NEW YORK – The intense street fighting in Baghdad is over, but video game enthusiasts are still working on liberating the Iraqi capital.
Gamers who play the popular PC title Command and Conquer Generals have created about 1,000 additional realistic-looking digital maps and missions for the game to make it look more like the actual ground fights that happened overseas.
"The maps are representations of the landscape. They [gamers] watch say, Fox News, then pull off the data," said Mark Skaggs, executive producer of the game created by Electronic Arts. "They'll say, 'I saw this building here and other buildings around it in a circle.'"
The modifications — called mods — can be as simple as inserting an image of a tank that looks just like the ones soldiers used to intricately create battle missions. The changes are then uploaded and shared between players over the Internet.
"You can play a scenario in another game that portrays real-world events, but when you can actually create your own in just a matter of weeks or even days, it makes the game much more fun to play," said Command and Conquer fan David Diller in an e-mail interview.
Instead of following the paths already programmed, players can deviate into unknown layers of the virtual world — but this is exactly what producers like Skaggs want their customers to do.
"We actually knew it was going to happen because it's happened in the past with other products," said Skaggs from Redwood City, Calif. "One person went in and created what it would be like in Baghdad as the Iraqis, so you have to defend off the American Air Force."
Experts say being the virtual Iraqi army is probably not about sympathizing with the enemy, but instead about seeing what it's like to go up against the most powerful military in the world.
"It's a way to bring the reality of war closer to home," said Doug Lowenstein, president of Interactive Digital Software Association. "It's the fear of being a potential victim, fighting against a massive force. It may not be identification with Iraqis as much as identifying with the underdog."
For civilians left stateside who can only imagine what combat is like, playing virtual war games makes them feel more connected to the troops who seem to be a world away, but who are ever-present in current events.
"It's always been human nature to try to interact and control the environment that we're in," said Lowenstein. "It gives you more of a sense of involvement and I think that appeals to people's sense of wanting to move beyond passivity to interactivity."
But gamers also say that enhancing images and designing new scenarios is a form of expression.
"Missions or maps based in Baghdad really show the viewpoint of the creator[s]," said Diller. "It's like getting inside the mind of the author and really examining what they think about it."
But modifying games isn't exactly new. In games like Everquest and the Sims online, players have been creating virtual lives of their own for some time. So whether gamers fight in the streets of Baghdad or explore the worlds of Everquest, the motivation to create is the same.
"[Games] are the only entertainment that empowers users," said Lowenstein. "With a movie, when you come out you can say, 'I didn't like the ending,' because you didn't make the ending. Games are the only entertainment form that allows the user to determine the outcome."