On 9/11, there were no more videogames. On that morning with its molten-steel-bright sun, I stood with two neighbors, director John Waters and actor Tim Guinee, on 6th Avenue and 12th Street. It was just before the towers came down, and the NY1 report, still chilling, was that a small plane, perhaps a Cessna, had hit. So we stood there in awe, talking about movies. After all, it looked like a movie. It couldn’t be real. Then, a pretty rollerblader stopped near us. She stared at the towers and the smoke, and then at us, and then at the towers, and then again at us. “Maybe now the rents will come down,” she said. And she bladed away.
There were no games that day. And as we watched the towers turn to dust, as we watched the shell-shocked by the thousands parade up 6th Avenue, their clothes stippled in white dust, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about games anymore – or movies, or music, or books. What good could entertainment do? What good at all?
At Rockstar games, as I detailed in All Your Base Are Belong to Us, Sam Houser told me that he and his brother Dan were feeling somewhat the same.
There were no games that day:
But just as (Sam) began readying his fiery personality for (Grand Theft Auto III’s) launch, he and Dan watched the terrorism attacks from a Thompson Street apartment on September 11, 2001. In the early moments of the disaster, he feared the buildings might tip and cause a domino effect right into Soho and further up into Greenwich Village. For an intensely nervewracking two weeks during which the country as a whole was on edge, the Housers talked about bagging the game altogether. Like everyone in Manhattan at the time, they didn’t know if terrorism would strike again. Manhattan constantly smelled noxious, like chemicals were burning, and there were posters of the missing plastered everywhere. Sam told Dan, “This beautiful city has been attacked and now we’re making a violent crime drama set in a city that’s not unlike New York City. My God, I’m terrorized where I live and on top of that, we’ve got this fucking crazy game that is not exactly where people’s heads are at right now.”
Rockstar worked to change the game to make it work for gamers and society in a post-9/11 world. Many gamemakers did the same. At Entertainment Weekly, Noah Robischon and I were given the daunting task of writing about the effect of 9/11 on games for a special issue of the magazine. All the games that dealt with New York City were changing. Even Microsoft removed the Twin Towers from their popular Flight Simulator game.
It was weeks and weeks before I played another game. I moved away from entertainment for a while, writing a book about the science of serial killing with psychiatrist Dr. Helen Morrison. But, of course, I came back to games. I came back to entertainment. Because people need to play.
There had been so many court jesters writing about games. There still are. But something did change after 9/11. The better writers helped videogame criticism to come into its own as a potent form of journalism. The essays became more thoughtful. Writers went deeper.
There were no games that day. But games came back and many played better than ever. And the writers came back with a power and force that continues to grow to this day. That is evolution, and perhaps it has nothing to do with 9/11 at all. I happen to think it has more than a bit to do with that horribly shocking morning. And each time I put a finger to the keyboard or a pen to paper, I try to kick it up a notch. Because life is fragile. Because people died.
And I’m still here. You’re still here. You have to go on — better, if not tougher. You honor those who died that day. You honor those who didn’t get a chance to write or to express themselves in any way. You keep going; you keep playing; you keep winning, or at the very least, you keep trying.