Some context...

Douglas Edric Stanley


I’ve been following the various forums commenting my Invaders! installation as much as my busy schedule allows me (I’ll be away for a residency all week, so the assassins will have to start looking elsewhere). At this point, it goes without saying that I am apparently responsible for the latest flash-in-the-pan in the world of video game controversies. It appears that controversy is easier to provoke than more significant forms of experience, and given the current reaction, I suppose the only conclusion I can come to is that the piece has failed in more ways than one. Whatever the case, as ultimately it is not for me to dictate people’s appreciation (or lack of it) and the work has to speak for itself, I have so far avoided trying to justify the work, in any moral sense of the word. Art is not about morality, or is so only at its’ darkest moments. But this does not preclude an ethical approach, and to an ethical discussion of it. And it does not preclude offering some personal context to the work and its inception.

Since this is now a blog eat blog world, and I have been taking advantage these past few years of the platform that blogging offers me, I believe that I have at least some responsibility in taking seriously the many comments, especially from those within the gaming community, and obviously over at Kotaku where the response was the most varied and interesting. So here is an attempt at some context, for what its worth…

Sadly, the work has been discussed, largely (but with some exceptions) based on this early report in which the journalist did not even play the game. For me at least, a video game is at some point always going to be about its gameplay. Ironically, the same journalist finally did play the game, and found some merit in it. But by then, the cat was out of the bag, and we had a media circus on our hands — at which point I simply shut the piece off, and turned off ongoing discussions with the many news outlets that wanted not to discuss the piece, but instead my reaction to the reaction, which again is not really my role. News cycles thankfully are short, and it is my impression that with Leipzig now over, we can all calm down a little and those interested can try again to discuss the game itself. But from the point I was attributed as “hating freedom” (on what merits, please?), the whole thing was basically Game Over as far as I’m concerned, and confirmed my original concern that a commercial games convention might not a viable venue for work of this sort. Somewhere in there, I naively figured that gamers, given all the controversies they have weathered over all these years, would have the sophistication to see in the gameplay itself something else than a simple black vs. white, for vs. against, you are with me vs. you are against me posture, or “message”. There is no real “message” in GTA, and hopefully there is no real “message” in my work, and certainly not that I hate freedom. I continue to believe that the game offers something far different than hatred in fact, and personally I always felt a certain sense of release at the end of each wave, just as in the original game. Just as I felt some very mixed emotions, difficult to neatly organize into “pro” or “contra”, when the whole “War on Terror” kicked in. Sure, there is something definitely ambiguous about defending the towers in a game, and some complex emotions that, indeed, might be a little too raw, or odd, for some, even in an 8-bit representation that is highly stylized and presents itself immediately as such. But whatever one decides in the end, I have heard many a cry within the gaming world that we need to take into account the internal logic of games, and that means actually understanding the mechanics of its gameplay, and respecting its figurative tropes. In this regard, it really surprised me that Kotaku would be the first ones to fall into this trap. I can understand in the case of Fox News and NY Daily News, but Kotaku?

This was the press release, made by the organizers of the exhibit, and never a direct quote by me. I should also point out that neither I, nor the organizers, claimed that this piece was “anti anything”. The curator who commissioned this piece called it a “critical commentary”. This is not really the way I would have phrased it, since I don’t believe art is in any way equivalent to commentary, but I don’t see any real problem in his statement either. I was perfectly fine with it, and as I said before “I approved this message”. But I think it important that we understand that the role of “critical” work is not to provide a specific message “against” anything, and I know for a fact that the organizers of the exhibition and I are on the same wavelength on this issue. “Critical”, is often used expediently to describe disapproval, but it is more effective when considered a form of discernment, distancing, or scrutinization. This should be sufficient to explain our willingness to defend the irony and ambiguity of the piece, and should have been an obvious flag that this was not a flippant piece merely seeking to shock. The events of September 11th were in many ways complex, and as I have stated before, a complex, i.e. the site of unprocessed events. This is perhaps the true meaning of the event, and why people are so upset over my rehashing it: perhaps September 11th is entirely un-processable, and that we wish it to remain so. This too is a valid point, and I have noted it.

It is absolutely true that there was no “War on Terror” when I originally made this piece. It is also true that this was a very different piece back then. In fact, on September 10th I was simply working on a mod that upon waking up the following day had taken on an eerily new significance. The whole connection happened almost as an accident.

