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The Video-Game Propaganda Wars

Authoritarian regimes are making games—and dissidents, too

Oliver Berg/AFP/Getty Images

A popular video game begins with a small, tactical team of highly trained commandos on a delicate mission behind enemy lines. Two nuclear scientists have been kidnapped, and are being held in a hostile country governed by a cabal of crazed military maniacs. To prevent Armageddon, the commandos—chiseled, professional, and patriotic—must blow away hordes of faceless and murderous opponents, brutes as skilled in combat as they are devoted to their extreme ideology. The game is short—only eight levels—so play it through, and you’ll feel proud to belong to the greatest nation on earth.  

Which is, of course, Iran. 

The PC game, Special Operation 85, came out in 2007, and is virtually indistinguishable from any American-made, war-themed first person shooter. The only difference is that instead of being named Huxley or McCullin, your character is Bahram Nasseri, Iran’s top agent, and his enemies—portrayed with the same silly relish reserved almost exclusively for Bond villains—are nefarious Americans and Israelis. The game sold tens of thousands of copies, a tremendous achievement in a country where technology is not frequently accessible and copyright laws are not frequently obeyed. 

The game’s success was encouraging. That same year, the Islamic Republic inaugurated the government-sponsored Iran National Foundation of Computer Game, which has proven to be instrumental in commissioning, financing, or otherwise supporting scores of games designed to promote the regime’s values at home and abroad. There’s Breaking the Siege of Abadan, which recreates one of the bloodiest battles of the Iran-Iraq War, or, for the more timid, Sara’s New Life, in which a young woman must “protect her morality" from carnal temptations. “The government,” as Vit Sisler, the world’s foremost researcher of the topic, put it in a recent talk at New York University, “believes in games.”

It isn’t hard to see why. From an authoritarian regime’s standpoint, video games serve two complementary purposes: They appeal to the young—about 70 percent of Iran’s population is under 30—much more intuitively than other forms of official communications; and they involve not just passive consumption of information but interactive, pulse-quickening engagement. Teaching kids about the great war with the neighbors to the west is one thing; making them relive it by gleefully slaying virtual Iraqis is another. 

But while Iranians are one target of the new initiative—the government has reportedly funded 140 games to date—Westerners are another. To hear Fars, the semi-official Iranian news agency, tell it, a state of Iranian gaming domination is upon us. “Secretary of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution Mokhber Dezfouli,” read one recent statement, “said Iran’s wide stride in designing and developing cultural products, specially computer and video games, for domestic and international markets has worried the west.” Evidence of this worrying does not exist. Iran regularly dispatches its representatives to international game expos around the world—although never to ones held in the United States—and has yet to find any major market for its virtual exports. 

While the scope of Iran's commitment to video games is exceptional, other regimes in the Middle East—as well as terrorist organizations—have followed its lead. Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group, released Special Force in 2003, claiming it had sold 100,000 copies of the game. And the Chinese army produced Glorious Mission, more or less a remake of the popular, U.S. Army–produced America’s Army, but with Americans as the villains.

Both of these efforts failed, and for the same reason. Video games make for excellent educational tools when it comes to some skills—tackling math, say, or learning how to play the piano—but as a conduit for ideology, they are problematic. Belief, like every other product of the human heart, is riddled with ambiguity and nuance. Games, even the best ones, have no room for such uncertainties. They depend on a rigid and algorithmic progression. Couple that with an overt attempt at indoctrination, and you get the crudest sort of propaganda, the kind that appeals to none but the already convinced. 

All of this, of course, is not to say that games are incapable of stirring up complex feelings. But to overcome the repetitive, fast-paced, and frequently desensitizing nature of gameplay, they must present not only particularly compelling plotlines, but also the sort of emotional engagement that feels inherent to the game itself. Tetris, to name but one famous example, does that very well; to see those lines rushing down is to feel a jolt of existential anxiety, of time running out, of death looming large. Producing such raw and mercurial emotions is hard enough; harnessing them in the service of ideas and beliefs is nearly impossible. Yet that’s just what one Syrian game designer managed to do.

Although he recently fled his native Damascus for the safety of Hong Kong, Radwan Kasmiya had always been an astute observer of the gaming scene in the Arab and Islamic world. And what he saw didn’t please him: Most games, he noticed, did little more than, to quote Vit Sisler, reverse “the polarities of the narrative and iconographical stereotypes … by substituting the Arab Muslim hero for the American soldier.” And Kasmiya wanted to do something different. The result was a series of games that not only convey a significant amount of historical information—history, unlike theology, is easier to reduce into bite-sized, game-ready bits—but also a rare emotional impact. 

Play Under Siege, for example, a game focusing on five Palestinians and their reactions to the Israeli occupation, and it soon becomes evident that any attempt at picking up a gun and joining the violent resistance is doomed to have you killed. Non-violent efforts are equally futile and just as deadly. This makes for a disturbing game-play experience: Unable to experience the cathartic moment of victory at the end of most video games, anyone playing Under Siege is forced not only to think about the desperation of the Palestinian situation but to feel a tiny fraction of it, too.

And while Kasmiya’s work appeals to the heart, other agit-prop designers have focused on cool rationality. An independent Italian game called Riot, for example, is a tactically minded interactive manual for activists set on clashing with the police. Allowing players to assume the role of both the boys in blue and the anarchists in black, it is a highly effective tool for playing out potential confrontational scenarios. Very little of the traditional titillation of video games is on offer here; the game is little more than a whiteboard for an uprising.

Of course, in terms of production values and popularity alike, both of these games pale in comparison to the blockbusters that dominate the industry, but they have gained a greater following than the polished, big-budget titles produced by China, Iran, or Hezbollah. What separates effective and ineffective propaganda games, after all, isn't the producer—whether a government or dissident—but the production: whether the story is conventionally told or delivered as a revolutionary alternative to the mainstream.

This debate is nothing new: The Soviet filmmakers working in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution were equally divided between experimentalism and realism. And as the propaganda-game genre continues to grow—the North Koreans, never ones to miss out on a good opportunity for brainwashing, released their own terrible game earlier this year—we’re likely to see more contenders in both categories. And if film history is anything to go by, then straight-forward, big-budget, uncomplicated games are likely to outsell over anything demanding a greater intellectual and emotional investment. But today, almost a century after it was made, we still revere the ground-breaking Battleship Potemkin, even as we’ve forgotten nearly all of the Soviets' realist propaganda schlock. It’s likely we’ll judge Under Siege and Riot just as kindly, even if some of us disagree with their political messages. After all, in video games, like in revolutions, relentless innovation and challenging conventions are what keep the cause alive.