Since 2012, I have been teaching a course titled GameScenes. Art in the Age of Videogames at California College of the Arts in San Francisco and Oakland. Michele Hubacek's "Christ Killa: Transgressive Art in Gaming" (2012) was written specifically for this class, but I believe it deserves broader visibility. What follows is a draft. The full essay will resurface, sometime in the future, in different form. Enjoy the read.
Christ Killa: Transgressive Art in Gaming
“There’s something about the spectacle of 'Jesus' running at me with a shotgun chanting
“God is Loooove” that makes me chuckle every time” (Eric Medine)
In 2007, digital media artist Eric Medine produced a first-person shooter style game, Christ Killa. Set in a Middle Eastern village, it casts the player in the role of the messiah, Jesus Christ. Dressed in a short robe and sporting a beard and a crown of thorns, the game uses many conventions of the FPS genre. The view features a classic heads-up display whose primary feature is a large weapon situated at the bottom of the screen. The player is the camera. The camera is a gun. Seeing is often synonymous of killing. Walking around the small village, the player enters rooms, explores long corridors and opens doorways, hunting and killing non-player characters (NPCs) who look like Jesus. Furthermore, the walls of this desert village are plastered with religious propaganda posters featuring images of God's son and the American flag. As the player moves around, blowing away the non-player Jesuses, we hear a sarcastic chant “God is Looove”.
Christ Killa looks like this:
This work is openly provocative because it does not simply allow the player to play the role of a virtual Jesus Christ. It gives the player the opportunity to kill Jesus Christ. The messages embedded within this artwork are complex, puzzling, an, God forbid, controversial. Although this game-inspired artwork was only shown once and for a limited time, it attracted mainstream media attention. Its creator received death threats as a result. This type of heated, if not hysterical reaction, begs the question: How can a video game become "dangerous"? What makes Christ Killa so controversial, problematic, and incendiary?
Christ Killa can be examined through many different lenses. On a superficial level, it looks like a videogame, it plays like a videogame, and it behaves like a videogame. In other words, Christ Killa is a digital, interactive artifact, the kind usually meant for escapism, entertainment, and enjoyment. However, its appropriation of Christian imagery - specifically Jesus Christ - makes Christ Killa unlike a "standard" first-person shooter. It is many things: an example of transgressive art, an exercise in appropriation, and an exemplification of critical play that uses the medium of the video game as a delivery system.
Eric Medine, Christ Killa, 2007. Images by Marshall Astor & Choctopus.
But how can a pixellated image of an historical figure such as Jesus Christ create such a stir? Why is this “game” so provocative? In addition to blasphemous content, what makes Christ Killa unique is that it is the byproduct of an act of appropriation. Its game engine, in fact, was borrowed from other video games - specifically Quest for Bush/Night of Bush Capturing (2006) and Quest for Saddam (2003) - that have been subsequently re-skinned and modified by the artist. In the Quest games, the player is running around hunting either Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush. Medine’s version pushes this gameplay further because its irreverent use of Christian symbolism. The act of play becomes critical, that is, it raises questions related to religion and politics. It forces the players to confront morally debatable roles. It pushes them out of their comfort zone. Additionally, Christ Killa also provokes strong reactions because it can only be played in an art gallery. In a sense, Medine can be considered a trespasser: he brought the game to a pagan shrine devoted to art. The gallery is not an arcade. The gallery is not the web. The gallery has been constructed as a "sacred space" that requires contemplation, not interaction, let alone playful interaction.
Eric Medine, Golgotha, 2002. Images courtesy of the Artist.
In order to understand the relevance of this work, it is important to provide additional information about its creator. Born and raised in the United States, Medine received a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996, and an MFA from Otis School of Art and Design in Los Angeles in 2006. His practice focuses on a variety of digital media including video games, sound, and digital maps. Medine has produced installations, sculptural pieces, and performances. Many of his works are the result of appropriation: Medine relies on media manipulation and remixing to create new pieces. Consider, for instance Golgotha (2002), a hacked arcade cabinet that "plays" video loops rather than a game and uses a Midi interface. As Medine states, “The idea was that you could make a narrative video the same way you would make a cut-up poem, Brion Gysin style.” (note 1). Using the arcade cabinet as a sculptural element, Medine was able to draw in the audience to “play” the game. Here, the coin-op format functions as a Trojan horse: it connotes playfulness, fun, and digital excitement. However, the religious themes are already present: the allusion to Jesus's calvary are explicit in the title as well as in the content.
