A previous version of this article stated that Kathy High said FBI agents contacted administrators at the Art Institute of Chicago. She said agents contacted the administrators of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This version has been corrected.
Terror-Themed Game Suspended
Saturday, March 8, 2008
NEW YORK -- In the video game that Wafaa Bilal created, his avatar is steely-eyed and hooded, with an automatic rifle at his side, an ammunition belt around his waist, a fuse in his hand and the mien of a knightly suicide-bomber. He is the "Virtual Jihadi."
The Iraqi-born, Chicago-based artist said he adapted his game from an earlier version made by al-Qaeda's media branch to raise questions about Americans' conceptions of the enemy in Iraq.
His work was briefly exhibited Thursday night at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. The game was projected on a giant screen so that one viewer at a time could play -- until administrators shut down the show Friday morning. The institute needed time to review the show's "origin, content and intent," said William N. Walker, a vice president.
To Bilal, who said he was arrested several times for his artwork in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, it was censorship.
"It's an art show that is trying to solicit a conversation among people," Bilal said. "And when you shut it down, you say you don't have any right to say your point of view."
The game has a tortuous history. It began as a downloadable video game, Quest for Saddam, that was devised by a young American and allowed the player to kill identical Iraqis in the desert while hunting their leader. Then the Global Islamic Media Front, the media branch of al-Qaeda, created its own version, Night of Bush Capturing, changing the characters so that the player kills identical Americans and ultimately President Bush.
Bilal hacked into the al-Qaeda version and created a character based on himself: a faculty member at the Art Institute of Chicago who loses his father and brother to the war in Iraq. The character becomes an al-Qaeda recruit and hunts Bush.
That was enough to get the FBI involved. Someone complained to the bureau, whose agents contacted the administrators of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Kathy High, head of the arts department, said in an interview.
Paul Holstein, a spokesman for the FBI's Albany office, would neither confirm nor deny her account.
"Under certain circumstances, it would be appropriate for FBI agents to attend an event open to the public for the limited purposes of determining if there's anything relevant to national security," he said. "If agents attended the event and determined there wasn't anything relevant to national security, they wouldn't pursue it further."
Bilal said he hopes to raise questions about stereotypes of Iraqis, and about conceptions of what creates a suicide bomber.
"I wanted to let people see how bad it feels to be labeled and hunted," he said.