“Rethinking Wargames” is
an online 3-Player Chess Game which questions the politics of conflict-oriented
traditional chess. Players can change the rules and develop their own,
non-black-and-white images of the board itself, adding them to the site.
To play see: http://www.low-fi.org.uk/rethinkingwargames/
MH. Ruth Catlow: RC
MH: : Is there
a particular “real life” war
behind your online game?
RC: The night
before the protest march to stop the war against Iraq, in London in
February 2003, I was watching a late-night rerun of ‘Doctor
Who’ (UK children’s classic, time-traveling sci-fi). In
this particular episode, English and German foot soldiers disobey their
orders and join forces against a giant, scary rubber fish who threatens
to destroy all humanity. By recognizing the urgency of their situation,
the soldiers go against protocol, against the hierarchy, focus their
attention on the real threat, kill the fish-monster, and avert annihilation.
At the million-strong demonstration the following day, protest banners
declared “No to the Bosses’ War”, “Not in My
Name,” “Individuals against War in Iraq,” “The
Little People say NO to War,” “Listen to the People.” Protesters
came together, across social and racial divides, to express their dissatisfaction
and disagreement with international leaders whose proposed war was clearly
not in their best interests. The most common objection seemed to be to
the spilling of “innocent” civilian blood to punish an “evil
despot.” People saw the attack as likely to lead to an endlessly
spiraling cycle of killing, by both leaders and international terrorists.
“Rethinking Wargames” (RW), and the ideas behind it, evolved in
this context, absorbing the concerns of the protesting civilians
and focusing my attention on questions of the agency of civilians in world
politics. It was interesting to draw parallels between the pawns
of a chess game and the gathering crowds.
MH: Chess has a history of artistic interest.
There is Duchamp, obviously. The Situationists played and “detourned” military
games, including chess. Who or what were your particular inspirations?
RC: The project uses the game of chess because chess is about
power and strategy. RW is an effort to find strategies that
challenge existing power structures and their concomitant war
game of chess suggests ways in which these drives and attributes
can contribute to the eventual supremacy of one tribe or nation
by color) over another. It prescribes the binding roles and
relationships between royalty, nobility, clergy, military, and
it stands, serves as a schematic for social, psychological,
and emotional structures, mirrored in our major institutions.
sharpens the human
mind to the complexities of a certain logic and tradition of
exploiting other human beings in order to be “the winner.”
Duchamp is an archetypal chess player, an intensely competitive
strategist within given frameworks. Chess may have been one
of the few frameworks
in which he failed to see theabsurd at play. But, Yoko Ono's “Play
it by Trust” is a bold
feminine intervention in which all-white pieces play on an
all-white chess board. It poses a rhetorical challenge to conflict
based on a difference
of color. This work provided a context for my own “deconstructive” project.
However, I wanted to rework the game to engage viewers/players
in a more comprehensive self-questioning of the purpose of
their own competitive
tendencies. I was also interested in the Chapman Brothers'
chess board, which offers a more fleshy and tribal reading
of the game by remodeling
the pieces as sexualized and racialized combatants.
MH: Do you have a favorite on-line game?
RC: ”Velvet Strike,” in which combatants in the online game “Counter
Strike” can use software patches to create and
then “spray” peace-promoting “graffiti” onto
virtual warring environments. You can read hysterical
responses by disturbed war gamers on the VS website and
they are very revealing. There are some
parallels between the VS responses and those I received
from irritated (and often humorless) chess experts and
fans refusing to acknowledge
the parallels I drew between the original game and human
society. In this context, Rafael Farjardo's text “Pixels,
Politics and Play” about
his games, “La Migra” and “Crosser” is
very informative, though I only came across it towards
the end of the development
new 3 Player Chess. He understands the role of humour
and despair in communication through games and writes
really well, as apractitioner, about the potentials and
games as activist tools.
MH: Can you tell us more about how the game evolved?
RC: Yes, in February 2003 I posted a simple image of
the chessboard reconfigured, with all the pawns united
a question to
all chess players: “Under
what conditions could the pawns in this game win”
Ideas for the game’s interventions evolved from the emailed contributions
from the early participants and from Robert Axelrod's “Evolution
of Cooperation,” in which he carried out scientific research
into the conditions in which cooperation can evolve amongst egoists,
the intervention of a central authority.
