the Shrine of Zaynab.

Everyone crying.

I sit down and relive the entire war. I’m tired.

I’m dead.

We go back.

I go up to the hotel roof. I look out over the edge.

There’s an enormous hammer and sickle in front of the building across the street.

I go down. I cross the street. I stand in front of the building.

I walk in.

The walls are covered in red.

Old pictures of Soviet men and women.

Old propaganda art.

A Soviet community center.

I look down to the bottom floor.

I see rows of computers.

I pay the attendant.

I sit down.

I check Facebook.

I recall old haunts like Children of Acid and Myspace.

I look through the games.

I launch Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2.

I play a skirmish game against the AI.

I choose the Soviets.

I build as many Kirov Airships as I can and erase everything.

I end it. I start another. I pick Iraq.

I use all my resources to build Desolators.

I poison entire strips of land.

I exit the game. I get up.

I walk out. The sun is setting.

And I am full of rage.

And I am powerless.

I walk to the large intersection near the hotel.

I look around.

I lock eyes with an enormous picture of Hafez Al-Assad.

He’s grinning.

I remember the stories of him burying entire villages.

I remember his borderline genocides.

I let my madness go a little bit.

I walk to a cafe. I sit by the window.

I listen to the AC hum. I watch the headlights flash.

I order tea and hookah.

I weep at the table.

I kick the chair in front of me.

People stare. No one says anything.

They know.

I feel myself dissolve.

I stare at my reflection in the window.

I don’t know what I am anymore.

I feel myself devolve into a desolate wasteland.

I feel myself rot like raw meat in the belly of some cold-blooded animal.

I realize how deep the fantasies run.

I realize how much power games give us.

And I realize how much of it the world takes away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stand.

 

 

Born to immigrants.

I understood nothing.

My parents came to the United States in the 70’s to escape the war.

They navigated American culture by way of the small Lebanese communities they found here.

They figured out some of it.

My mother loved 80’s pop music.

My father loved his .38 revolver with armor-piercing bullets.

But the ties didn’t loosen.

Driving around southern California:

Fairouz. Umm Kalthoum. Warda. Sabah.

I couldn’t understand their songs.

I could speak the gutter Arabic of the old country.

I couldn’t read or write it. I couldn’t decipher its classical form.

When I was old enough to have a Walkman, I stepped outside that world.

Michael Jackson. MC Hammer. Kriss Kross.

I felt the surface of America, but it never poured into my bones.

Something always felt off.

Something always felt lost.

1991: Not Without My Daughter released in theaters.

It bombed. Critics ripped it apart.

A story about an American woman going with her Iranian husband to Iran.

Once there, he becomes abusive and threatening.

He decides not to go back to the U.S.

It was Orientalist trash.

I made my parents rent it multiple times.

I didn’t understand the story.

I didn’t understand what the film was trying to say.

I didn’t understand the difference between Iran and the Arab worlds.

But I was happy watching it.

I saw people who looked like me. I saw a religion I recognized.

I saw symbols I could interpret.

It seemed important: Something that resembled a piece of my world coming out of Hollywood.

I felt a part of my identity was validated.

America saw that I existed.

The Middle East existed.

Not Without My Daughter was cultural dead space.

Linear and closed. The narrative didn’t matter.

The signifier mattered.

I celebrated the act of recognition.

In a racist propaganda film:

I celebrated my self.

 

Walk.

 

My grandmother came to California.

She left Lebanon to spend time with us.

We were close.

I didn’t view her understanding as separate from my parents’.

I assumed she knew how to work a television.

I assumed she knew how to help with my homework.

I assumed she could help me translate Dragon Warrior.

She couldn’t. I couldn’t grasp why.

The weekend my mother surprised me with the game we worked through the beginning together.

We made it out of town and stopped.

Everything was foreign.

World map. Items. Equipment. Towns. Plot. Text. Random battles. Quests. Saving.

Without my mother, I couldn’t make it out of the first town.

I’d ask my grandmother for help.

She didn’t understand any of it.

I called my mother at work. She guided me over the phone.

I could hear the pulp mill grinding in the background.

I replayed the opening sequence over and over again.

It wasn’t frustrating. I enjoyed it.

Dragon Warrior had a dense atmosphere.

It was confident.

The music felt harmonious and foreboding.

The box art glimmered with dread:

 

 

I obsessed over the art.

How was the knight going to defeat the dragon?

He had no ground left to stand on. The dragon was enormous.

I couldn’t see how the knight could win.

I imagined every possible strategy.

I admired his bravery.

I felt like a coward.

I viewed Dragon Warrior through the same lens as Not Without My Daughter:

I didn’t understand it as a whole.

I didn’t understand it as a narrative.

I understood it as a wasteland.

I understood it through the dark, closed monuments I crawled into:

The art outside the game and the music within.

Confronted with a game I couldn’t interpret, I sat with it.

I sat with my imagination.

Finding out who I was.

Studying my cowardice.

Dissecting my fear.

 

Crawl.

 

2003: Abu Ghraib leaks.

A nightmare told in photographs.

A decade later and all the rhetoric leads here.