Appropriation in art practice has become increasingly more difficult to understand, evaluate, and even justify in a world where Tumblr is pervasive. Reblogging, cut-and-paste, remix are so common that any subversive intent has been diluted. Christ Killa is an appropriation, or better, a re-skinning of a previous game, a common practice among gamers and Game Artists. Quest for Bush/Night of Bush Capturing and Quest for Saddam, two politically themed FPSs, were not simply an inspiration for Medine. The latter was developed by Jose Padilla– a founder/member of the United American Committee (UAC), a political action group focused on “promoting awareness of Islamist extremist threats in America.”
As mentioned before, he also borrowed the games' engine, Torque, which was also used in Duke Nukem 3D (GT Realms, 1996). Released on September 11th 2006, Quest for Bush/Night of Bush Capturing is - supposedly - a form of interactive propaganda produced by al-Qaeda supporters, in which the player shoots avatars of George W. Bush. Interestingly, Quest for Bush/Night of Bush Capturing is a re-skin of an earlier release by Petrilla Entertainment from 2002 called Quest for Saddam, in which the player must hunt and “take out” Saddam Hussein. When Medine discovered that skin files for the two games shared the same source code, he was excited about the fact that these games were “remixing” each other, creating an intertextual form of play where subsequent subversions constantly redefine the purpose, meaning, and relevance of "interactive entertainment". The files could be easily swapped between the two games. Turning Saddam Hussein into George W. Bush simply required a copy-and-paste command.
Medine's reskinning process was meant "to raise the bar", as he told me in a personal communication. Replacing political figures (Bush, Hussein) with a religious figure (Jesus) was just the first step. The second intervention required a miraculous multiplication of the virtual messiah withing the digital environments of the game. As Medine adds, "I made an army of Jesuses that had to kill or be killed” (note 2). How can we explain the relevance and nature of this kind of practice? We can rely on Alexander Galloway (2006). In his seminal essay, "Countergaming", the artist and scholar explains how artists hack, alter, modify and/or appropriate existing games for different goals. As gaming has become more popular so has hacking gameplay, itself a form of meta-gaming. Galloway discusses three ways in which games can be modified: (1) at the level of their visual design, including artwork and character models; (2) at the level of their structural behavior, specifically, their rules (changing outcomes, winning/losing situations); (3) and at the level of physics and mechanics. According to Galloway, most artists'mods tend to distort games visual and/or physics, while actual gameplay mods are less common (note 3). Ideologically speaking, gameplay mods and Art Games tend to conflict with mainstream, commercial games.
Artist’s mods generally intend to subvert dominant ideologies - both at the level of politics and religion - even (especially) if the outcome is deemed outrageous by mainstream society. With Christ Killa, Medine offered his audience a chance to engage in “critical play” by applying counter gaming tactics to game design. In Critical Play: Radical Game Design (2009), artist and scholar Mary Flanagan defines “critical play" as "play that creates or occupies environment and activities that represent one or more question about aspects of human life.”(note 4). A game like Christ Killa can provide this experience because the act of play is thought-provoking: it raises questions, it forces the player to confront ethical issues, it violates shared norms and beliefs. As I mentioned before, the player is given the opportunity to not only be (an avatar of) Jesus Christ but also the ability to kill Jesus Christ. The game puts the player into a delicate position. Depending on one’s personal religious beliefs, the game can elicit different responses. The religious, Christian gamer may see this as an act of blasphemy while the atheist gamer may see it as an exercise in satire or parody. In all cases, the game operates as a platform, a space for debate. The artwork playfully subverts the image of Jesus Christ, an icon of peace. It gives the player some kind of nihilistic agency but also a sense of control as the user can kill or spare his victims. One could argue that Christ Killa does operate like most first-person shooters, a form of play that emphasizes destructive action over constructive action. But Christ Killa is not just a video game: it is a work of art. It was not placed in an arcade, but in a losangelino art gallery, Niche, between April and May of 2007. During that time, a tournament was held and trophy given to the player achieving the most “Christ Kills.” Installing the game in a gallery was an act of cultural demarcation. The piece lost its gameness but gained something else: an auratic caracter. In other words, Christ Killa went from game art to Game Art.
In his essay "From Appropriation to Approximation", Axel Stockburger (2007) discusses the relationship between videogames and art, concentrating on the shift from more traditional fine arts to digital media in the Artworld. He wonders whether computer-based content can be considered "Art" and provides examples as to how artist are making that shift and gaining a foothold within the canon. He notes that both the art world and the gaming world influence each other and points out similarities. Both create “spatio-temporal zones” different from everyday life. Art and games both have a concept of rules and notions of freedom. There is also the simple idea of child play that can rely on creativity in play, Stockburger suggest that an object - any object - can become an artwork when it fits within a certain set of rules and that games can also fit this rule set. In other words, the gallery space gives the video game permission to be an artwork; it introduces a whole new set of parameters. It changes the nature of the game.
