archive: â€œRethinking Wargamesâ€: A Chance to Remaster Conflict|
Posted on Thursday, September 30 @ 12:33:39 CEST by rebecca
Interview with Ruth Catlow by Molly Hankwitz
â€œRethinking Wargamesâ€ 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 â€œreal lifeâ€ war behind your
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 â€˜Doctor Whoâ€™ [UK childrenâ€™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 Bossesâ€™ 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
â€œRethinking Wargamesâ€ (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
MH: Chess has a history of artistic interest. There is
Duchamp, obviously. The Situationists played and â€˜detournedâ€™
military games including chess. Who or what were your
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 â€œthe winner.â€
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 â€œPlay it by Trustâ€
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 â€œdeconstructiveâ€ 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? â€Velvet Strikeâ€ in which
combatants in the online game,â€Counter Strikeâ€ can use
software patches to create and then â€œsprayâ€ peace-
promoting â€˜graffitiâ€™ 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 â€œPixels, Politics and Playâ€ about his
games, â€œLa Migraâ€ and â€œCrosserâ€ 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 gameâ€™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
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 â€˜Low-fiâ€™) I knew I
couldn't attempt it alone. I'm not even a very good chess
player! : â€˜) 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 â€œPawns Uniteâ€ 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
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 â€œMind Olympicsâ€ 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 â€œThe Making of the Balkan Wars: The Gameâ€ 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! Iâ€™ve found it to be, a predominantly male
community with a strong hierarchical structure of â€œgrand
mastersâ€ 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 Catlowâ€™s many references:
Yoko Onoâ€™s â€œPlay it by Trustâ€
Chapman Brothers chess
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.