I look through the photos.

The smiling doesn’t frighten me.

It’s the indifference:

 

 

Lynndie England’s indifferent face.

The nothingness of it.

The void heart of the universe opening.

It stuck.

Watching a culture watch itself go blind.

The proto-VR experience.

The knell of the anchors.

Abu Ghraib wasn’t a narrative.

It was a symbol of breaking.

It was a living dead space:

The chasm. The dragon.

The dread.

My broken understanding of Not Without My Daughter unspooled and stretched to face its own logic:

Anyone that looks like me is an animal and an enemy.

A diverse race seen as an extension of video game power fantasies and brutal consumerism.

Virtually real:

A race of screaming Amiibos.

 

Dissolve.

 

I don’t know where I’m supposed to land.

I never knew.

I am uncomfortable inside myself.

I am at peace in the margins.

Wandering the liminal space.

I don’t enjoy games as much as pieces of games.

Midgar’s Dense Linearity:

 

 

Out Run Pillars:

 

 

Altered Beast Cemetary:

 

 

The Painted World of Ariamis:

 

 

Shin Megami Tensei IV Screen:

 

 

Bloodborne Statues:

 

 

I find quiet in these places.

I imagine interacting with them.

I imagine their histories.

I identify with them.

I once told a professor I’m not certain where I belong.

In America, I’m the Arab.

In Lebanon, I’m the American.

She suggested I might need a third space.

Escape the duality.

I thought of Europe. I thought of vanishing in Asia.

I almost accepted a job teaching English in Japan.

But changing location didn’t feel like enough.

Priscilla carved her own world to be forgotten.

It wasn’t enough.

Still found. Murdered by millions.

Hiding can’t be enough.

I needed an internal physicality.

A spatial dialogue.

Pieces of games became my third space.

I found solace in the warmth of their parts.

 

Float.

 

After I escaped the 2006 war, I wrote a poem.

It wasn’t good, but it told the story.

I went to open mics at cafes anywhere I could and read.

The final reading, I went with a friend.

He was experimenting with grey market drugs.

2C-E was still legal.

I step outside after.

The sun setting. The sky going dark.

I lay back against the brick facade.

Some of the audience walk up to me.

They enjoyed it. Said I wrote like Kerouac.

I hate Kerouac.

I thank them.

I feel like a fraud.

I’ve reinforced my identity as an Arab.

Reinforced my otherness.

I fall into myself.

‘Hey…’

I look at my friend.

‘Yeah?’

‘Did you notice that spiderweb in the corner by the window?’

‘No.’

He nods.

‘It was really intricate…lots of shifting geometry…’

I listen to the traffic.

I look down at the sidewalk.

I see a small clover and moss growing between the concrete.

‘The way it caught the light…’

I don’t say anything.

I look across the road at the overgrown lot.

A warm wind.

I watch a tree scratch at the frozen sky.

I remember the indifference of the world.

I am terrified.

I remember pride. I feel like a fool.

I rip the poem up and throw it away.

I walk to my car.

I lean on it. I watch the air go black.

I was born in the wrong place.

The wrong time.

But here I am:

The post-modern dynasty.

The failure of multiculture at a loss for self.

 

But here I am:

Inheritor and occupier of pieces.

Drowning in mirrors and dead flags.

 

The garbage king on his throne of cracks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Low.

 

 

“Rain woke him, a slow drizzle, his feet tangled in coils of discarded fiberoptics. The arcade’s sea of sound washed over him, receded, returned. Rolling over, he sat up and held his head.

Light from a service hatch at the rear of the arcade showed him broken lengths of damp chipboard and the dripping chassis of a gutted game console. Streamlined Japanese was stenciled across the side of the console in faded pinks and yellows.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer

 

Sub-I:

 

We were in a basement somewhere in Beirut. We were shooting pool.

Mid-90’s summer and there was no air conditioning. Slow fans and fluorescent lights.

The walls were covered in cracks and ripped up, yellowed flyers with pictures of dead men.

‘Martyrs’.

I become bored, I look around for something else to do.

A row of arcade cabinets in the distant corner. I put my cue down. I walk over.

I watch the demo looping bright neon animations.

A puzzle game. A friend comes over.

He watches the demo.

We stare at the flashing pictures of naked Asian women that pop up behind the solved puzzles.

He sits down at one cabinet. He drops in the coins. Tries to play.

He only manages to uncover a woman’s face locked in orgasmic fury.

As he gets up to leave, I lock eyes with one of the dead men hanging above the grimy arcade machine.

He looks determined. He looks ridiculous.

Either nationalism or religion killed him. Electric sex keeps his memory alive.

We step outside into the sticky night. We walk past a bombed out theater.

Lights reflect in the ruin.

It looks ridiculous.

It looks determined.

 

Sub-II:

 

We lived in southern California. 45 minutes outside of LA.

We drove to Vegas once a year for vacation.

90’s Vegas tried to market itself towards families.

Every hotel had massive, expensive arcades my brother and I would bury ourselves in.

A few years ago I went back there with my father for the first time in over a decade.

The arcades died there too: Vegas dropped the family act.

