Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Iran, covert information operations, and the politics of videogames

As has been widely reported in recent days, former US Marine and former video game developer Amir Mirzaei Hekmati has been sentenced to death in Iran for alleged espionage and subversion. According to the New York TimesHekmati was accused by Iran of, among other things, being involved in the development of video games intended to covertly change attitudes in the Middle East:

According to Iranian state television, a former United States marine who was convicted of spying on Iran and sentenced to death on Monday was also involved in a nefarious plot to brainwash the youth of the Middle East using an unlikely tool: video games.

In a video report broadcast last month, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, the former marine of Iranian descent who was arrested during a visit to Tehran in August, allegedly confessed to a career in American intelligence that included a stint at a video game company in New York that was “a cover for the C.I.A.”

According to an English translation of the report published by The Tehran Times, an Iranian state-run newspaper, about one-third of the way through the report, Mr. Hekmati said he had worked for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, after he left the Marine Corps in 2005. Then, according to the newspaper’s somewhat oddly worded translation, Mr. Hekmati said in Persian:

After Darpa, I was recruited by Kuma Games Company, a computer games company which received money from C.I.A. to design and make special films and computer games to change the public opinion’s mindset in the Middle East and distribute them among Middle East residents free of charge. The goal of Kuma Games was to convince the people of the world and Iraq that what the U.S. does in Iraq and other countries is good and acceptable.

He reportedly added: “The head of Kuma called me and said, ‘I have received your resume from Darpa, and we have a program in which you can help us.’ ” Kuma, Mr. Hekmati explained, “was also a cover for the C.I.A. and only the chief of company knows that you’re working with the agency.”*

The US has officially denied the Iranian charges.

The game publisher for whom Hekmati worked for a period, Kuma Games, certainly does publish Middle East themed games. Most of these are simply plug-in episodes for its Kuma\War series (108 of them and counting) in which players refight various semi-historical incidents, ranging from the death of Uday and Qusay Hussein in Iraq to Aghanistan to Muammar Qaddafi’s last stand in Libya. While the perspective is rather American, these games are essentially generic modern first-person shooters, mostly set in post-9/11 Iraq or Afghanistan (although you can also refight the UK’s Operation Barras rescue mission in Sierra Leone). A couple of episodes involve Iran, two based on the failed 1980 American hostage rescue mission in Iran and one (published in 2005) based on current nuclear tensions:

As a Special Forces soldier in this playable mission, you will infiltrate Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz, located 150 miles south of Iran’s capital of Teheran. But breaching the security cordon around the hardened target won’t be easy. Your team’s mission: Infiltrate the base, secure evidence of illegal uranium enrichment, rescue your man on the inside, and destroy the centrifuges that promise to take Iran into the nuclear age. Never before has so much hung in the balance… millions of lives, and the very future of democracy could be at stake.

There’s really not much much of a political message in these games at all, beyond the notion that it’s generally not a good idea to get shot in a firefight.

Rather more interesting is Kuma Games’ newer episodic game Sibaq al-Fursan (Race of the Knights), the first episodes of which were published in 2010. This is sort of an apocalyptic Speed Racer-meets-Mad Max adventure, in which a group of heroes drives around an Arabia that was devastated by nuclear weapons (including the radioactive “Desert of Glass” and the “lost city of Dubai”), rescuing friends, battling the army of the False Caliph, and collecting gold-covered thorium beans (GTBs) to trade for various in-game upgrades. The game has been translated into Arabic (in Levant, Egyptian, and Gulf dialect), French, Urdu and Farsi—you’ll find the Arabic website here.

After a few introductory episodes, Iran pops up in this game quite a few times when the beautiful Princess Dima is kidnapped by the evil “False Caliph” to be dragged off to Isfahan (lovely city by the way, Princess!).  The evil military forces also subtly sport a sort of hybrid Iranian flag-IRGC logo (see above), and drop North Korea-branded bombs on the brave Knights, their muscle cars, and poor radiation-afflicted refugees alike (see below). The bombs, incidentally, don’t seem that much more effective than the real North Korean ones, and fizzle as often as they explode.

