This is a post about 9/11 and Splinter Cell

I remember exactly where I was on Tuesday morning, the eleventh day of September, 2001. I was playing basketball in the driveway. My childhood dream was to play in the NBA; nothing was more important to me than taking 1,000 shots every day.

When my older brother came out, and said, “You need to come inside, someone just attacked New York,” I didn’t react much.

“Oh, OK,” I said, then took another jump shot. Swish.

“No, it’s serious, somebody crashed a plane into a building.”

Another jump shot. Swish. “A plane crashed or someone attacked?”

“Someone crashed a plane full of people into a building — on purpose.”

Another shot. Clanked off the rim.

He continued: “They say it’s bad. And that we might be at war.”

The ball bounced unimpeded, until it just rolled down the sloped driveway and into the street.

I was twelve years old. I didn’t really understand, not yet. The gravity of it all slammed on me then; the look on my brother’s face (only two years my senior), the sound of his voice. Watching the news, talking to parents and others, I would grasp the basic nature of what happened over hours, days, weeks.

But it would take years, and the slow unfolding of perspectives, the deliberate dissection of ingrained paradigms, before I would really understand what happened on 9/11.

The War on Terror

September 20th, 2001 — Again, my brother delivered the bad news.

We were at church this time. I was in the youth room with some friends. My family had gone over to help fix some part of the old church building that needed repairing. All of the adults were in the main sanctuary, and my brother — I imagined — had been perched somewhere out of sight, listening.

I’m not sure if there had been a TV somewhere they were all watching, or if the news had been relayed some other way, but the message was clear.

“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

— George Bush, addressing a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001

My brother — with clarity and naivete of a pretty smart 14-year-old — put it simply, “The president said we’re going to war.”

I was a little bit scared. I had no idea what “going to war” meant. I’ve never served in the military, never taken fire, so in some respects I’m as naive of war as that scared twelve-year-old boy. But like everyone in my generation, even those of us who’ve not worn the uniform, I’ve grown up in the climate of this strange conflict.

Even with all the ignorance of childhood, I still had some suspicion of what we’d be in for, of what war meant. Maybe even the adults — maybe even the ones in Washington — thought they knew more or less what war meant. But for the past eleven years, I think we’ve all learned, together, what war means now.

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell

November 17th, 2002 — Over a year after the attack on 9/11 a game called Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell was released for XBOX. My brother bought it, saying that he had heard “really good things” about it.

For a long time me and my brother played single player games together, side-by-side, tag-teaming levels and switching off when one of us failed an objective. So that’s how we played Splinter Cell. And we loved it.

By this point I was already intent on being a writer, so I was enthralled by the story. Though simple and contrived in hindsight, at thirteen I reveled in the dense, espionage-laden plot of Splinter Cell, the gruff, no-nonsense demeanor of its protagonist, Sam Fisher.

My brother I think just liked the parts where you sneaked up on people and threatened to break their arm if they didn’t tell you what you wanted to know. I liked those parts, too.

I liked the idea of fighting terrorists, felt little to no remorse over killing them. I enjoyed the power fantasy — lurking, crouched in shadows, then striking, making a bad guy whimper in pain until I got what I wanted.

I was thirteen. I wasn’t conscious of it, but I was being fed, and readily accepting, the idea that killing terrorists was easy, fun, and necessary. Moreover, that good Americans kill terrorists, and that terrorists are always the easily identifiable Arabs, Russians, Chinese, otherwise-Middle Eastern, otherwise Eastern European bad guys you would expect.

“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

— George Bush, addressing a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001

Is it such a stark distinction, president Bush? Even now? Even when there are allegations surfacing that under your administration CIA operatives tortured known opponents of Muammar Gaddafi, and then delivered them directly to the former leader of Libya?

Is it so easy a distinction to make if those prisoners were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, itself part of the broader “mujahideen” group of rebels? Is it easy when the LIFG has been subject to allegations of ties with al-Qaeda that they constantly deny? Is it easy when the US supported the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan thirty years ago?