On the first day of the exhibit, I made the following statement to AP: “I originally produced the work for my own needs, as a personal attempt to unravel what had become an ontological knot due to the many symbolic layers that had mixed themselves in with an extremely violent act.” I’m sure I’ve pissed off a people right there with my rhetoric, but I really do mean it quite literally: I had no idea at the time what to make of the whole damn thing, hence the ontological knot. To put it in a manner of speech for those in the forums: I just kept saying to myself what the f@#$ was that!?. On the one hand we had innocent citizens perishing in an extreme violence heretofore unseen in such a public form of witness, and yet the entire thing felt precisely choreographed for us, almost — gulp — sophisticated in its use of our media as a form of warfare. They was frikkin’ with us Americans on multiple levels, and using our own language to boot. They had obviously been watching our movies, and playing our games. At which point I started to realize (and I was not alone in this) that Al Qaeda had somehow tapped, quite intimately, into our collective projections of fear and destruction, and had invoked an often rehearsed metaphor of invaders descending from the sky. Twisted, indeed.

Since then, this whole event has evolved over time, as has this piece, as the cultural discourse on the World Trade attacks shifted. We have seen many different cycles in this process, and many attempts to re-appropriate the symbols and language used to describe the event itself. Meanwhile, we as Americans have resorted to tying ourselves ever tighter to the icon of the terrorist’s explosive-laden belt. At the symbolic level of political theater, it is as if we have decided that in order to give truth to our military resolve, we somehow had to integrate the figure of the terrorist as our figurehead. A strange emblem, indeed.

For my part, I have lived through a very different experience of a city under siege by terrorists, held hostage by random acts of extreme violence that paralyzed us for months, and yes there was gruesome dismemberment and death involved. I am sure those wishing my death will regret to learn that I and members of my family were to have been precisely at the time and location where one of the dismantled bombs was set to go off. It was a sickening prospect, as it was precisely designed to kill and maim children. So I get you, when you tell me that terrorists aren’t f@$#ing around, and that this still is the real deal. I know this very well to be true. And sure, the New York and Washington attacks had no comparison to those that I lived through and give me no understanding of the suffering of those who perished. But it does give me some perspective. And I remember a very different response, and a very different form of military and political resolve. Above all, and this is the point, I remember a very different use of political iconography. These are all choices we make collectively, and it takes place as much on the physical and political battlefield, as it does in the media war. Video games, as many have pointed out, have not been neutral on this front.

But, as you have correctly reminded us — and thank you for looking —, despite all this posturing this was obviously not what the piece was originally about. To suggest otherwise would be absurd. For Leipzig I was simply trying to return to that moment, thick as it is now with the veneer of the current war strategy plastered over it. I still remember a very disturbing emotion, at once very raw, and yet immediately mediated. Against all of the bazillions of quotations that all of us have placed around it, I was attempting to tap back into that instant, and revisit it. Perhaps my choice of a quote here and an icon there suggested a too-obvious form of caricature that has attached itself to this event. Perhaps the idea itself is purely tasteless. Perhaps. Meanwhile, as I switch the channels on my american TV set, commercials bombard me with “World Trade Center Commemorative Coins!” in yet another attempt to bury this moment in insignificance. So, if people out there feel I was trivializing the event in giving it the form I did, I can accept that, and I’m certainly willing to hear their arguments — quite numerous at last count in the various forums. But consider our current context nonetheless.

That’s pretty damn funny.

The way in which the game play was designed, it is actually possible to endlessly “beat” the game by simply getting enough people to shoot at it with their arms, feet, head, whatever. The Invaders! will of course never give up, but that was also the power of coin-operated games. The “Game Over” screen is an integral part of its narrative arc; one can nevertheless delay that arrival, finding different strategies of keeping it at bay, and that was always the emotional power of this form of gaming.