Walking down the strip at sunset, I realize how much I had forgotten about this place in the winter.

I notice how cool the air is, how dark the sky.

Standing at a crosswalk, I hold a cigar to my mouth and look down.

I laugh.

Cards with mostly naked men and women had been cast all over the corner.

I grind my foot into their polished, gutted faces.

So this is what Vegas wants to be now?

Must have lost money betting on the American family.

The 90’s lied to this city the same way it lied to all of us.

I crossed.

I watched the fountain go off in front of the Bellagio.

I felt like a ghost in its towering white light.

I felt like the dead man and his sex machine.

 

Sub-III:

 

 

Someone turned nostalgia into its own virtual world.

I was upset the first time I saw this.

It’s all lifeless.

The player touches everything and experiences nothing.

This isn’t an arcade: It is a funeral pyre.

In a world where digital media is highly consumable, we have forgotten how to act around things of value…

including our memory.

 

III.9: 

 

There was a line around the entire arcade.

Word was out they bought a VR machine.

$20.00 bought you five minutes.

I wait for the line to die down. It takes a few hours.

I walk up to the attendant. Give her the money.

She wraps the giant, plastic headpiece around my eyes.

I am anxious about becoming nauseous.

The game starts.

I look around the room. I am in a warehouse.

Everything is low-poly. Poor framerate.

Things shoot at me and I have no idea what to do.

My five minutes are up. I leave unimpressed.

More than a decade later Oculus Rift gains traction.

Sony announces Project Morpheus.

I download PolyFauna on my phone.

I put on headphones and stand in my living room.

I hold my phone close to my face and turn with it to navigate.

I am in two three-dimensional places at once and this realization shocks and thrills me.

I see a future defined by both cheap and expensive VR.

Bright colors. Dark spaces. Heat. Intimacy. Distance.

Eroticism.

VR’s arcade inheritance.

 

Sub-IV:

 

We were standing by the beach, watching the roaches skitter along the shore.

It was night. Everything was lit up by small shops and looming towers crowding Beirut’s shoreline.

I catch the lights of an enormous tanker parked in the sea.

I daydream about its machinery.

Coffee in hand, I turn to watch the taxis speed by.

A friend of my cousin walks up to us and pulls out his phone.

He asks us if we want to see something funny.

He cycles through the menus. Pulls up a video.

He holds the phone up to our faces.

It’s a video of a naked woman doing illicit things with a lit cigar.

I look up from the video.

I see gutted phones and computers in the window of a repair shop across the street.

I tell my cousin I’ll be right back.

I cross the boulevard.

I watch the guy work by his window.

I notice his limited selection of pirated games and vast quantities of Chinese knockoff consoles.

Lebanon has a strange relationship with technology: Everyone wants it, but only a few understand it.

Years later, the iPhone 4 would sell here for $1400.00 USD.

 

Sub-V:

 

At a bar just outside downtown Madison, WI.

Waiting for a live show to start at a venue down the street.

The bar has one arcade machine and one video poker machine.

I watch the poker demo.

I enjoy the crispness of the cards and their fluid animations.

I enjoy its bright glow.

It reminds me of all the machines in Vegas.

The rows and rows of digital and mechanical vice.

The UI flashes my mind with the basement and its dying porn games.

I never found gambling interesting.

But I enjoy the technology and aesthetics of seductive manipulation.

The running thread beneath it all is to focus the user, to isolate a person without giving them to the space to understand the illusion.

Arcade machines. Virtual Reality. Slot machines. Mobile phones.

My favorite types of mobile games are the ones that capture this illicitness.

Monster Strike. Terra Battle. TNNS. Dice Jockey. Zenonia.

They are inheritors of the arcade as filtered through Vegas.

They are products of and a celebration of vice.

Bright colors. Money. Chance. And the sensuality of being alone with others.

The modern drives as sold through slick, minimal UIs.

The modern drives as the bonfires of the synapse.

 

Pit.

 

“There was a place near an airport, Kowloon, when Hong Kong wasn’t China, but there had been a mistake, a long time ago, and that place, very small, many people, it still belonged to China. So there was no law there. An outlaw place. And more and more people crowded in; they built it up, higher. No rules, just building, just people living. Police wouldn’t go there. Drugs and whores and gambling. But people living, too. Factories, restaurants. A city. No laws.”

—William Gibson, Idoru

 

It is early.

We shamble out of the club.

I am shocked to see the sun.

Red Bull and vodka still coursing through us.

We make our way to the shore.

Beirut is an ugly city in the light of day.

It thrives through the night.

My cousin buys some coffee. He hands me a cup.

I watch the sun hovering just above the mountains.

I wonder about how we’re going to handle the hour-long trek back to the village.

We still had to drop off my cousin’s friends.

They meet up with us.

We walk over to the car and take off.

They both live in the hyper-religious slums of Beirut. Hezbollah territory.

We drop them off and I look around as my cousin says goodbye.

The buildings are close. The streets are narrow.

Sunlight blotted out by a thick, complex spiderweb of black cable.

I think about the infrastructure of access.

I see the faces of martyrs hung up on electrical poles.