No, president Bush, it isn’t. These are murky, bloody lines, and they are painstakingly hard to make out.

But I didn’t know. I was thirteen. And I was being conditioned, that’s all.

“Why do they hate us?”

George Bush posed the above question, during his address to congress nine days after the attack on 9/11. He offered an answer equal parts convenient and terrifying — that terrorists hate freedom. A presumption of such raw, blanket villainy gave us a picture of a menacing, but uncomplicated enemy. It’s a notion that has stuck long after better intel and testimony have given us more complicated, but equally frightening clues to why something like 9/11 happened.

These are not easy distinctions to make. These are hard — painfully hard — things to consider. It’s comforting, and dangerous to simplify them. From the beginning politicians have tried to make them simple, digestible, easy. Mainstream media has, mostly, followed. And the entertainment industry has played in kind.

Ubisoft (a company based in France, with a business presence in 26 countries) was just trying to make a product that sells. A kitsch product like most video games are kitsch products. A game with a setting, theme, and objectives that are simple, digestible.

They were doing the capitalist thing, trying to make the best product (that is most viable in the market) with little thought of the moral implications, especially the subtle ones, especially the long term ones. That doesn’t make Ubisoft either good or bad. That’s another grayed, blurry line.

And they aren’t the only ones who have done it. Call of Duty, and Battlefield are the two major military first-person shooter franchises today and while they primarily draw their audiences through multiplayer, their single player campaigns often play a similar, digestible narrative that we’ve been seeing in film, TV, and books since well before 9/11.

Like in any other discussion about how games affect us, it’s the matter of agency that makes video games unique. It’s that I was Sam Fisher as a thirteen year old boy — me and my brother, killing terrorists for the good ol’ US-of-A. Killing terrorists isn’t bad, but the simplification of these issues, packaged, and retailed (in some cases to young adults or adolescents who haven’t taken the time or been afforded an opportunity to form a more educated opinion on world issues) is dangerous.

These are not easy distinctions. This is hard.

It’s hard to consider that blowback contributed to the events of 9/11.

It’s hard to consider that in places like Iran the attempts of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s to stir anti-western jihad didn’t really resonate; that not everyone in the Middle East is so eager to hate our freedoms.

It’s hard to consider that Osama bin Laden gathered support because of anger about US support of unpopular regimes in the Middle East, or American troop presence in the Arabian Peninsula.

It’s hard to consider that all the time, and money, and lives lost in Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction, but instead bad intel, eagerness for war, and ultimately a Shi’a-Sunni islamic civil war that had little to do with us at all.

Nothing justifies the inhumane and cowardly acts of 19 terrorists on that Tuesday morning, but if we wish to prevent similar acts, then we’d be foolish not to carefully study all factors involved.

It’s uncomfortable or upsetting for some people to even consider these things. They will get angry, accusatory, and within minutes the “un-American” label is hurled with wounded fervency.

It’s hard not to consider that part of that response is because we now have a generation (my generation) that has grown up with war. This is a generation that has been conditioned — in some cases with the remarkable agency that we’re afford in games — to see these issues as black and white, well defined, easily distinguishable.

I believe, fiercely, that games should have the freedom to say whatever they like. But I think it’s important, like it always has been (even before 9/11), that as a medium of entertainment games take to these issues more carefully, more thoughtfully. They are matters steeped in gray, most adroitly handled with even handed objectivity.

We, as individuals, are responsible for what we think, and believe. We’re the guardians of our own perspectives, and we should be equal parts open and cautious to what we let in. But I was thirteen, and I was unwittingly conditioned.

Through education, study, and careful consideration I learned better. But sadly, games did not contribute whatsoever to that learning. They could have.

“What is expect of us?”

President Bush also echoed this question, which he posed as being from the American people in the wake of the attacks on 9/11. He offered this reply:

“I ask you to live your lives and hug your children. I know many citizens have fears tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat.
I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here.

“We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.
I ask you to continue to support the victims of this tragedy with your contributions. Those who want to give can go to a central source of information,, to find the names of groups providing direct help in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The thousands of FBI agents who are now at work in this investigation may need your cooperation, and I ask you to give it. I ask for your patience with the delays and inconveniences that may accompany tighter security and for your patience in what will be a long struggle.

