The Art of Gaming:
Alien Invasion

Tony Ward (in conversation with Micz Flor)

SYNWORLD: Alien Invasion is built on the all-time-classic Space Invaders, including dramatic changes. You bring issues of racial politics and Black Identity from a Chinese point of view into the gaming industry. How did you originally conceive the project?

Tony Ward: Alien Invasion originally was conceived following an invitation to the International Symposium of Electronic Arts 98 in Manchester UK. Elaborating on the themes of Revolution and Terror, I decided to develop the game Alien Invasion. Within the game culture you can see an obsession with shooting and killing of alien life forms. I was interested in that human approach to alien life. The lack of understanding and the impossibility of communication leads to games such as Space Invaders, where the aliens are basically terminated before they reach earth. Iíve been brought up with such a game culture as a child and it reflects to me the general attitude towards aliens. And if you generalise that notion, then it is not just about a creature but about foreign concepts on the whole. Whatever foreign approaches, the first they do is shoot it, so they are not going to come and take over the whole world. Certainly, that reflects a lot of people's attitudes about racism. The initial reaction always is very defensive and aggressive towards other cultures, not because they are a threat but mainly because of a lack of understanding of their culture. Alien Invasion is built on such considerations of issues of racial identity.

SYNWORLD: In your adaptation of the Space Invaders concept, you substituted the aliens with the cartoon character Fu Manchu. Instead of refusing permission to land to alien space crafts, now the approaching fleet consists of a Chinese stereotype.

Ward: I chose the old Space Invaders and replaced the graphics with a caracter Fu Manchu, an evil character created in Britain as part of the mainstream culture. It portraits the British view on the Chinese as an evil villain who takes over the whole world. The character also looks like an alien. Instead of hiding behind bunkers, as in the original Space Invaders, here the player crouches behind clones of the tower of London, prime symbol of British imperialism.

SYNWORLD: Do you believe gaming has reached a level of general acceptance within popular culture? It certainly became a substantial part of the cultural industries. Where in other fields of popular culture, such as the music industries, the medium is often used for political messages, within the game industry at the moment that does not seem to be the case.

Ward: The gaming industry is now so established that it seems to me to be one of the hardest media to actually change. But sure, there certainly is a potential in the gaming culture for subversive work. At the moment I am working on a game built upon the idea of exercise rather than the simulation of killing. We are creating a game using the old Olympics games as a stencil. I want to ponder issues of aspiration. Traditionally one wanted to be a gentleman, building a code of conduct for gentlemen-like behavior, you have to have manners. In games you are facing different modes of achievement, it is about competition between people, about winning and high score tables. I want to bring in the concept of exercise and body building, where you need to constantly train and built on the result you want. That will also lead to different interfaces with which to play the game, like those punch balls you get at fun fairs. The gaming medium to me reflects that kind of exercise.

SYNWORLD: The gaming industry is traditionally focussing on a male audience. But that seems to be changing. Where do you see the developments especially in relation to working as an artist within this field.

Ward: When I went to a big computer game conference in London, I remember it being very much about the twenty-something heterosexual generation, not for kids but for adults. It was targetting very much on the sex appeal of gaming, with Lara Croft and similar games. Certainly it seems still to be male dominated, but the audience range is a lot wider. There is a potential to make artistic work, building on a more diverse group of people.

SYNWORLD: What kind of feedback do you get for the Alien Invasion game, after all you are working with a reality of a post-colonial, multi-ethnic Britain?

Ward: The better response I seem to get from British people, they find it quite amusing for various reasons, like using racial abuse instead of shooting bullets. That was the kind of sounds I would be attacked with many times: fuck off back to your country. From the Chinese community I had only little response, funnily enough. I think they probably found it quite offensive because they could not read it. I think it works better with the aggressor than for Chinese people because the aggressor can look at it in a more open way. For me, I wanted to tackle those issues. I do not wanna beat around the bush with all the abuses that I used to receive when I was younger.