Video game wars
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January 23rd, 2012
03:30 PM ET

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 TwitterRex Brynen is Professor of Political Science at McGill University and co-editor of the PAXsims blog on conflict simulation.

By Rey BrynenWorld Politics Review

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.

Read: Global Insights: Ahmadinejad's Latin American Tour Highlights Iran's Isolation

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.”

Read: Over the Horizon: The Defense Budget Revolution Won't Be Televised

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.

Read: The Realist Prism: Iran's Nuclear Pipedream, and Washington's

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.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Rey Brynen.

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Topics: Culture • Internet • Iran

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Rex Brynen

    The author's name, incidentally, is Rex Brynen, NOT "Rey" Brynen. I should know, being the author ;)

    January 23, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  2. Me

    I still laugh my guts out when I see people playing COD, my god Battlefield is by far way better.

    January 24, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • Mark Jadock

      That why I like the halo series. No ridiculous political scenarios

      January 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  3. RealPolitik

    The best demonstrative analogy of the current American foreign policy in the Middle East (and beyond) would be the "Master-Blaster" relationship in the third movie of the Mad Max trilogy – Beyond Thunderdome. You've got an ugly/weak rat-looking midget (Master) sitting on top of a giant muscle-bound retard who can't think for himself (Blaster) whom the former uses to terrorize everyone and impose his will and agenda on the Thunderdome. I'll let everyone discern for themselves who the Master and who the Blaster is in current global affairs...although it's pretty easy!

    January 24, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  4. COUNTER FITED DOLLARS AND IRAQI DINAR DONE BY IRAN

    علم هدهد سليمان ومن مصدر امني مهم , أن هناك طائرة نقل إيرانية تحط أسبوعيا في مطار النجف الاشرف وهي محملة بالمليارات من الدنانير العراقية المزورة من إيران وبعد ذلك يتم نقل هذه المليارات من الأوراق النقدية العراقية المزورة تحت حماية أمنية مشددة وبإشراف عدد معين من كبار المسئولين في أحزاب الائتلاف الوطني إلى البنك التجاري العراقي فرع النجف الاشرف لغرض إيداعها به , ومن ثم سحب البديل عنها بالعملة الصعبة والتي تقدر بالمليارات من الدولارات ثم تحمل سراً بنفس الطائرة لتقلع بها إلى طهران . this is a fact every week an Iranian plan fly to iraq and directly to najaf province not baghdad in this najaf province the evil province in iraq , this plan brings billions of Iraqi dinars faked Iran dinar from iran and exchange it with USA dollars in janaf under the watch of al hakeem and al maleki group, bringing billions of dollars back to iran and then give to Syria , Russia and Hezbollah. WHY USA DONT DO NOTHING , WHAT IS THE USE OF SANCTIONING IRAN AND KEEPING THE EVIL IRAQI PRIM MINSTER DOING THIS EVIL DEEDS WAKE UP OBAMA

    January 29, 2012 at 11:33 am | Reply
  5. Anna

    I think other website proprietors should take this site as an model, very clean and great user genial style and design, let alone the content. You are an expert in this topic! Good Work keep it up i will for sure tell my friends about this useful piece of information.

    January 30, 2012 at 8:50 am | Reply
  6. Simon

    This is why I still play the NES Castlevania; no political agenda, just kill Dracula...if you can.

    February 2, 2012 at 11:33 am | Reply
  7. CHINA AND RUSSIA HAVE BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS AND THEY MUST BE ELEMINATED ANY WHERE

    أكد وزير الخارجية التونسي رفيق عبد السلام اليوم السبت أن حكومة بلاده اتخذت قرارا بطرد السفير السوري في تونس، فيما أعلن الرئيس التونسي أن بلاده سحبت اعترافها بشرعية حكم الأسد، وذلك في وقت دعا فيه رئيس البرلمان العربي سالم الدقباسي الدول العربية لطرد السفراء السوريين المعتمدين لديها.

    وقال عبد السلام في مقابلة مع الجزيرة، إن قرار الحكومة التونسية جاء احتجاجا على المجازر التي جرت وتجري اليوم في حمص وفي غيرها من المدن السورية، وأوضح أن وزارته ستقوم بتنفيذ القرار في القريب العاجل وستستدعي سفيرها في دمشق.

    وتوقع الوزير أن تحذو معظم الدول العربية حذو بلاده في هذه الخطوة، وخص بالذكر مصر والمغرب ودول الخليج، وقال "نحن ننسق مع شركائنا في الدول العربية".

    February 5, 2012 at 2:39 am | Reply

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