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archive: “Rethinking Wargames”: A Chance to Remaster Conflict
Posted on Thursday, September 30 @ 12:33:39 CEST by rebecca

Political Games
Interview with Ruth Catlow by Molly Hankwitz

“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: : 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 commanders' 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 machineries. A traditional game of chess suggests ways in which these drives and attributes can contribute to the eventual supremacy of one tribe or nation (as distinguished by color) over another. It prescribes the binding roles and relationships between royalty, nobility, clergy, military and militia. The game as it stands, serves as a schematic for social, psychological and emotional structures mirrored in our major institutions. It sharpens the human mind to the complexities of a certain logic/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 the absurd 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 remodelling the pieces as sexualized and racialized combatants. MH:Do you have a favorite on-line game? ”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 of the new 3 Player Chess. He understands the role of humour and despair in communication through games and writes really well, as a practitioner, about the potentials and limitations of games as activist tools.

MH: Can you tell us more about how the game evolved?

Yes in February 2003 I posted a simple image of the chessboard reconfigured, with all the pawns united with 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, without the intervention of a central authority

In the newly created Activate:3 Player Chess, pawns are played by a 3rd player and they preserve peace by stopping other pieces from being captured. If the pawns succeed in blocking the aggression of the higher pieces, the checkerboard is overgrown with grass and the black and white 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 an image of a chessboard rearranged so that the higher pieces were placed in opposition to the pawns. This graphic was sent with a question to all chess players- 'under what conditions could the pawns in this game win?'. Participants responses can be viewed on the project website along with visualisations 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.

MH: Besides widening the circle of participants through your questionnaire, has the game been publicized?

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 publicised 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!

For links to Catlow’s many references:

Yoko Ono’s “Play it by Trust”
http://www.artnet.com/artwork/52150/_Yoko_Ono_Play_it_by_Trus t.html

Chapman Brothers chess
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml? xml=/arts/2003/07/01/bchess128.xml

“Velvet Strike”

Pixels, Politics and Play -

The Making of the Balkan Wars: The Game -

Notes on Robert Axelrod's Evolution of Cooperation -the Pawns Unite Blog-

Ruth Catlow is an artist and co-director of Furtherfield, set up in 1997 with artist Marc Garrett and inspired by Backspace Cyberlounge (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 organisation with low, core running costs whose aim is to support and cultivate bottom up, emerging creative activity and behaviour.


Molly Hankwitz is a Lecturer in Media and Communication at Queensland University of Technology and a new media writer.

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