“I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy. Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity; they did not touch its source.

“America is successful because of the hard work and creativity and enterprise of our people. These were the true strengths of our economy before September 11, and they are our strengths today.

“And finally, please continue praying for the victims of terror and their families, for those in uniform and for our great country. Prayer has comforted us in sorrow and will help strengthen us for the journey ahead. Tonight I thank my fellow Americans for what you have already done and for what you will do.”

Nowhere in your answer, president Bush, did you say we’d be expected to give up our liberties. Nowhere did you outline how the Patriot Act would allow for warrantless search and seizure, phone tapping, packet sniffing, drone surveillance, and our children being groped by TSA agents at the airport.

Could you have imagined your successor, who ran and won espousing the need for peace, would order the assassination of an American citizen without arrest, trial, or conviction in court of law? Is that what’s expected of us? That we should sit by, silent, as the founding principles of liberty, which you exhorted us to live by, get trampled on?

I propose an addendum to your answer, president Bush. That we live with continual commitment to the cause of liberty. And that as part of that cause we commit to education and open discussion about the things that led to the attacks on 9/11.

For some people games are “just games” and I get that. I’m an avid proponent of entertainment for entertainment’s sake, sometimes. But I also believe games have a tremendous opportunity to instigate thought, and through agency and interactivity, analyze perspectives otherwise more unwieldy in other media.


At the end of Splinter Cell: Conviction, the most recent game in the series, Sam Fisher ends up in the White House, trying to save the president. The NSA division Sam used to work for in prior Splinter Cell games, Third Echelon, has become corrupt and has worked with a terrorist group to instigate acts of terror to leverage more power for itself within the government.

It’s getting closer, I think to myself as I watch the scene on YouTube, trying to refresh myself before writing this article.

It’s still cheesy, Hollywood-esque, riddled with cliches, and over the top dialogue — but it’s closer. Maybe someone at Ubisoft has thought about the kinds of things I’ve discussed today. Maybe they’re trying to be a truer, more honest, delve more into the gray.

Nineteen terrorists changed the world. I don’t think we can change it back. But games, like the other media, have an opportunity to challenge us, educate us, and instigate thought in a way that leads us to perceive what we didn’t before — the scary, complicated truths.

Nineteen terrorists changed the world. I said, I don’t think we can change it back. But we can change it. Grandiose as it sounds, I think games can help.

13 responses to “This is a post about 9/11 and Splinter Cell”

  1. Doug S. says:

    Are you at all familiar with “Alpha Protocol”? It’s a game with a similar political setting, but unlike Splinter Cell, it’s _all about_ the grey. “Alpha Protocol” is the name of a secret government agency that doesn’t actually exist, and its purpose is to do the things that the U.S. government can’t be caught doing. You start the game as a new recruit, and are sent on a mission to assassinate the leader of an Arab terrorist group that just shot down a passenger plane with a missile, but at the climax of the game’s first act…


    You discover that the real purpose of mission you were sent on was not to fight terrorism, but instead to destroy the evidence that an American defense contractor, Halbech, was deliberately giving weapons to terrorists, so that governments would have to ramp up their own military operations in response. (Alpha Protocol’s leaders were willing to go along with this because it would have the side effect of making other governments more dependent on American military power.) Oh, and you weren’t supposed to survive it, either; once you reported the location of the downed plane (complete with Halbech-brand missile debris), someone sends in an airstrike to blow it up, and you along with it. The fact that you spend most of the rest of the game trying to foil Halbech’s plans isn’t changeable, but, as you play, you get lots of opportunities to make choices which define *why* you’re opposing them; are you an idealist who’s trying to save as many people as you can, or are you just out for revenge?

  2. Jordan Rivas says:

    @Doug S.

    I played Alpha Protocol up until the last mission, which was so infuriating that I refused to finish it. I was really excited for AP before it came out, and even tried to espouse some of its strong points in an article, after it got pretty negative reviews.