I watch a man smoke a cigarette with an AK-47 slung around his back.

This is a place of violence. Of drugs. Of religion. Of money. Of power in the most classical sense.

My uncle once told me that in the city you have to pay for things that should be free for everyone: Access to sunlight and air.

I imagine who might live at the top of all these buildings.

What do they do with all their access?

I look at the cut sky through the dirt on the windshield.

I pull out my phone and check for messages.

Nothing.

I lean my head back. I close my eyes.

I think of Midgar. Of Kowloon. Of Neo-Tokyo.

I think of vice and violence.

And I smile.

And I bask in the mute, dark heat of our hearts.

 

And I drown in the polluted glands of this city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click.

 

 

Every summer, my options were limited.

Vacationing in the developing world, there are things you get used to: water stoppages, prolonged blackouts, looming violence, heat, etc.

Without reliable electricity, television was out, video games too for the most part.

Every summer until I was old enough to drive, my options were: read, write, draw, hunt, or play.

Most of the weight in my luggage was books. I brought so many books. I still do everywhere I go.

I had been writing poetry since I was 11. It was never enough to eat up significant amounts of time.

Poetry was all I was good at though.

I was a terrible artist and a terrible hunter. I had bad aim.

Bird hunting is the leisure sport of Lebanon. They are passionate about it. The Lebanese nearly drove every species of bird to extinction in the 90’s.

The government stepped in and banned hunting for a few years.

I was often mocked for being terrible at it. I wanted to be good, but I had no heart to watch the limited comprehension of grace fade out of this world second by second.

With birds, it is never a clean kill. They drop into the dirt, panting heavily, bleeding, fighting. I hated it.

We played war games. War is the other past-time.

One summer, my cousins, my brother, and I fashioned fake machine guns out of discarded wood. We pretended we were training for missions against the occupying force.

A few years before that, the four of us found some gasoline at the bottom of a rusted barrel outside my aunt’s old house. We decided to use that to make Molotov cocktail.

We found a glass bottle, filled it, stuffed some napkins in the top and left.

On the road a Lebanese army jeep was coming towards us. We hid in an alcove just off the street until they passed. When we made it back to my cousins’ house, we didn’t know what to do with it.

We tossed it, unlit, into a field. The next year I heard it started a small fire.

 

Prog.

 

In our village, there was a small arcade.

When the electricity was out, they ran on a diesel generator.

It had Foosball, Street Fighter II, and other no-name action games.

It was inside of an abandoned garage. All concrete, small windows, poor air circulation.

It always smelled of dust and oil.

Street Fighter II got the most play. We had no idea what we were doing. We understood the premise.

Zangief was a favorite. He was big and mean. He was Russian. The Middle East had respect for Russia, even during the USSR.

The USSR supported Gamal Abdel Nasser, a symbol of Arab dignity and pride to this day.

These small things mattered.

The last time I set foot in that arcade, I slammed the owner’s son into an arcade machine.

My brother and I had gone there one evening to pass the time before a big volleyball tournament. We played some games and left, following the traffic of people heading to the schoolyard as the sun was going down.

My brother kept spitting and making noises. I asked him what was wrong. He said the owner’s son had put some chalk dust in his mouth.

I stopped.

I went back. The owner’s son was sitting behind the desk. He stood up. I yelled at him, grabbed him, and slammed him into the nearest arcade machine. He understood.

The next summer the arcade had closed for good. They were selling roasted chickens. I bought one for my family.

It had a fly in it.

The small things matter.

 

Mount.

 

Counter-Strike became a big deal.

Someone opened an internet and gaming cafe in the heart of the village.

I had no idea how they managed to do it.

The telecom infrastructure in rural Lebanon was broken beyond comprehension.

Most villagers were getting their television through illegal satellite hook ups.

The cafe flourished. Kids were in there all the time, yelling.

Counter-Strike was the virtual extension of our war games. The virtual extension of the frustration of our violence.

My cousin went by the handle Sniper and had made a name for himself. I was terrible at it.

He used to go there every other day with his brother and mine. I would stay home and read. I knew I had nothing to contribute.

I mainly used the internet cafe for checking emails. The nice thing about the developing world is it grants everyone the ability to not exist.

Things happen and you don’t know and don’t care.

One time I decided to make the trek with my cousin, just the two of us.

We were placed on the same team.

During one game, I managed to stay alive longer than everyone on my team. There was only one person left on the other. My cousin yells: ‘Don’t mess up!’, I find the enemy, he shoots me.

I was a terrible hunter.

The internet cafe is now a Western Union.

 

Query.

 

The first time I watched a jet dropping flares, I was in awe.

I thought the flares were bombs. My father explained to me what they actually did.

Every time I came back to the U.S. after a few months overseas, I felt uncomfortable.

America is a strange place completely cleaved out of reality.

America is the syrupy hyperdream of some half-naked body builder standing on an ancient beach, staring at the stars.

Coming back into this place was always a jarring experience. It was a process, one that my parents could never understand.

In elementary school we were tasked with drawing pictures of something interesting that happened to us the previous summer. I drew the jet dropping flares and the army firing at it.