The imagery in Christ Killa is blatantly controversial. This type of transgressive artwork has a history of provoking not only critical thought but also dangerous public reactions. In 1987, American artist Andres Serrano created the highly controversial Piss Christ, a large photograph of a glowing crucifix submerged in a tank of urine. When it was first shown, it was targeted by pundits, politicians, and religious associations. A milestone of the so-called “Culture Wars”, Piss Christ was either vehemently attacked or defended by artists and academics, politicians and religious authorities. Anthony Julius discussed this case study in his important book Transgressions: The Offences of Art. Focusing on Serrano's piece, Julius states that transgressive art deals with taboos, bringing in the spotlight was it is usually left in the background, including issues such as like sexual perversity, death, obscenity, and blasphemy. According to Julius, to transgress is to pass beyond, go over, to violate, and generally refers to the breaking of taboos. The principal objection to Serrano’s work, he writes, is that it was deemed blasphemous because it desecrated a religious symbol. Immersing a crucifix in urine made it "filthy", and not simply metaphorically. Many conservative groups were upset, if not outraged, when Serrano presented his work, including then president George Bush. Adding insult to injury, parts of the funds came from the National Endowment for the Arts, making the government partially implicated in the production of the casus belli. One Senator, Jesse Helms, famously stated “I do not know Mr. Andres Serrano, and I hope I never meet him. Because he is not an artist, he is a jerk.” (note 5) Progressive academics and members of the Artworld found themselves at war against Conservatives.
Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987.
Julius’s books provides a defense for the value, meaning, and function of transgressive art. Among Julius's case studies is a work from Andres Serrano, Piss Christ. The critic indicates three reasons why this controversial piece is a remarkable work of art. First is the estrangement defense. According to Julius, “it is the job of art to shock us into grasping some truth about ourselves, or about the world, or about art itself.” Art is capable of making the familiar strange; it challenges, undermines and is always fresh. Second is the canonic defense. Julius asserts that Piss Christ fits in the canon of both religious art and the avant-garde. Serrano’s practice is elevating excrement to the sublime, juxtaposing the sacred with the profane. After all, this is a tradition in art, connecting Christ to humanity. It is also a contrast to the estrangement defense where shock value is the main concept. The last defense is the formalist defense. This is the pure aesthetic value of the work, the technical details having to do with line and form, color and texture. It is consider disengaged and cooler in its assessment of art.
All three of Julius’s defense could be applied to Medine’s Christ Killa. The subject matter is clearly shocking, but the work is uncanny as it makes the familiar strange. with its modding of an existing game engine and changing the purpose of Christ. The artwork fits into the canon because it is avant-garde. Not just with subject matter but also with the actual object. The constructing of a video game as art is still finding its place in the art historical canon. One could also argue that Christ Killa is an example of religious art, it does connect humanity to Christianity, and the player is faced with moral dilemmas. The player must make physical movements in order to move Christ taking on the role. Using the formalist defense, the work is aesthetically comparable to other works produced during the early 2000s. It looks like very much like standard FPS games. The graphics are specific to the situation; the images reflect a dessert village covered in propaganda. What makes Christ Killa different from Piss Christ is the audience ability to interact. In the artist statement for the work Medine states, “Politics and religion affect the same cultural and social territories such as community, culture, economics and ethics.” In short, when politics and religion become interactive, problem arise. Fiction becomes friction.
Medine argues that Christ Killa raises important questions about ethics, religion, compassion, love, and politics. (note 6) However, he also added that only those who actually play the game can experience its critical goals. Without playing there cannot be any understanding. The distracted, the onlookers, the online viewers only see a character who looks like Jesus Christ killing other characters who look like Jesus Christ. Medine says that upon unveiling his game, he received the kind of reaction he expected, id est, insults and death threats. Those who played the game in the gallery, however, understood his intentions. Many, however, did not. A small blurb from conservative blogger and Fox News contributor, Michelle Malkin, offered a description of the game by cutting and pasting some statements from the press release.
Malkin pokes fun at Medine, the "artist", describing how “edgy” the work is. She even suggests that if Medine wanted to be a true “maaaverick artist” he should have created something that offended all faiths. (note 7) Like Senator Jesse Helms in the 1980s, Malkin simply dismisses the artist rather than discussing the piece. But implictly calling Medine "a jerk" is the weakest form of argumentation.