    What I really like about AP, from a narrative perspective was the counter intuitive nature of dialogue selection and character interactions. You couldn’t always “win” a dialogue exchange by doing what was expected. Being nice with allies didn’t always gain favor, being tough with the bad guys some times back fired, but not always.

    As for the plot, I think it was a step in the right direction, but the glitchy gameplay, and occasionally poor voice acting distracted from it. The game was presented much like a spy movie. While at heart the subject matter, as you point out, was dire and ambiguous, the presentation had a lot of melodrama and attempts at levity.

    AP was better than people gave it credit for, especially for the reasons you mention. I did feel that things weren’t as black and white as they were in other games, and you rarely knew who to trust. I wish they’d have polished the actual combat, and fixed the bugs; Obsidian may have had a standout title if they did.

  3. Doug S. says:

    I actually played through Alpha Protocol twice, to get the various ending achievements. I agree, the game has its flaws, but I still really liked it.

    One thing that’s impressive is that there’s a huge range of possibilities for how the last mission can end up going. (The Alpha Protocol wiki has more details:

  4. Jordan Rivas says:

    Amazing. Reading that wikia I now realize I was RIGHT at the end of the mission when I quit. I like amount of potential endings and the way only certain decisions branch out into even more.

    I don’t think I’ll play Alpha Protocol again, but I always said I’d want a sequel where Obisidian got to fix a lot of the issues that held back the original.

  5. […] the Babylonian creation myth to Christianity through modern video games. Jordan Rivas explores growing up in a post-9/11 world and how the media embraced the narrative set by the politicians, in particular the Splinter Cell […]

  6. […] Rivas explores growing up in a post-9/11 world and how the media embraced the narrative set by the politicians, in particular the Splinter Cell […]

  7. […] On 9/11 and Splinter Cell: “Like in any other discussion about how games affect us, it’s the matter of agency that makes video games unique. It’s that I was Sam Fisher as a thirteen year old boy — me and my brother, killing terrorists for the good ol’ US-of-A. Killing terrorists isn’t bad, but the simplification of these issues, packaged, and retailed (in some cases to young adults or adolescents who haven’t taken the time or been afforded an opportunity to form a more educated opinion on world issues) is dangerous.” […]

  8. Yusufzai says:

    I was 11 when 9/11 happened. the news report meant card captors was cancelled. They only repeated that episode years later. That was all i took from that day (being british, i just saw a building get attacked in america. As far as i was concerned it was just another day.) I still feel like that because as far as i’m concerned, as bad as it was for the victims, it’s no different to any other terrorist attack or natural disaster or whatever. Bad things happen and it would be nice if they didn’t, but they do.

    What was important was the way people reacted. When i was 11 i found people’s reactions to be absurd (5 months later, i wrote a story that secretly parodied the tales of fear and woe from people who were there, mostly because as an 11 year old, they seemed exaggerated with an inordinate amount of people heroically saving others whose “skin was falling off” and then jumping through windows. Add that to the general reaction of people who weren’t there and had nothing to do with it and i painted the picture of an apocalyptic endtimes.)

    as a 13 year old, i found people’s reactions to be frightening. I wasn’t scared of terrorists. I never have been and probably never will be. They’re terrified stupid people too. What scared me were the racist attacks, the mobs, the rise of racist ideas, the willingness of bbc to lie to the people it swore to be truthful to, the idea that the police and government, the people who are supposed to protect me are the ones essentially kidnapping and torturing people for years without just cause. When the people in control seem hell-bent on violence, the idea that maybe once in every 15 years a place might explode is piffle. I mean no disrespect to victims and genuinely wish things like that wouldn’t happen, but i honestly think government and media action made britain and america worse places and that terrorists were an excuse.

    I know for one thing that america didn’t earn its reputation as one of the most hated and feared countries in the world unjustly, over the past 50 years at least. People in other countries don’t watch presidential elections because they’re curious. they watch it because they’re scared.

    That said, statistically speaking, the world is slowly becoming a less violent place over hundreds of years, so regardless of the bad things in life, we can still be happy.