My mother was embarrassed. All the other kids were drawing pools and family trips, but that was my narrative: Aggression and spectacle.

Seeing the gears of a broken world turn, I couldn’t understand how my parents could just immigrate and forget.

From hunting, to fighting games, to discovering FPSes, we always found ways to birth aggression.

It always took me awhile to develop a knack for it. The U.S. doesn’t function on aggression in interpersonal relationships.

But America and Americans have their own kind of violence, a kind of violence that is heavily disassociated. Violence in film, games, music, media in general with no consequences. Fantasies.

 

Conch.

 

I never enjoyed the killing of things, but I knew it was necessary to experience in person.

Watching birds falter in the face of the earth embedded me with the morbid and sad truths of living.

I learned that when we go out, it’s all ugliness. There is no honor in it, just thrashing and dirt.

As children, we didn’t do the things we did out of fantasy, we reacted to the freedom of violence around us. We expressed it, thrived in the wild of it.

Gears inside of gears.

Does that subtle difference of interpretation affect the digestion of our engagement?

It made us more self-aware.

The experiences we have with media, and games specifically, are colored by the environment we exist in.

In America, I was curious and excited about whatever I engaged with.

In Lebanon, I wanted to flourish, I wanted to progress. More presence. More drive.

I haven’t left North America in two years and I feel no urgency of interpretation.

‘Real’ game violence rings hollow now.

I am looking for visions of experience:

 

The edge of being forever reborn into the crumbling sunset of the American dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fist.

 

 

The first time I saw The House of the Dead was in the summer of 1997: Zahle, Lebanon.

One of the main attractions for children and families in Zahle is a large outdoor arcade set deep in the valley.

Beneath the cool trees and flowing water, you can play anything from bumper cars to fighting games.

In ’97, we were there on a family trip, it was a stopping point. I remember having the distinct feeling of bored animosity.

Walking through the arcade, I couldn’t find anything that drew my attention long enough to warrant dropping coins. Then, out of nowhere a giant THotD cab loomed up, bigger than all the lights around it.

In the U.S., arcades still existed then, but they were few and hard to find.

I had been lucky in that everywhere I lived, there was at least one active arcade nearby, usually attached to a movie theater.

I still hung out a lot in arcades in the late 90’s. Every weekend when my parents would drag us to the mall, my brother and I would hit up the local mall arcade (Pocket Change) and burn through an afternoon.

Somehow, Pocket Change always managed to pull in new, expensive cabs at a time when other arcades were failing. I had no idea how they did it, but I was thankful.

They didn’t have what Zahle had though and the more I watched two kids burrow further into THotD, the more I hoped Pocket Change would catch up.

 

Spring.

 

I was never excited about light gun games in the arcades.

In spite of its popularity, I felt Time Crisis was a boring and hollow experience. I did not enjoy the novelty of its pedal/cover system and I did not enjoy having a timer ticking down through the whole game.

The game felt disconnected.

Time Crisis operated only as a sequence of separate shooting galleries, never as a whole game. It had no fluidity.

At first glance, TC seems interesting: 1) There is a timer counting down through the game in which time is only added by finishing ‘scenes.’ 2) In order to reload and/or avoid getting hit, the player must release the pedal to return to cover, thereby slowing the player down.

Combining these two mechanics (urgency of time and tactical judgment) the game is asking the player to make choices.

However, the mud thrown into this machine of micro-choice is the addition of time through the clearing of sections.

The game has no forward momentum: Time Crisis only jumps from section to section, making it a jarring, unnerving experience.

In 1996, Time Crisis had been out for a year and I was done trying to like it.

Walking away from the ‘House’ cab in Zahle, what stuck with me was how much forward momentum Sega built into the game. THotD’s urgency didn’t come from some cheap mechanic (time), it came from atmosphere, a constant drive forward, and quickness.

I wanted to play it more than any other arcade game of that time.

A month later I left Lebanon and came back to the U.S., I went back to Pocket Change.

They had The House of the Dead. I couldn’t believe it.

I don’t know how they did it, but there it was: the same massive cab I saw in Zahle, next to the doorway, and a line of people that ran through the food court.

A line of people that Time Crisis couldn’t bring in.

 

Span.

 

THotD was one of the most cohesive arcade products I had ever seen.

The story revolved around two AMS agents, Thomas Rogan and G., called to the mansion of a well-known and highly regarded scientist, Roy Curien, after an ominous call from Sophie, Rogan’s fiancée.

Upon arriving at the mansion, the agents are immediately thrown into a grisly, murderous scene where all of Curien’s horrific abominations have been let loose throughout the entire complex. It then becomes the agents’ job to rescue Sophie and find Curien.

THotD’s cohesive process begins with the title font and styling:

 

The House of The Dead Title Screen.

The House of The Dead Title Screen.

 

Not only is the font of the title chosen as a reflection of older pulp horror franchises (See anything made by Hammer Film Productions), there is also the addition of the decaying hand summoning/corrupting/reaching for the person who may either be Rogan, G., or a scientist.

The person represented in the title is covered with scratch marks, signifying both abandonment (cobwebs) and violence (the scratching-out).