When Andreas Lange asked me to make the piece multiplayer, one of the first things that I tried to do was to find a balance between playing the game by yourself, and playing it with others. I spent quite a lot of time on this aspect, and ran several different simulations on the frequency required to actually keep the game playing, eternally. In one simulation, the piece had ran over a week, and had an astronomical score. I even changed the bit-width of certain variables, just to make sure that scores could grow big enough. This possibility was programmed-in, if you will, as an extreme possibility, and I was quite hoping to see someone attempt it in Leipzig. Now, since you have to actually move your body with a certain velocity to actually shoot, this will obviously tire you out. But it does not preclude using others to take over while you recuperate, or even mounting some sort of mechanical device in front of the camera and just let the thing play on autopilot. There’s always a way to trick the machine. You can shoot the way I suggested in the instructions, and then there’s how people will actually do it. I’ve seen videos on the web of a fellow that pretty much figured out the necessary velocity to trick the camera into giving him multiple shots (he also looked pretty silly doing it, but at least he got a high score). But my point is that there were some creative strategies to be found there, and I figured that some ingenious soul (American or otherwise) might find their own trick. Who knows how long people could have kept up the fight?

I’ll leave the mathematics part for another debate (I was probably talking about algorithms, but I might be wrong, feel free to send me the quote). But I have definitely said in the past that video games are not de facto Art, which probably — in most discussions — refers to the “fine arts”. It is definitely an “art form”, but I have always said that the whole “games as art” debate is less about art, and what-is-art (yawn, boring!), than about art institutions and therefore respectability. Art institutions have long, complex histories and ideologies, and I’m not sure video games want to be a part of some of these institutions anyway. But they are definitely of a different ilk in their current form, and I also think that video games, the industry, and its most ardent proponents, still have a lot to learn on this front. There is definitely a tendency towards a fairly myopic vision of gaming and its reach, and yes this includes the core gamer crowd. There is a whole world out there of critical gaming, art games, call-it-what-you-will that I suspect many people out there have never heard of.

Oh, and if people think that by creating a minor scandal in a commercial game faire I am somehow moving myself up the art ladder, they clearly have no idea how that world ticks.

Yes, that might indeed be true. But I’ve always signed my work as a form of responsibility — unlike, by the way, some of those making threats not only against me, but against members of my family. If that makes me a “douche bag” who deliberately offends so many people and then tries to pass it off as “art”, so be it. I don’t see the artistic merit in merely offending people, but then again, I think your point is that this work was not really all that successful as a piece of art. And that too, might be true. I would like to mention again, that I think it is a shame that this debate is not discussing the gameplay, or at least starting from that point, instead of vague first impressions concerning the work, riddled as they were with very specific incendiary rhetoric, almost designed for a headline on Fox News. But back to your point, I happen to think that the work was not in any way an insult to Space Invaders, a brilliant game that has taken on its own mythological status, and that in fact my take on it is really something else altogether, and that most people get this, or should. Space Invaders is, in fact, like many Japanese games, a very innocent affair, and joyously so. One fights with no clear political context, and it is as ethically ambiguous as cleaning your bathroom of mold, or shooing away ants while you picnic. So when I allude to certain aspects of that game, I am very obviously reading it on a whole other level. I am, of course, reading history backwards, as if that wasn’t already obvious. If somehow someone confuses this with the original game itself, or its makers, it is unfortunate, and I am indeed very sorry for that.

I’ve never been all that big on performance art myself. But if you wanted to make a game of that, I’d definitely want to play it.

Update (27/08): Ok, so it appears that most of the debate has finally turned into something more constructive, even if I still feel that the whole thing is quite overblown and not worthy of our time. However, there remains one final complaint that I find quite valid, and indeed cause for confusion, and that is concerning why I actually took the piece down. I tried to adress this in my original statement, but given the numerous demands for comment, apparently more context is needed there too. Here is more or less what I said to a journalist last night:

The reasons for pulling the work are numerous and complex. There was above all the whole tone of the media circus which I have already commented at length, and of course I had placed the organizers of the Games Convention in something of a bind due to the fact that Taito is one of their clients. On the legal front, we discussed the matter briefly and came to the conclusion that any claims of infringement were untenable, and that it was important to defend a work of art in principle. But unfortunately, other concerns had in the meantime raised their heads, thanks (in part, but not entirely) to the various threats on me (whatever) and my family (wtf!?) — in other words that modern form of the witch-hunt, a favourite sport of our times. It was at this point that I made my decision, which obviously places serious doubts on my credibility (no big deal, I’ll survive), but at least had the advantage of slowing somewhat the momentum of the most extreme elements. For all of these reasons, and others too involved to get into here, I again take full responsibility for the decision to take down the work.

Obviously people will have their own take on all this, and I invite you to think whatever you will.