What Malkin failed to mention in her piece is any detail about how Christ Killa was meant to raise questions about the loss of ethics and community love in religion. This, by the way, was openly mentioned in the artist statement. Malkin did not even need to play the game/artwork although one may wonder how could a cultural commentator write a critique of something she did not experience. Medine found the negative responses unsurprising but also discouraging as a way to engage in discourse about religion. In an interview via email concerning audience reaction he stated:
Basically, I was an asshole for making fun of Jesus, I was awesome for making fun of Jesus, or I was chicken-shit for not making the same game about Islam. I was asked to be on Hannity and Colmes (a since-cancelled Fox news show) which I politely declined. As an artist, you have to be really deliberate and aware about how you and your work gets represented… they used to do this thing where there's a text crawl on the bottom of the screen that makes fun of the guests as they are talking, which of course de-legitimizes everything the guest says. It would be impossible for me to represent my work the way I want in a situation like that.
When can a video game be considered a form of "Art"? The debate rages on. What is the intended audience of an "Art Game"? Certainly not the gaming community. Violence and controversy are not unknown to gamers, but the discourse around digital games is radically different from the kind of critiques one may read on the pages of ArtForum or Frieze magazine. The average gamer does not play Art Games. In fact, most gamers react vehemently when "their" medium is appropriated by - God forbid! - an artist. They feel threatened and annoyed by this act of cultural appropriation (see Bittanti, 2011).
What is the intended audience of such projects as Dead in Iraq and Christ Killa, then? Christ Killa is a game that transcended the rigid confines of the gaming sphere to become a work of art. The gaming community is aware of the negative connotations of gaming as an inherently "violent medium". The game "becomes" dangerous when it can produce "collateral damage", that is, side effects that have "real" consequences, including a debate on socially relevant issues. When the game is put into the context of a white cube gallery space it begins another transgression, a transformation, a transmodification. A work like Christ Killa brings issues pertaining to legitimacy, value, and artistic value into view, but it does not reconcile contrasting views. However, because it is still a videogame and a videogame is JUST an "entertainment medium", Christ Killa is automatically rejected and dismissed by the Artworld establishment as well. The paradox can be articulated as follows: Games cannot deal with serious subjects, because they are "JUST games". Games are trivial. Games are childish. If artists want to make a comment on society, they should use - gosh - "serious" media.
These stereotypes and paradoxes explain why most critics, including Malkin, simply do not "get" games. Malkin does not even bother to discuss Medine's artist statement in her blog post and she is unwilling - or perhaps unable - to provide a more sophisticated critique of the piece. In short, she misses a crucial point: Christ Killa is more than a game and a work of art, it is also a commentary. It comments on religion and politics. It comments on appropriation practices among artists working with video games and digital media. It comments on transgressive art. It comments on the gaming subculture.
The fact that the author received - and still does - death threats twenty years after Piss Christ was produced proves that work dealing with religion is considered utterly problematic. Although its lifespan in the gallery space was brief and tormented, Christ Killa remains an important work. Its relevance in the history of Game Art cannot be underestimated.
1 Eric Medine. Email interview, personal exchange, April 2013.
2 Eric Medine. ericmedine.com. 2013.
3 Alexander Galloway. “Countergaming” in Gaming. Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Electronic Mediations). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2006
4 Mary Flanagan. Critical Play. Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2009, 6.
5 Anthony Julius. Transgressions. The Offences of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
6 Nic Cha Kim. nicchakim.wordpress.com, 2007.
7 Michelle Malkin. Michellemalkin.com, 2007. URL.
All images courtesy of the artist
Bittanti, Matteo. "Don't Mess With The Warriors. The Politics of Machinima". in Henry Lowood and Michael Nitsche, The Machinima Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2011. 315-337.
DeLappe, Joseph. delappe.net. 2013. URL.
Flanagan, Mary. “Introduction to Critical Play” in Critical Play. Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2009.
Galloway, Alexander. “Countergaming” in Gaming. Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Electronic Mediations). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2006.
Julius, Anthony. Transgressions. The Offences of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago. 2003.
Kim, Nic Cha. nicchakim.wordpress.com. 2007. URL (accessed March 28, 2013).
Malkin, Michelle. michellemalikin.com. 2013. URL (accessed March 28, 2013).
Medine, Eric. ericmedine.com. 2013. URL (accessed March
Medine, Eric. Interview by Michele Hubacek. Email interview, Oakland, CA, April 2013.
Stockburger, Axel. “From Appropriation to Approximation”. in Clarke, Andy and Grethe Mitchell. Videogames and Art. Chicago: Intellect Books. 2007. 25-38.
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