In Episode 4, we’re explicitly told that Zulfiqar al-Harabi, the “False Caliph,” is a former arms merchant who is supported by North Korea and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The dastardly villain seems to have kidnapped the princess in order to force her father, a scientist, to finish work on the ultimate weapon, which may soon be used against Damascus.

Is this a US-sponsored information operation intended to subtly promote the view among target audiences that Iran’s current nuclear program is a dangerous one? Or is it simply an episodic videogame that draws on current history, much as Hollywood movies or digital games have variously featured the Communist menace, evil South Africans, Latin American drug cartels, Middle Eastern terrorists, or even Canada? I have no idea. Certainly, however, one can imagine how already paranoid Iranian security officials might have been suspicious of an Iranian-American ex-Marine who worked under a DARPA contract, and also worked for the company that produced Sibaq al-Fursan, especially in a context of escalating US-Iranian geopolitical tensions. (Needless to add, however, Hekmati’s “confession” on Iranian TV is meaningless as evidence of anything at all. Forced confessions and show trials are a staple of Iran’s autocratic government, and some of the things he says—for example, about US policy, oil pricing, and OPEC—make no sense at all.)

At Slate yesterday, Will Oremus had a piece asking “Does the CIA really make video-game propaganda?” He notes that a great many games today address contemporary conflict themes, sometimes generating political controversy for doing so. Moreover, not all game playing societies have the same view of history, for obvious reasons. A case in point is the Vietnamese game company Emobi Games, which has just released 7554—a first person shooter videogame about the Viet Minh struggle against the French that commemorates the Vietnamese victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu on 7 May 1954 (it looks rather interesting too).

Getting back to the case of Iran, what might a covert, videogame-based information operation aimed at that country look like? Oremus asks that question to games researcher Ian Bogost, who suggests it might not look at all like Sibaq al-Fursan:

If U.S. intelligence agencies were making secret video games to foment unrest in Iran or elsewhere, they would likely be less violent and more focused on realistic decision-making scenarios. According to Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech professor who co-founded a company that designs games as marketing tools for clients, the most persuasive games are those that model real-world systems and give users a chance to see the consequences of different courses of action. A game aimed at Iranians might seek to demonstrate the pitfalls of Islamism or the value of participation in a democratic opposition movement. (It would probably not be called, as one Kuma title is, Assault on Iran.) One model might be People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance, a single-player, turn-based strategy game developed by the nonprofit International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in which the player builds alliances and chooses tactics to secure rights and freedoms for an oppressed populace.

I’m not so sure, however. People Power is not a terribly immersive game, and it is an open question whether that sort of politics-as-strategy -game approach would ever garner an adequate number of users. If I were trying to develop a game-with-a-message for casual users in a crowded digital game market, I would probably go with something a little more engaging.

UPDATE: Since this report was first published, Sibaq al-Fursan’s Arabic-language website has been taken offline, and replaced with an English language “coming soon” page. The videos are still available at YouTube.

11 responses to “Iran, covert information operations, and the politics of videogames

  1. Video Games Book 03/10/2013 at 8:42 pm

    I’m pretty pleased to uncover this website.
    I need to to thank you for your time for this particularly fantastic read!!
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  2. Rex Brynen 11/01/2012 at 10:28 pm

    Brian: I played around with the BC budget simulator–yes, you’re right it is rather simple (and it does editorialize a bit, although not wildly so).

    However, I rather liked it in a way, since it did seem to highlight the difficulties of meeting public demands for less taxes/more services (ie, it’s mathematically impossible!) I may bump the link to it into the main blog when I do the next “simulations miscellany.”

  3. Rex Brynen 11/01/2012 at 10:21 pm

    So, David… what kind of games DO they play in Blackland?…

  4. David Becker 11/01/2012 at 8:15 pm

    I think it would be more rewarding to see what kinds of games and themes are in use in the country or countries of interest, then design something similar but slightly “tilted.” Of course, some countries have little to no gaming history, so this might be more a question of extrapolating from similar situations in neighboring countries. Countries with little internet penetration often have lower bandwidth, and thus the games are perforce simpler, but still popular.