Original Comments:

2008-08-25 12:32:41


I think you’re not right when you say that a commercial fair is not the right place to show some art stuff… It can make interesting confrontations. There is not the comfort of the usual art circuit, and your work is always unexpected, even unwanted, but it has the virtue to show up things. This time of course, it wasn’t very interesting, as most people who wrote about “invaders!” (including myself here) didn’t play it, and even bother to check the descriptions of the installation, everybody is just reacting to his own fantasms.
I’m afraid it is not completely over, there will be aftershocks. As you may have noticed a not too clever french tech media wrote a few years ago a paper losely based on kotaku’s… Those sympathetic spotty face gamers (I hope they’re not adults) don’t call you an artist, but an “artist”, what means a lot, of course.

2008-08-25 15:59:17



2008-08-25 22:20:11


It was interesting to read your take on things.

When I first read about this on Kotaku, I was quite offended. I did not realize that there was a purpose or consideration behind it beyond shock value. I understand why you were frustrated with the coverage. When I later read about it with a little more context, my impressions changed dramatically.

…And then I found out you had removed the piece, complete with a surly letter that contradicts itself by saying that you take responsibility while insulting your audience. You gave up on your public audience without providing context and then decided to write an extensive piece on your barely-read blog, which further reinforces the idea that your audience is incapable.

The exhibit garnered offense and outrage - as you should have expected - but it also generated thoughtful discourse. It has all the qualities of successful, controversial art, except one: not even the artist would stand behind it. You didn’t give your audience a chance to get past their initial emotional response before you declared the exercise futile. I don’t think your art failed, I think you failed to commit.

2008-08-25 23:15:56


I was more offended by the idea that you pulled your “art”. As an artist it does us a diservice when an artist doesn’t stand behind their work, regardless of the medium.. Since you didn’t like how your work interacted with the world around it you pulled it. Art envokes emotion and that is what it should do but sadly it wasn’t the emotion you would have preferred it seems like. If you feel strongly about your art, PLEASE STAND BEHIND IT! Otherwise it looks like that all that was wanted was attention.

2008-08-25 23:37:28


@Marcelo : unfortunately, standing would deliver this message(search for an easy controversial attention) even more surely dont’t you think. I guess the choice was quite hard to make. Funny it happened with a seven years old art piece (and a seven years old event too).

2008-08-26 23:14:50


i just think it’s pretty weak that you pulled the piece down, and talked shit on americans. i’m american and i loved it then you had to pull that shit and be an asshole.

way to sell out.

2008-08-27 06:06:48


“The exhibit garnered offense and outrage - as you should have expected - but it also generated thoughtful discourse.”

No. No, it certainly did not. And if I came to the stabbing realization that it was one of my own works that was the origin of such an inflammatory, knee-jerk reaction then I’d be pretty disappointed, too. But you can continue to immerse yourself in the flotsam of Gamer Blog Brand X for your “thoughtful discourse” while the rest of us wonder why a pack of rabid fucking dogs are always howling about how mainstream culture will never seriously consider the expressive potential of interactive entertainment. Knock yourself out. Please.

2008-08-29 02:43:35

You are an idiot Douglas

I like how, instead of explaining yourself and the piece, you take unfair shots at people and organizations like Fox News. According to the headline on

“Sept. 11 Version of ‘Space Invaders’ Draws Fire at Video-Game Convention”

Hmmm. Doesn’t sound like that was wrong or a lie. I read their article to see if you had a reason to attack them or if you are just another fucking moron who takes pride in pissing in the face of those telling the truth.

It turns out that the article was actually written with no bias, and had quotes from many different sources telling both sides.

But that is typical of most people who have no one to blame but themselves. They find someone, and for some reason, Fox News has become the target of your fire, which is odd because they didn’t make this breaking news. They put it in their SciTech section.

You actually had my respect for coming out to explain yourself (or attempt to), but you lost it completely when you do the same thing that liberal fuckheads who actually do hate this country constantly go after.

Anyone who resorts to cheap shots is pathetic.

2008-08-29 02:46:12

You are an idiot Douglas

Also, I will agree with Josh, except for the “I like it” part.

You talked a lot of shit instead of just trying to calm everyone by trying to explain why you made it and what people misinterpreted from it.

2008-08-30 09:38:02

Douglas Edric Stanley

@”You are and idiot Douglas”: Hi. Thanks for the comment. To bad you used a bogus email, as I would have sent you a courtesy response.