The intro cutscene is about a minute and a half long. In that short time, it does an excellent job setting up the premise of hopelessness: Scientists running for their lives, monsters being unleashed everywhere, dead bodies.

All this is set to an ominous intro theme riddled with bells and synth organ:

 

 

After taking in all these passive elements, coins are dropped in. Each coin engages a loud howl, bellowing from the speakers, another homage to older horror films and a reinforcement of isolation.

From the second the game begins, it pushes forward into its world. The player is greeted with a cutscene showing Rogan and G. pulling up to the house at high-speed, running out of the car, and immediately engaging.

The game never loses that momentum.

The world of THotD is a dark one. All the grass and plant life in the mansion courtyard are dead, the sky is dark. The initial interaction in the world is shooting an undead creature trying to kill one of Curien’s assistants.

The mansion itself is in complete disarray as well.

The environment shows how far into his own mind Curien had fallen.

 

Stress.

 

THotD filtered urgency through its cohesiveness and the speed at which its camera moved.

Time Crisis was too disconnected and Virtua Cop was a glorified shooting gallery.

The first House of the Dead perfected the sensation of perpetual motion, a sensation that has since been a staple of the THotD series.

It was a fast, hot game then and it still is now. The way in which the camera twists and turns, the way it bends, is a thing of art. Movement in this game is the final cohesive link in Sega’s vision.

It is unfortunate that THotD is the best of the series. Its sequels consistently suffer from a lack of vision.

I was obsessed with The House of the Dead ever since I first saw it. I played that game any chance I could from 1997 on. Initially, it took me five dollars in quarters and 45 minutes to complete.

In 2012, I had all 20 of the top High Scores at another local arcade. I could beat the game on 25 cents and a little over 25 minutes.

The first time I saw and played THotD 2 was in Las Vegas, at the Luxor in 1999.

It was another of the massive cabs.

My parents dropped my brother and I off early at the arcade before heading to the Casino, around 10 AM.

After having played so much of the original, we couldn’t believe we now had access to the sequel.

It took us a little over an hour and around seven dollars in quarters to complete. The sequel was never as compelling as the original. Something about it was all wrong.

The difficulty was turned up, The action was slower, the camera did less.

There was no propulsion through that world, no urgency. It was lifeless.

The last major game Pocket Change bought before finally closing was THotD 3, which utilized giant plastic shotguns instead of the smaller, standard light gun pistols.

I played it once and walked away.

The shotguns were uncomfortable to hold, awkward to maneuver, and the series’ difficulty was turned up yet again.

With each iteration becoming slower, less dynamic, more difficult (cheap), and less cohesive: The series continually failed to achieve the promise of the original.

The most recent installment in the THotD series, The House of the Dead: Overkill, reworked the series’ aesthetic into comical pulp horror, the seriousness and dramatic effect of the previous games are completely erased.

The House of The Dead revolutionized light gun games. It was incomprehensibly cohesive and faster than any other game of its kind. It was one of the last true arcade games that challenged and engaged the player with seriousness and immersion.

Given the death of the arcade outside of Japan, we will most likely never see another game like it.

We will never have the kind of cohesive immersion THotD presented. An immersion rivaled only by Virtual-On: Oratorio Tangram.

The House of the Dead had charisma, it touched on something, attracted people to it.

Exactly what  its successors could never do. It was an excellent game with a strong identity, a strong sense of how it wanted to be.

Action games today can learn so much from studying what The House of the Dead presented: meticulous cohesion, immersion, and perspective.

Afterall, its only fitting that it be remembered in better games than the series it spawned.

 

 

 

 

LEBANON-CIVIL WAR-CAR BOMB BLAST-MOSLEM

 

Variations on an Abyss.

 

#1)

 When I was young, I had the opportunity to spend most of my summers in Lebanon. I am Lebanese. My parents would take my brother and I back to Lebanon to get to know the country they left and to develop closer ties with my family half a world away.

Most of my family live in a village in the mountains near the mid-south called Kfarhatta, about 20 minutes outside of Saida. My maternal grandmother lives in a house that overlooks the main road. On the other side of that road was a steep decline, and there was a soccer field at the bottom. It wasn’t actually a soccer field though, it was just dirt. It was a plot of land that a local man used to grow some plants occasionally, but when he wasn’t, it was our soccer field.

Surrounding the field was a thicket of trees. The field wasn’t large by any standard, but it was enough for the village children and I to play soccer.

During one particular game one summer (I was 9 or 10), I kicked the ball into the thicket and ran out to get it. Near where the ball had landed I found an unexploded grenade. I brought it back to the field with the ball.

I showed my friends what it was. I was really excited that I had found a relic of the war that plagued Lebanon for nearly 30 years. I wanted to keep it until an older village kid told me it was dangerous and could explode at anytime. He took the grenade and threw it into the valley below.

We continued our game.

 

#2)

 Most summers when my parents weren’t able to stay in Lebanon as long as my brother and I, we would stay with one of my paternal aunts.

