This is personal, very personal for me. I was home on September 11, 2001, 600 feet away from the World Trade Center. I was in that dust cloud and lived with the burning fires and the ghostly grey mud that coated boots and hems and trouser legs. My kids had breathing problems and behavior problems and I had skin rashes and PTSD. I don't want sympathy or a medal or any sort of special treatment; just want to explain that this is personal for me.
Here's the thing. Grief is always personal and the loss of a loved one is always terrible; the particular circumstances surrounding it do not make the burden of grief any easier or harder to shoulder. I would not presume to tell anyone how long or much to grieve, or how to go about it; everyone is different. But while grief and mourning expressed at home or at one's place of worship are private matters, when public streets and parks are closed, that's a public concern. After six years, I just don't think that we need that kind of tribute, and according to The New York Times I'm not alone. It's not that I don't feel the anniversary should be commemorated. It's just that I think there are better ways to honor the dead: by harnessing all the fear and rage and grief and energy to do something constructive.
The Points of Light Foundation is a volunteer network that sponsors seasons of service, with the belief that important observances should be "Days on, not days off." One of their partner organizations is My Good Deed, which encourages people to set time aside every September 11 to help others. You can make a pledge on their site, anything from working with a local disaster preparedness organization, putting a day aside build a house with Habitat for Humanity to promising to be nice to a sibling or help an elderly neighbor. Each good deed changes the world, even if only a little bit.
Of course, there are games, too. Sort of. September 12 is not a game. I say so and the designer, Gonzalo Frasca says so. There are no victory conditions, no goals, and no way to change the outcome. Rather, it is a simulation. If you don't like simplistic, educational simulations, give it a miss. However, it does what games and interactive media do best, which is to allow a user to grasp a point or concept more clearly by doing than by looking. In September 12, you are in an Arab market with twisty, crowded streets. There are two kinds of people: civilians and terrorists. You have to kill terrorists. If you don't, they will blow things up. If you do, there will be civilian casualties, and after the fires are out and the wailing stops, more terrorists spring up. If you keep playing, eventually, you will have more terrorists than anything. It's a good exercise to keep in mind when you hear the reading of the names; it's not that those people shouldn't be remembered, but the countless civilians throughout the Middle East do not have an annual memorial, and yet are no less missed by their loved ones.
New York Defender is a very different thing completely. It is a game. In fact, it's a shooter and it's meant to be empowering, with tag lines like "go beyond your powerlessness and fight back with your mouse," and "for those of you who wish we had a chance to defend ourselves on 9/11." Honestly, I can't say how good it is; watching planes come towards the World Trade Center once was enough for me. In New York Defender, planes do come at the World Trade Center and you shoot them down. Of course, they come in faster and faster in greater numbers, and eventually one will get through.
And finally, one more not-a-game. Madrid, also by Gonzalo Frasca, was designed and intended as a tribute after the Madrid bombings. It's simple and sounds corny. There is a crowd of people, of all genders and ages. Each one is wearing a similar shirt: " I 'heart' New York," "I 'heart' Oklahoma City," "I 'heart' Madrid. " Like that. And each one is holding a candle. That's pretty much it, except there is a wind blowing, which you can hear, and you have to click on the candles to make them glow brighter and to keep them from blowing out. It was so so obvious, that I almost didn't click, and once I started and couldn't stop: I didn't want those candles to blow out. Games and interactive media can make a point more quickly and effectively than most things, and this one made me cry.
Earlier in the day, when I published this column, I put it up under my own byline by mistake. I apologize to Eleanor and our readers for the error and any confusion it's caused.
Wow...thanks for the thoughts, Eleanor. A great perspective from someone who really lived through the event and the aftermath. Your comments on the games were insightful as well...I think I'm going to have to re-install Shockwave just to get the full affect of September 12th.