I originally came to the same conclusion as you on this one. I used Google to keep me informed in more or less real-time with news reports and as I received most of the official news reports in order, I could see very clearly who was reading whom. So from the first of the three news reports that werely focused entirely on the art-as-scandal aspect of the work (yes, there were others, mostly European), the Fox News (,2933,407821,00.html) version of the story was indeed the least incindiary. I even commented as such in one of my updates.

At first, I thought: those cheeky bastards, they actually turned out to have the most objectivity on the whole matter. All of the necessary links back to the original posts, blogs, comments or press releases were there, and were apparently giving people the opportunity to make up their own minds. Crimey, they even went back to my very first post on the game, way back in October 2001.

But this indeed is the subtlely of Fox News and goes right to the heart of what has gone wrong with journalism in general. Ultimately, facts are nothing but facts — there is no Truth there, if anywhere — and have about the same locutionary value as commenting the weather. By merely reporting that there IS controversy, added with a little “who said what and when”, have we actually learned anything? This idea of “both sides of the issue” misses the point that what we are talking about here is purely derivitive journalism. At least Kotaku went back to the piece itself and tried to find out what the hell was going on. As I have mentioned too many times already, by then it was already too late, but I do have to salute that effort for a little contextualization. But going back to the Fox report, there is a whole ideological subtext of nudge-nudge, wink-wink in the Fox report that is unambiguously complicitous, as in the opening line (“well, it’s definitely eye-catching”), all the way to the conclusion:

« perhaps the best take on the whole brouhaha came from a wry commenter dubbed “wholenuther” on kotaku. “it’s better tha[n] last year’s commemorative ‘frogger: hurricane katrina’ edition,” he or she observed. »

Ok, that’s pretty funny, and I’ve gotta hand it to Fox that they certainly have style. But it is still a mistake to believe that by merely citing sources we have somehow met any criteria of journalistic deontology. It is also interesting to note that many of the commenters on Kotaku and elsewhere made a far more significant effort of actually ferreting out previous comments hidden in obscure posts from my blog or in interviews long since forgotten, and even went so far as to read frame by frame videos of previous incarnations of the work. They were, indeed, doing the legwork for the official journalists who then went on to contact me with specific questions based on information prepared for them in the blogs.

This is the part of the news cycle that makes me cringe. Are you really going to learn anything by scouring through some obscur artist’s blog? It all feels a little too LonelyGirl15 for my tastes.

In the end, it is most probably an error to actually take seriously this entire affair by discussing it. The artist’s role is not to comment, even worse to comment the comments, and thereby fall into the tautological trap of Communication. But I have always been fascinated with these phenomena at the same time, and fascinated like everyone else with Fox News. But this fascination does not blind me entirely to the fact (indeed) that while it might at first feel like that old-fashioned objectivity we grew up believing in, it is — in all actuality — nothing but a trope.

2008-09-01 04:55:23


Wow. I haven’t been following this whole mess, but I stumbled upon your site recently and was impressed and excited by what you’re doing and interested in. Anyway, having dealt with a few minor (major?) dramas (most of us have), I’m truly sorry you are forced to deal with this shitstorm. Certainly it is hard to see in the hail and pellets, and it might not even be true, but I think I recently read ~”any attention is good attention” in the New York Times.

2008-09-20 22:25:58


I realize that I am a bit late to the party in commenting on this post, but I wanted to put in a couple of thoughts regardless. It occurs to me that, indeed, consumer shows may not necessarily be a conducive environment for introducing people to thought-provoking art in any form, loaded as they are with the pretext of inducing capitalistic fever in the conference-goers. A quieter, more introspective forum would produce different reactions from [different] players. That being said, Invaders! is a piece that warrants discussion from the type of people likely to attend such a conference — that is, those that are able to bypass the is-this-art discussion AS WELL AS understand the history, mechanics, and narrative undertones of the original Space Invaders well enough to have a clear perception of the piece’s effect.

I agree that a “reaction to the reaction” is catering to the wrong impulse. I disagree with the statement that, “The artist’s role is not to comment,” though, Douglas. The disorganized state of the community as it is, there is intrinsic value in each of us communicating our experiences. Your role as an artist in this space is [at least to me] incredibly interesting, and I appreciate your putting aside that inhibition long enough to write this post.