My uncle designed and built his house himself with the help of his four sons. He was a master electrician with  a penchant for language and history. In his youth he had been an exceptional bodybuilder.

On the final day of our stay in Lebanon on this particular summer (I don’t remember how old I must have been), I was sitting with my aunt in the rear bedroom where my cousins and I all slept, helping my aunt pack my suitcase. I was mid-sentence in saying something when a sudden explosion went off.

It wasn’t really something you heard so much as something you felt in your stomach. Your insides shake as the ground shakes, it feels like you’ve been thrown into a jet engine.

We ran outside. I moved purely on instinct, I had no control.

Outside we ran to the side of the house. An artillery shell landed through the back wall of the house down the road. They were distant relatives of mine as well.

We continued to the side entrance of the above ground basement my uncle built into his house. We waited and listened in the dark. A second artillery shell slammed down further down the road, landing just behind the third house on our stretch of street.

I was angry and I knew I couldn’t do anything. The oldest of my four cousins was in the police force, he was with us in the basement, he had to tell me to shut up so that he could listen for an all-clear before heading out to a car that was picking us up.

When the car came we ran outside and I stubbed my toe on a cinderblock (I was barefoot) and when I looked down, the floor was covered with shrapnel. We made our escape to another house in the village.

At the second house, there were rumors of attack helicopters coming in, you could also here the fighters in the sky.

The sound of jet engines is the most horrifying noise in war.

On the way back to my aunt’s house (by car) to get our things and leave for Beirut we found one of our neighbor’s children just roaming the street far from the house and sobbing, confused. We pulled him into the car and asked him what happened. His mother had been pinned underneath the rubble of the rear wall that had collapsed on her. He had tried to pull the rubble off of her, but she just screamed at him to get out, so he did, he ran.

We got back to the house, checked it for physical damage. My brother and I got our things, my father showed up and we dashed for Beirut.

 

#3)

I stayed with my grandmother a lot when I was very young. I would go to sleep with the sound of machinegun fire in the distance. My grandmother would come in and try to explain that these were guerilla fighters attacking occupation forces. That never made me feel better.

There was always retaliation.

 

#4)

The way I understand it, my paternal uncle M. was something of a hero in my village.

My father (Then working as a vice detective in Beirut) bought him a .38 revolver (long barrel). M. loved that gun.

My uncle was tall, athletic, and generally respected. He had the reputation of being a tough guy.

Once there was a rabid dog that was attacking livestock in the village. It was savage and, even in its madness, an excellent hunter. It was hard to track.

After some time, some men in the village managed to track it to an unkempt field with long grass. They called my uncle.

He showed up with his .38. It was in the afternoon. He stepped into the field and slowly tried finding the dog. After sometime the dog came after him. He killed it with one shot.

M. was political (it was impossible not to be at that time), he was involved in the civil war that centered mainly in and around Beirut.

He was gunned down. Ambushed in the night, at a checkpoint just outside of Beirut. I’ve heard it told that he took down six of the people who ambushed him before dying.

This was the greatest tragedy in my father’s family.

 

#5)

In 2006, I went to Lebanon in the summer. One morning in July, there was a news report that certain guerillas had crossed the border into a neighboring country and taken two soldiers on patrol near the border hostage. The details were in dispute, but retaliation was quick.

That afternoon, I had gone with my cousins (who had just arrived in Lebanon the previous day) to eat at a restaurant 15 minutes outside of the village. The place was empty, we sat down and ordered our food. Before the food had come I was getting phone calls that things were getting serious. I ignored them.

I sat there until that sound came back, the engines. I looked up and saw a fighter dropping flares. One of the flares landed just below the restaurant on the mountainside. A fire started. We drove back to the village.

That night we stood on the balcony of my maternal aunt’s house, her home was elevated above other ones in the village. We watched the refugees in the nearby city firing red and green tracers at the planes flying overhead. They lit up the sky like Christmas.

My mother built a home in the village a few years earlier, it stood on the top of a mountain, isolated and exposed, we thought it was dangerous to stay there so we went and stayed with my grandmother in the village itself. As the days wore on, my brother was growing more anxious. The psychological impact of the engines was weighing on us all: Where would the bombs drop?

The airport was the first target, they bombed the runways and fuel storage tanks, the fuel leaked into the ocean. The act was condemned internationally. We couldn’t get out.

The decision was made after the guerillas managed to score an attack on an opposing battleship sitting in the Mediterranean to leave for Beirut and get out of the country.

We had to take a back road to the capital because they had bombed nearly every bridge and main road in the country. The only beautiful thing to come out of the trip was seeing where the Druze lived. Their land was high in the mountains, covered with a thick fog, streetlights glowing softly, it was a whole other world.

We made it to Beirut and stayed in a hotel for a few days. We were interviewed by someone from ABC News. I was frustrated. The American government had taken no action up to this point. Other nations had evacuated their citizens prior, in the first days. We felt abandoned.

The bombing in South Beirut (the guerillas stronghold) was ceaseless. You could hear it all the time from the hotel. I found irony in the fact that the opposing army was bombing Lebanon with munitions supplied by the United States.

