Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: Amir Mirzaei Hekmati

Simulations miscellany, 12 April 2014


After having read or written some 16,529 emails during our week-long “Brynania” civil war simulation at McGill University that ended on April 7, I’m only now digging out from the backlog of other work that accumulated during that period. As part of clearing up my virtual desktop, here’s the latest PAXsims simulations miscellany!

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MokhtarThe Iranian video games industry provides interesting insight into both domestic and domestic politics. A case in point is a recent game release by conservative game designers (by which I mean “folks who create really crude mods of the 1990s first-person shooter Doom“), clearly aimed at Iranian reformists. According to IranWire:

The release of online video game “The Return of Mokhtar” has hit the headlines, dominating social network debates and commanding the attention of a number of news websites. Its aim, according to the game’s creators, is to pit the player against “symbols of sedition and imperialism”. And the game, which is available via the Nofuzi website, has received enthusiastic endorsement from the Pure Islamic Art Institute.

The symbols of “arrogance” are none other than the leaders of the Green Movement, who emerged during the disputed presidential elections of 2009 – namely, former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi, his wife, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami and prominent supporters.

Players move through corridors, advancing to the next stage after successfully shooting and killing an enemy. Instead of being rewarded with points, a player earns “insights”. If he or she fails to hit a target, they lose an “insight”; when they run out of them, the game is over and the player must start again.

The game’s title references the early days of Islam, when, in the 7th-century AD, Mokhtar bin Abu Ubaid Saqafi led a revolt against the governing Umayyad Caliphs. Mokhtar exacted revenge for the murder of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who refused to pledge allegiance to the Caliph. Though Mokhtar successfully executed many who had played a role in Imam Hossein’s death, he was eventually crushed by the Caliph’s army and lost his life. He became a martyr for Shi’a Muslims.

On its website, the Pure Islamic Art Institute promotes and celebrates “The Return of Mokhtar”. Initially launched as a design company in 2008, the institute registered as a non-profit organization in March 2010. Soon after, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance granted permission for it to operate a website, an indication that the institute had widespread approval among some of Iran’s most influential political and religious leaders. According to the site, the institute is made up of “a group of committed and expert young people who want to promote Islamic culture and art”. It lists “The Household of The Prophet Mohammad’ and ‘Islamic Revolution and The Holy Defense” among the most important topics it champions.

Despite this endorsement, the game met with some consternation from Hassan Moazemi, Vice-President for Communications at the National Foundation for Computer Games. “The makers of the game never submitted a request for a permit,” he said, “but now that it has been released, we are duty-bound to refer the matter to the responsible authorities, including the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, security forces and the judiciary, so they can take appropriate legal actions.”

“We will gather necessary information and pass it on to competent authorities,” he added, “so they can perform their legal responsibilities.”

Although the game isn’t directly aimed at current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it seems likely to me that his administration is an indirect target too.


Update: Sam Razavi notes that the game designers have removed the turban from the late reformist figure Mehdi Karroubi (see left), most likely because they are reluctant to associate “sedition” with a senior cleric.

h/t Sam Razavi 

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While on the subject of Iran and video games, former US Marine (and former employee of Kumar Games) Amir Hekmati has apparently been retried in secret in Iran, and sentenced to 10 years for “practical collaboration with the American government.” According to the New York Times:

Inside Iran, Mr. Hekmati’s case is viewed as highly political. He is considered a pawn in domestic infighting between hard-liners, who want him in prison, and moderates who want him freed as a good-will gesture to the United States.

“Basically the judiciary, which is under the control of hard-liners, is opposed to Hekmati’s release, but the Foreign Ministry, deeply involved in nuclear talks in which the U.S. plays a crucial role, wants him freed,” a person with knowledge of Mr. Hekmati’s case said, asking to remain anonymous in order to avoid complicating the prospects of his release.

In the past, Hekmati’s association with Kumar Games has provided part of the basis for the charges against him. You’ll find background on the case here (via al-Jazeera English), and on the Kumar games angle here (PAXsims).

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The BBC recalls the the great 1980s Dungeons & Dragons panic:

Looking back now, it’s possible to see the tendrils of a classic moral panic, and some elements of the slightly esoteric world of roleplaying did stir the imaginations of panicked outsiders.

“Since fantasy typically features activities like magic and witchcraft, D&D was perceived to be in direct opposition to biblical precepts and established thinking about witchcraft and magic,” says Dr David Waldron, lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University Australia and author of Roleplaying Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic. “There was also a view that youth had an inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.”

While the wilder claims about the nature of D&D tended to emanate from evangelical groups, they prompted wider suspicion.

“The memes from this campaign proliferated and, being published largely uncritically in the initial stages, led to a wide-ranging list of bizarre claims,” says Waldron. “For example, that when a character died you were also likely to commit suicide.”

h/t D&D paranoia from Chick Publications 

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In response to recent events, One Small Step is producing a 2014 update kit for owners of their Millennium Wars Ukraine wargame.

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Recently we mentioned This War of Mine, the forthcoming video game that places the player in the role of civilians trying to survive the conflict. You’ll find more on the project at Gamasutra.

h/t James Sterrett 

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The February-March newsletter of the US Department of Defence Modelling and Simulation Coordination Office (MSCO) is now available online:

This issue presents articles ranging from maximizing the educational value of virtual training to the design process of the velodrome used in the London 2012 Olympic games. Additional articles feature a new simulation and game institute at George Mason University, simulation based training, combat convoy simulator training, and the U.S. Air Force demonstrating energy resiliency in a mission critical environment. This edition also includes a list of upcoming events within the M&S Community.

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The April 2014 edition of the Journal of Defense Modelling and Simulation is now available.

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The latest news from the folks at Reacting to the Past:

We are pleased to announce that Jose Bowen and Judith Shapiro, both champions of active learning in higher education, will be our keynote speakers at the Fourteenth Annual Faculty Institute at Barnard College (New York, NY | June 5-8). Jose Bowen becomes President of Goucher College on July 1, 2014, and is the author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, winner of the Ness Award for Best Book on Higher Education (2013) from the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Bowen has won teaching awards at Stanford, Georgetown, Miami, and Southern Methodist University, where he was Dean of the Meadows School of the Arts. Judith Shapiro is President of the Teagle Foundation, where she promotes curricular reform and broader dissemination of successful pedagogical initiatives. She supported “Reacting to the Past” from its inception, and is President and Professor of Anthropology Emerita of Barnard College. In 2002, Shapiro received the National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Medal Award for her contribution as a leader in higher education for women.

Interested participants are encouraged to register early in order to ensure their space and game preferences at the institute. Faculty and administrators with experience teaching “Reacting to the Past” are also invited to submit a concurrent session proposal.  Proposals will be considered on a rolling basis, space permitting.

We also invite faculty and administrators to participate in our Regional Conference at Schreiner University (Kerrville, TX | April 25-27).  This regional event will feature two game workshops: The Trial of Anne Hutchinson: Liberty, Law, and Intolerance in Puritan New England andVictory or Death! The Consultation of 1835 and the Texas War for Independence (game under review).  Priority registration ends April 11, 2014. Visit the conference page to learn more.

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Existential Comics has had a couple of recent strips involving famous German philosophers playing boardgames. You’ll find examples here and below.



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.

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