  9. Jordan Rivas says:

    I think part of what frightened people in America about 9/11 was the idea of violence in the world spilling over into America. While we’ve always had our own share of domestic violence (a startling murder rate compared to other nations), so much of the violence from terrorism hadn’t touched American soil on such a large scale before 9/11.

    Absolutely other parts of the world had felt attacks of that magnitude before, and it’s sad that most Americans didn’t have a more empathetic sense of that before 9/11, but the attacks on that day revealed a scarier world outside of our own borders then some Americans were ready for. It’s not like we weren’t aware of disaster or attacks in other places, but there was a kind of sheltered attitude in America that was shattered that day.

    A government hell-bent on violence is a terrible thing, and it is scary. I don’t think it makes the death of thousands any less tragic just because you compare them. I agree that media and government action have made both of our countries less free, and instead of protecting our liberties have removed them in some cases.

    I don’t think America is as hated as some people (especially Americans) seem to think. There are lots of people out there, and I don’t think every single non-American hates America. I’m sure there are some that do. Generally, when I’ve spoken with people open enough to tell me their thoughts on the US, they’re generally apathetic with the caveat being that they’d like it if the US didn’t involve itself in everything globally.

  10. Jan says:

    I was pretty shocked to read you write “Killing terrorists isn’t bad.” I disagree. I think it’s always a tragedy when human beings are killed, no matter who they are, no matter how deluded and misguided. Instead, they should be locked up for however long they are a threat. (That also makes it much easier to fix if you made a mistake and got an innocent bystander, which will happen.) But calling for them to be killed… That’s hatred. That’s no better than what they do and it won’t end anything.

  11. Jordan Rivas says:

    @Jan — Welcome, and thanks for your comment. I certainly have reservations about the amount of violence perpetrated by the US and other western nations in the response to terrorism. In situations where apprehension is feasible, I think even the intelligence community and military would agree it can be preferable. But in many cases these are enemy combatants not easily taken alive, and trying to capture while not allowing for lethal force would certainly cost more lives of men and women in armed forces.

    Like I said, these are hard, hard issues. Just the same way I don’t think governments can use blanket assumptions about the motivations of terrorists, I also don’t think it’s safe for a nation to say, universally, that it will not allow itself to use lethal force in self defense against a stated enemy trying to kill its citizens.

    I respect that you feel another human being should never, ever be killed, but I challenge you to consider, again, that these are hard issues, with potentially ugly answers. I’m not saying I know what’s right across the board, but I’m firmly confident it’s somewhere in a gray area.

  12. bp says:

    @Jan: that just shows a unfortunate lack of worldly experience. Some people are simple evil and broken and must go. Its also not doing them any favors stuffing them in a cell to live like a caged animal for the rest of their life with a bunch of other caged animals. Is death really so frightening that life in a cage is preferable?

    As for the terrorism thing, I tend to agree that the government is a far bigger danger then terrorism ever will be. Look at the number of people governments have murdered over the ages vs terrorists. The chances of being killed by terrorists, low, chances the. Gov will kill us, much higher lol.

  13. Pepe says:

    Interesting read… But there are a couple things that I would like to add. Maybe you gave them some thought before or maybe not.
    First, that the history of the USA is full of wars. Your generation isn’t the only one to have lived through it. In the early nineties there was the Gulf War so there were only ten years without a war.
    Second, the world didn’t change on 9/11. Maybe the perception of the world of many USA citizens changed with the 9/11 but world-changing events happen everyday. I’m sure that for a lot of chilean citizens the world changed on 9/11 1973.
    The last thing I would like to point out is that freedom as the USA conceives it is more an abstract ideal that is used to manipulate people. I would prefer a freedom like the one Sartre proposed. And I say this because the freedom of the USA is the freedom to be like the USA, you can’t be different. In other words: you HAVE to be capitalist and a democracy. While I can somehow accept the later the former is actually a model for making slaves (you can check Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity” and how we are slaves of the economic model).
    Quite complex… isn’t it?

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