In the newly created Activate: 3 Player Chess,
pawns are played by a third player, and they
pieces from being
captured. If the pawns succeed in blocking the
aggression of the higher pieces, the checkerboard
checks of the battleground disappear in the undergrowth.
MH: Had you designed other online games before RW?
RC: No, so when I embarked on the project (with a commission from another British
net-art group called ‘Low-fi’), I knew I couldn't attempt it
alone. I'm not even a very good chess player! : ‘) In retrospect,
evolving a successful game is in the clarity of its rationale, and there
was an excellent collaboration of minds feeding into its development. The
commission also allowed me to pay a programmer, Adrian Eaton, to work on
its technical aspects and the project came to life through various stages,
beginning with the circulation of the reconfigured chessboard. Participants’ responses
can be viewed on the project website, along with visualizations of proposed
rule changes, the research blog, and an image bank.
Once the decision had been made to turn the project from a thought-experiment
into a fully functional online game, my “Pawns Unite” blog
was an invaluable research tool and documenting my process, alongside the
feedback and input of contributors from all around the world, including
International Chess Grand Masters, an erudite ludic expert, complexity
scientists, game designers, artists, philosophers and computer programmers
was much easier. The early posts in the blog show clearly the mind-melting
process of understanding more about chess and synthesizing radical new
peace-promoting rules in a way that would preserve the competition and
drama of the game! A very interesting record of thought.
Besides widening the circle of participants through your questionnaire,
has the game been publicized?
RC: It was not a questionnaire, consciously not a questionnaire. Questionnaires
are not to be trusted. ;-) It is my impression that they allow one to prove
whatever it is one wishes to prove by skimming for peoples' conditioned
responses and ignoring complexity. The original post was more like a visual
riddle that people were invited to contemplate and share their responses.
The game has been publicized through a range of networked-media-arts email
lists and online forums for chess players. Then it really came into its
own when Furtherfield entered the “Mind Olympics” for the Urban
Manoeuvres-Street Olympics in Bristol. We played a series of impromptu
games on “prepared” conventional chessboards with other “sports
people” and the customers of an outdoor, waterside cafe. These games
inspired a lot of laughter and rabid competitiveness, and all players noted
how the new rules really messed with their minds. Chess is played in the
streets and in various public spaces all over the world, so the future
promotion of the game includes plans for impromptu, 3-Player, Chess tournaments.
The first is planned for San Francisco (with Hostel Projects). It was also
exhibited at The Baltic (Gateshead) and Limehouse Town Hall (London). The
installations combined access to the online game and a “prepared” chessboard
and score sheet. Remotely located audience members could play the new game
with visitors to the exhibition. Then it toured in an exhibition called “The
Making of the Balkan Wars: The Game” by Personal Cinema and traveled
to Greece and Spain.
Other plans include enlisting the committed interest of serious chess players
and building an online tournament facility so that a new, 3-Player, Chess
community is able to evolve and develop strategies. So far I have had almost
no luck in enlisting the serious interest of any professional chess players!
I’ve found it to be a predominantly male community with a strong
hierarchical structure of “grand masters” with limited tolerance
for upstarts and a huge love of the game as it stands. Those kind enough
to give me feed back don't like the chance element in the game, as they
feel it reduces skill-level. So, the project is not over, yet!
And, believe it or not, I've been approached by a teacher in Australia who
claims they are playing the game with their pupils as part of a peace-studies
programme. Of course, I'm really pleased to have this game used in this
way and wish I had more time to promote this kind of use.
MH: A wonderful project, thanks, Ruth!
links to Catlow’s many references:
Ono’s “Play it by Trust”
Politics and Play
Making of the Balkan Wars: The Game
on Robert Axelrod's
Ruth Catlow is an artist and co-director of Furtherfield, set up in 1997 with
artist Marc Garrett and inspired by BackspaceCyberlounge (London 96-99), an
open-access, experimental space where its members, all types, and description
could work, plot, and play. Furtherfield is a small, flexible organization
with low, core running costs whose aim is to support and cultivate bottom up,
emerging creative activity and behaviour.