I'm calling this a review, but ultimately, let me be clear that I'm not actually advocating that anyone play either of these games except for educational purposes. I want to take a look at some interesting aspects of each because I think it's valuable to understand what goals their creators wanted to accomplish through these games, but these games really don't provide anything valuable either in terms of ideology or entertainment.
You've probably heard of Quest for Bush (a.k.a. Night of Bush Capturing) from various news sources or my own brief blog entry about it, most of which describe it as a game developed by Al Quaeda to attract new recruits. After playing it and comparing it to the game it's obviously based on, Quest for Saddam, I think that initial reports are somewhat inaccurate in how they portray the game's content. First, there is very little "development" evident in the game. It's a straightforward re-skinning of Quest for Saddam that simply exchanges references to Saddam with references to George W. Bush. Even calling it a mod is, I think, pretty generous considering how little work (relatively speaking, of course) went into creating Quest for Bush from the Quest for Saddam source material. What I think is important and interesting about both games, however, is the way their programmatic relationship reveals an underlying logical similarity between the anti-Saddam and anti-Bush messages. It's also interesting to consider the idea of "recruitment" as it applies to both games by looking at how each game relates to the ideological context it claims to represent.
You can find various accounts of how and why Quest for Saddam came about by Googling its creator, Jesse Petrilla. According to an interview with DOSGamesArchive.com, Petrilla created Quest for Al-Qa'eda: The Hunt for Bin Laden as "an outlet to express emotions of the September 11 attacks ... It's a way to work out the anger left over from America's most disastrous terrorist attack." Quest for Al-Qa'eda is developed on the Build engine (Duke Nukem) and takes place mostly in the desert. The simplistic DOS game encourages the player to shoot turban-wearing opponents who may (or may not be) caricatures of Osama bin Laden:Figure 1. Screenshot from Quest for Al-Qa'eda. All bad guys appear to be Bin Ladin, or at least caricatures of him.
There are attempts at humor spread throughout the game , but they mostly seem to be based on Middle Eastern and Arab stereotypes.
Petrilla created Quest for Saddam in 2003 as a kind of sequel to Quest for Al-Qa'eda, perpetuating the conflation of the Iraq War with the War on Terror and continuing the pattern of attempting to derive humor from stereotypes of Arabs. Since 2003, Petrilla seems to have continued his Islam-related activism by founding the United American Committee (UAC), a political action group focused on "promoting awareness of Islamist extremist threats in America." On September 10th, they hung Osama bin Laden in effigy in front of a mosque in Culver City, CA. I mention this because I think it helps explain the kind of message Quest for Saddam is trying to communicate, and while I can agree with them in condemning Islamic extremism, I don't think their approach is helping anything. Some might even call it hate-mongering.
In any case, the ease with which the Global Islamic Media Front transformed Quest for Saddam into Quest for Bush, a game that seems to portray jihad, should call attention to the problems with the content of the original. And these are problems which aren't intrinsic to violent video games. Creating a game that repeatedly portrays the killing of a specific individual or ideology and then distributing that game in a context that sincerely advocates the killing of that individual or ideology precludes any claims about that game's facetiousness. So whereas a hypothetical DOOM mod that replaced demon sprites with depictions of Arabs would insert xenophobic content where there previously was none, Quest for Bush simply switches the variables on an already political (and probably xenophobic) game's content.
The humor in Quest for Saddam continues the themes for Quest for Al-Qa'eda. The game is set in Humminumadad, and the Iraqi soldiers shout "Huminumanuma" as they charge at the player. The joke, it seems, is that people from Iraq look different and talk funny. The Sean Connery voiceover comments, upon seeing a map on the wall, "Is that sandpaper or a map of Iraq?"
So on to the games themselves. Here's a pair of screenshots that demonstrates the similarities:Figure 2 From Quest for Saddam, inside the mosque. Figure 3 From Quest for Bush, inside the American Camp.
If you look through the library of data files the game uses, you can see that whoever modified this game didn't have to do any programming at all. The skins, textures, and images are simply replaced with the new content, leaving the file names intact. This means that names for files which were meant to be insulting in Quest for Saddam are still intact in Quest for Bush, and the skin for Saddam in Quest for Saddam is still called Saddam.png when it's a representation of George Bush:Figure 4 From Quest for Saddam, Saddam skin, saddam.png. Figure 5 From Quest for Bush, Bush skin, saddam.png.
And the file for "Camel Cola", which has removed the offensive reference by pasting a Pepsi logo over it, is still called camel-cola.png:Figure 6 From Quest for Saddam, camel-cola.png. Figure 7 From Quest for Bush, camel-cola.png.
What's more, the skin for the player-character in Quest for Saddam replaces the iraqi soldier (Saddam) skin. So the enemy players encounter in Quest for Bush is exactly like the player in Quest for Saddam. And even though it wasn't obvious to me until I looked at the skin files, when one plays Quest for Saddam, one really is playing as a commando George Bush.
The most obvious changes include the signs and billboards scattered throughout the game (images of Saddam and Osama are replaced with images of Bush, other US Officials, Tony Blair, Prime Minister al-Maliki and others); the statue of Saddam is now simply an empty pedestal; and large structure which is a mosque (possibly based on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem) in the first level of Quest for Saddam is now identified as "American Base."
Some references, however, are not removed. Both games include a barracks which features a tampon dispenser on the wall. I'm not sure I get the joke, but I suppose it's suggesting that Iraqi soldiers are really women, a joke reinforced by the appearance later of poster of Saddam wearing lingerie.
Both games also feature creates of gas masks labeled "Fabrique in France." I think this is a dig at France for opposing the Iraq War (remember "Freedom Fries"?), but it's quite possible that the Global Islamic Media Front's modifiers simply didn't get this joke or think it was important enough to switch it around. Beyond this, the level design is identical, except that the Sean Connery / Cheech Marin voiceover is replaced with jihadist music (which is, dare I say, kind of catchy). So with all this in mind, do either of these games accomplish their goals? Quest for Saddam is allegedly humorous, and Quest for Bush is supposedly a recruitment game, so how are each of these goals served (or not) by the identical level design and game play? My sense is that neither game is really that successful. They aren't winning any awards for graphics, and their only appeal is really through reference to information and ideas external to the game. The games presume that you already have an opinion about Iraq or America and that you'll enjoy venting your frustrations about either by shooting iconic representations of those leaders. In the case of Quest for Saddam, I think it conflates supposed emotions about the War on Terror by positing them as a way we should feel about the War on Iraq. In the sense that Quest for Bush is a response to or parody of Quest for Saddam, it paints a picture of Iraq as a justification and site for jihad, reflecting the same conclusion recently reported by the National Intelligence Council.
In an interesting twist on the story, Jesse Petrilla is now releasing Quest for Saddam for free in apparent retaliation. (Though I can't really understand who would pay $14.95 for it). He also claims that Quest for Bush is a violation of his intellectual property rights, which it probably is, and he's talking about suing Al Qaeda over the violation.
Ian Bogost writes about whether games that share underlying code exhibit anxiety of influence for their predecessors. Here, I think the history of Quest for Bush is essential to understanding its message -- so much so that it's virtually incoherent without it. In both cases, the messages themselves are problematic, but it's important that the irony and antagonism of their relationship can be exposed by looking at the underlying code.