This is what it is to be from two worlds. There I am the American. Here I am the Arab. There I was bombed on all the same. Here I am searched in airports most of the time.

War has a dumb, brutal logic that tears at any and all of a person’s identities.

Once it became evident that nothing was going to change, that the embassy was dragging its feet. We hired cabs and just headed for Syria. Eventually landing in Damascus. Two weeks later we bought our own tickets and flew back to the U.S.

The final irony being the inversion in circumstance: Now Lebanon is swarming with Syrian refugees escaping the nightmares of their own country.

A few days after I landed in the U.S., I heard a plane flying overhead. I was scared.

 

Crooked.

 

One of the major problems of realistic war games today, is the total inability to capture any of the fear, isolation, anxiety of actually being in an environment that is in the process of descending into total loss.

I recall reading an article once that discussed the devs behind Battlefield 3 and their reasoning for not having any civilians in any of the maps or city levels in their multiplayer. Their reasoning was that the player was to assume that the civilians had been evacuated and that had they included civilians (and in particular children) that people would do awful things to them.

I can understand the challenges (both financially and mechanically) of having a game with two opposing sides that players control try to navigate around a level with NPC civilians fleeing or hiding from the fighting. I could also understand the PR hell that would occur when mainstream media got hold of some footage on YouTube of a player only targeting civilians for a good laugh and hits to his YouTube channel.

Despite this, the image of war that is often depicted in games is too clean, too brazen, and gives players and consumers a hyper-sanitzed vision of what happens.

Jean Baudrillard once wrote a book titled ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place‘. In it, Baudrillard argued that in terms of the West, the Gulf War was not really a war, it was a massacre. Few casualties were reported on the coalition side, they avoided engaging the Iraqi army directly, and very little attention was payed to the Iraqi losses, both civilian and military. This asymmetrical, overbearing show of force was increasingly sanitized to present a clean, stoic narrative through the media to the American public. So while violence did take place, none of it was felt, none of it was presented.

Modern video games on war can be seen as an extension of this philosophy. The presentation of an ultra-slick, concise narrative (Call of Duty) with empty urban environments devoid of any civilian life (Battlefield) can be seen as an extension of the track that was firmly established in Gulf War 1.: Keep the audience engaged without showing them the costs.

It is also odd to me how games about war today often involve the opposing forces of nations that are viewed negatively in American and western media. Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, various Arab states have all been depicted as simply being ‘the enemy’. While I understand that a narrative requires an opposing force, an antagonist, the lack of creativity at play is evident.

It would be fine if this was simply a question of laziness and/or of what is financially feasible, however the danger behind not only removing civilians from the question of conflict and using modern states only in the context of ‘the enemy’ is the subtle propulsion of racism through the mind. The cementing of hostility.

Having played (and enjoyed!) most modern war games, it feels odd sometimes when I am tasked with killing people that I have a shared culture, language, and appearance with. This is the trouble of being caught in two worlds. Here I am the Arab. In games I am the American fighting for American dominance or the total other extreme of my shared identity: The terrorist.

In playing multiplayer, players are required to fill up the opposing roster on a team. However, does that really change anything? You aren’t given any insight or understanding into why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re just fighting, period. You’re digitally cosplaying as the enemy, nothing more. A virtual Marionette.

 

Churn.

 

A few weeks ago, I saw this. A new kind of war game. A game that is trying to show the rest of the world what being in a conflict is actually like.

This War of Mine‘ is a dark survival game being developed by 11 bit Studios  where you play as a group of civilians trying to stay alive in a city stumbling through the violence and misery of conflict. In this case, the opposing factions are in the background, they are the parameters, the fringes that can (and will) kill you.

While other games pushed out by large publishers like EA and Activision justify their lack of civilians as the removal of a financial, cultural, or mechanical burden, ‘This War of Mine’ allows room for both the conflict and the civilians.

Having lived (in parts and pieces) through war, I can attest to the realism of 11 bit’s approach. Being stuck in a large-scale conflict, you are not only full of dread and anxiety, but after a certain point you don’t care anymore who is right or wrong. You stop caring what side is winning or losing. None of it matters, you just want to try and live.

I watched this game being played at PAX East 2014. I watched someone having to make decisions about what to send out with survivors. Basically, since in the game you have to gather supplies to make sure everyone can stay alive, you need to choose to send certain people from your group out into the city to try to find some way of getting supplies to aid the group back at the home base. Sometimes people just don’t come back. Sometimes people are just gunned down.

While the game is mechanically interesting, it has a very strong aesthetic. The colors are dark, the survivors and their environments are broken.

There is no flourishing here either aesthetically or mechanically.

Some might be turned off by a game as dark as this, especially in the U.S. where we have become so used to winning (however you can define that) in the post-Vietnam era.

But this game is necessary.

It is necessary to an industry that has become an extension of the ‘America wins’ narrative and to all the gaming communities the world over to understand the horrible loss of identity and the shouldering of a dread that slowly consumes the heart. War is the excruciating process of being broken.

‘This War of Mine’ will hopefully get other devs to think of what’s possible, about the kinds of experience that people need to feel to understand.

“In war, not everyone is a soldier.”