    This doesn’t cover the case of a “game-changing” game, one that breaks with paradigms and becomes hugely popular despite original estimates. Not sure how you find that holy grail, but perhaps only by throwing games into the mix and seeing what comes out of the oven.

  5. brtrain 11/01/2012 at 8:12 pm

    Sorry for all the typos in the above but as soon as my reply grows beyond seven lines, I can’t see what I’m typing. I suppose brevity and the snappy comeback must have their due.

  6. brtrain 11/01/2012 at 8:10 pm

    Funnily enough, today’s news brings mention of a game/simulation that has a quietly expressed agenda… the British Columbia Ministry of Finance announced “BC Budget Simulator”, a web application that allows members of the public to alter provincial government spending in ten areas (e.g health care, education) and revenue in nine areas (e.g. corporate taxes, sales taxes etc.). It is originally made aby a British company called Delib:

    The purpose of the online budget simulator is (from the press release): “to let people see the effect
    of raising and lowering revenues and spending on the provincial budget, with the goal of eliminating the 2013-14 deficit, which was forecast in September to be $458 million. Once people have achieved a balanced budget, they can send their solutions to the finance minister with their comments. The website also includes informative facts about the budget and is one of several ways the government
    is consulting with British Columbians in the lead-up to Budget 2012.”

    iFunny thing about it, once you fiddle with it a bit it starts to argue with you. For example, if you rasie corporate income taxes, the program says, “Raising corporate income tax would make the province less competitive compared to other provinces and countries, and would reduce long-term economic growth. Companies would decide to move to lower-tax jurisdictions, costing B.C. jobs and investment.” And you cannot move any tax rate beyond ten percent of what it is, so the current corporate tax rate cannot be raised above 11 per cent, for example. The app is almost insultingly simple, and I can’t believe anyone thinking that it would materailly affect the government’s thinkgin for Budget 2012, when consultation formally finished several months ago. But at any rate, it does get people thinking about the give and take involved in making a budget, even if it does read as a somewhat partisan exercise in justifying staying the course….

  7. Rex Brynen 11/01/2012 at 12:56 am

    Just don’t visit Iran afterwards!

  8. brtrain 10/01/2012 at 8:02 pm

    Oh man, you’re insatiable!
    Well, if not material for a PaxSims post, perhaps something for a DARPA contract… (snicker)

  9. Rex Brynen 10/01/2012 at 7:13 pm

    Hmmm, possible material for another PaxSIMS post from you, Brian?

  10. brtrain 10/01/2012 at 7:10 pm

    Sorry, hit the post button too soon.
    The problem with “games with a message” is that they can’t be too obvious about it, or players won’t enjoy it – kind of like those earnest but heavy-handed superhero comic books we were given in school to warn us about drug abuse, or whatever. Such a game would also need to have the same quality that every successful game does – to instil the desire to play it again, and again.

    The opaque nature of a video game’s design can actually help here. How about, as an example of a information operations game, a game somewhat like Tropico, but with a different emphasis and placed in a country somewhat like the target country? Try your hand at running the place, with different NPCs coming at you with different agendas, and problems, and the game system gently ushers you towards creating an inclusive polity, or opennes towards foreign trade, or whatever th goal of the game’s sponsors might be. I recall playing an old Mac game like this once called Hidden Agenda. It had no animation, hardly even any fancy menus, but itput you in the place of the new leader of a post-revolutionary made up country in Latin America. If you made the “wrong” decisions, you found yoursellf kicked out of the game as someone revolted against you!

  11. brtrain 10/01/2012 at 6:57 pm

    Very interesting post, particularly concerning the Vietnamese video game company. I did go back and read your post on “playing the bad guys”; really, there are no “bad guys” that absolutely everyone would despise – even the Taliban and Hezbollah have their fans, and as you have written elsewhere, videogames to match. The sole exception I guess would be for a made-up and, for sake of the story, probably extraterrestrial video game enemy!

    Point taken about People Power (and its predecessor A Force More Powerful). It’s slow and largely about organizing committees while avoiding arrest. That may be how things are actually accomplished in the real world, but it does not make for a gripping game. A more persuasive game might be one that doesn’t work quite so hard to model real life, but does get players into thinking about making decisions and the consequence.

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