Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Place and Memories of 9/11

Thomas Hoepker refused to publish the photo above until 2006, five years after he snapped this scene of New Yorkers seemingly chatting and enjoying the summer day while the city suffered and burned in the background. Of course, the reality of that moment captured in time differs from the relaxed and care-free aesthetic represented on film. Indeed, one of the men in the photograph has long since illuminated the circumstances of the scene. Regardless, the photo remains an evocative reflection on human nature in the face of catastrophe and an irreparably altered future. As Hoeker later discussed, the picture seems to ask so many questions. How could such a dramatic moment in history be met so leisurely? “Was everyone supposed to run around with a worried look on that day or the weeks after 9/11? How would I have looked on that day to a distanced observer?”

Like most people born before the nineties, I remember that day with relative clarity. I first heard about an explosion in New York from the car radio on my way to school. I was tired though, and the news was difficult to hear over the grumbling of my father’s truck, so I did not comprehend the severity of the situation until I was struck by the silence and fear pervading my high school campus. We all knew class would be canceled well before the announcement over the intercom made it official. While we waited for reality to catch up, one of my teachers rolled in a television and turned on the news. We all watched in shock until some faculty member deemed the footage too disturbing and shut off the monitor.

The rest of my memory is cloudy. I remember picking up extra editions of the newspaper and watching the news at home, but that’s it. Of course the event was on all our minds at school the next day, and for some time, but so were other trivial matters. We still had chores, and grades, and rumors, and plans to make. 9/11 was a tragedy, but even on that first day, it all felt so removed, like I merely felt the aftershocks of an earthquake centered many miles away. Other days, good and bad, have since replaced my memories of that day.
This past June I spent five weeks in New York while interning for Games for Change. I stayed in Manhattan, in the Lower East Side, and worked near Union Square. I spent much of my free time exploring the city, meeting up with friends in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and doing what so many others have done before me: falling in love with the city. While I’ll always be a Californian at heart, New York did start feeling like home.

While looking at photo collections of New York on September 11th, 2001, I realized how deeply my perceptions and memories of that day have been affected by my time in New York. I have walked those streets once shrouded in dust and debris. The fear and grief on the faces of New Yorkers strike an entirely different chord now that I have walked amongst their brick and mortar homes, chatted with their barbers and bartenders, stumbled late night through their subway turnstiles, and meandered my way across Manhattan from East Harlem to the Financial District. The photographs evoke thoughts about the history and conflict that birthed that day, and all the political ideologies and misery that grew from the catastrophe. They also now illicit a new found mix of sympathy, shock, and defensiveness, undoubtedly a response to my time in Manhattan.
 Of course I can never truly share that day with New Yorkers, but my sense of place within such a diverse and iconic city has fundamentally altered my memories and understanding of September 11th, a profound moment in history. This is where videogames intersect. Games can create a sense of place like no other medium, and this sense of place can become powerfully evocative and change the way we see the past and present. I think Inside the Haiti Earthquake achieves this with its story of the island nation and its natural disaster, and Grand Theft Auto IV to some extent with New York itself. If fantastic fictional lands can captivate us so deeply, why not immerse ourselves within digital versions of real places we barely know? If we are daring enough to build them, we may find occupying a historical place more personally significant and evocative than visiting alien worlds, their vapid landscapes devoid of the memories and weighty implications imbued in our own backyard. There are so many places for games to go and so many memories to explore anew.

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