Video game wars
Editor’s Note: The following is reprinted with the permission of World Politics Review. For more from WPR, sign up for a free trial of their subscription service, get their weekly e-mail, or follow them on Twitter. Rex Brynen is Professor of Political Science at McGill University and co-editor of the PAXsims blog on conflict simulation.
When former U.S. Marine Amir Mirzaei Hekmati was sentenced to death for espionage by an Iranian court earlier this month, he was accused, among other things, of helping to make video games. In his televised “confession,” Hekmati stated that, after working for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, “I was recruited by Kuma Games Company, a computer games company which received money from [the] CIA to design and make special films and computer games to change the public opinion’s mindset in the Middle East.” He added, “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.”
Needless to say, neither Hekmati’s alleged confession nor his conviction means the charges are true. Rather his arrest is better seen as yet another indicator of the escalating geopolitical tensions between Tehran and Washington. Still, the incident highlights the extent to which video games and international politics have increasingly intersected in recent years.
As with any other form of popular culture, digital video games can be bearers of incidental or intended political ideas. For instance, with military simulations and “tactical shooters” being the most popular genres, it is hardly surprising that the post-Sept. 11 era would spawn a variety of U.S.-produced games that involve some combination of terrorism, counterinsurgency, weapons of mass destruction, the Middle East and similar headline topics. Kuma Games, for example, offers more than 100 scenarios for its Kuma\War game series, most set in Iraq or Afghanistan. Three scenarios involve Iran: Two are based on the failed 1980 American hostage rescue mission, while a third, released in 2005, concerns a fictional U.S. raid on an Iranian nuclear facility. The same company also produces “Sibaq al-Fursan,” an Arabic-language car-racing game set in a radioactive, post-apocalyptic Persian Gulf, where the villains fly Iranian aircraft and drop North Korean bombs.
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Both series have a very small fan base, however, compared to blockbusters like the “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” series, which has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. While “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” features some fighting set in the Middle East, most of its plot revolves around the rise of Russian ultranationalists. Subsequent protests in Russia led to some scenes being deleted from Russian releases, even if one Russian video game distributor, bemused by the uproar, wryly noted that, “Activision and Infinity Ward are perhaps the only game development companies that still portray Russia as a high-tech superpower, capable of bombing the U.S.”
Typically, most tactical shooter games use the scenario largely as a narrative setting for game play, with little overt political commentary. There is, however, a general tendency to portray U.S. or Western forces as the “good guys.” A Cuban website condemned “Call of Duty: Black Ops” (2010), set in the Cold War-era 1960s, as “perverse” for glorifying U.S. assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. (Clearly they hadn’t seen the optional scenario that has Castro, John F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon teaming up to defend the Pentagon from hordes of zombies.) When “Medal of Honor” was first released in 2010, its multiplayer option would have allowed players to assume not only the role of U.S. forces battling the Taliban, but also that of the Taliban battling U.S. forces. In the subsequent outcry, then-U.K. Defense Minister Liam Fox called for the game to be banned. The Canadian and Danish defense ministers criticized the game, as did some veterans and their families, while on U.S. military bases, exchanges refused to sell it. The publisher, Electronic Arts, ultimately tweaked the game by simply renaming the Taliban team as “Opposing Force.”
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In other cases, game designers outside the Western world have offered very different perspectives on conflict and international relations. The Syrian company Afkar Media, for example, published two games in which players assume the role of Palestinians battling the Israeli occupation, “Under Ash” (2001) and “Under Siege” (2005). Interestingly, both games strongly prohibit players from targeting civilians. The militant Lebanese Shiite Islamist group Hezbollah has produced and marketed two games that showcase its struggle against Israel, “Special Force” (2003) and “Special Force 2” (2007). More recently, the Vietnamese company Emobi Games released “7554” – a tactical shooter about the struggle against French colonial forces that commemorates the Vietnamese victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
In recent years, Iran has also produced a growing number of video games focused on nationalist topics. Perhaps the first of these was “Special Operation 85: Hostage Rescue” (2007), a tactical shooter pitting an Iranian agent against U.S. and Israeli forces, developed in direct response to the Kuma\War series. Other recent Iranian gamesinclude several with nationalist themes set amid the colonial era or the Iran-Iraq War. Some of these games appear to have been encouraged by the Iranian government as a riposte to their Western counterparts.
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By far the most successful case of state sponsorship of digital gaming for political reasons, however, is the “America’s Army” series produced for the U.S. Army. The games were specifically designed to improve the military’s image and spur recruitment, and indeed are integrated into some Army recruitment efforts. In the original edition, most scenarios were fought against insurgents, while in multiplayer games the opposing team appears as generic terrorists. In the latest version, “America’s Army 3” (2009), U.S. forces intervene to protect a threatened government against foreign aggression and address humanitarian needs, in a fictional scenario resembling the post-Yugoslavia Balkans.
In an era when digital games can be seen as both cultural challenges and possible tools of publicity and propaganda, and in the particular context of growing tensions between Washington and Tehran, it is hardly surprising that Iranian authorities might see Hekamti’s work with Kuma Games and his service with the U.S. military as proof of nefarious intent. Certainly, previous Kuma products had attracted considerable attention within Iran. And as electronic gaming continues to globalize and grow, it is unlikely to be the last incident of its kind.