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Q&A: How global conflict shows up in computer games

January 27, 2012 |  5:31 pm

Gamers try out the "Sphinx and the Shadow of Set" game at the 2003 E3 show


Earlier this month, an Iranian court handed a death sentence to a former U.S. Marine of Iranian descent who was convicted of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency. One strange twist in the case was that the defendant allegedly confessed to using video games to manipulate public opinion.

Iranian state television broadcast a purported confession by Amir Mirzaei Hekmati saying he worked for a gaming company that was funded by the CIA "to convince the people of the world and Iraq that what the U.S. does in Iraq and other countries is good and acceptable.”

Strange as it may seem, this isn’t the first time that video games have played a part in foreign disputes. Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal who co-edits a blog on conflict simulation, answered our questions about how computer games reflect global tensions.

How have video games caused disputes in Iran and elsewhere?

One of the biggest disputes is the current one in Iran. Hekmati worked for a period with Kuma games, which has published several titles that have displeased Iranian authorities.

In the Kuma\War series, two fictionalized scenarios are based on the U.S. Embassy hostage rescue mission of 1980, while another is based on a fictionalized American raid against an Iranian nuclear facility. The same company's "Sibaq al-Fursan" ("Race of the Knights") is an Arabic-language car racing game set in a radioactive post-apocalyptic Middle East, complete with Iranian villains.

There's no evidence that Hekmati was involved in these, that they are anything other than just games, or even that the gaming issue has much to do with his arrest and conviction. However, one can see how in the context of growing Iranian-U.S. tensions, even video games might be used by Tehran as evidence of nefarious American intent.

On a less serious note, an incident occurred a couple of years ago when a Cuban website condemned the game "Call of Duty: Black Ops" because part of it revolved around plots to kill [Fidel] Castro.

The game itself, however, also featured an optional level where a very-much-alive Castro teamed up with President Kennedy, Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon to defend the Pentagon from a zombie invasion -- hardly incitement against the Castro regime!

What's the strangest international game you've seen?

During a period of heightened domestic political tensions in Lebanon a few years ago, a video game surfaced in which you had to storm the Serail (the main Cabinet offices in Beirut) to try to kill then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. I was working for the Lebanese government at the time, and so it was a bit creepy to see a game which started with the player killing the guard I said good morning to each day.

How do global politics creep into video gaming?

As with television, films or books, international events can provide the backdrop to a game. A so-called tactical shooter game, for example, will largely be about shooting electronic enemies but will draw on current events or imagined future ones to provide the storyline.

In such cases, the treatment of politics is rarely very sophisticated. Instead, it is more of a hook to create a sense of engagement for the player. How the story is told, however, may tell us something about a society's fears, hopes and preoccupations: Not surprisingly, for example, a lot of games started using terrorism and insurgency themes after 9/11 and amid the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At times this can be controversial because the broader events are controversial -- for example, the issue of whether one should be able to play as the Taliban in the popular video game "Medal of Honor" sparked considerable debate a couple of years ago.

Video games may also be designed to promote certain views or political attitudes. The U.S. Army, for example, has developed the "America's Army" series of video games as a military recruiting tool since 2002.

The Iranian government, concerned at what it views as the bias of the Western video game industry, has promoted Iranian-made games that often focus on nationalist topics. The militant Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah has produced a couple of video games that glorify its military confrontation with Israel.

Do you think gamers absorb the messages about other countries? Or are we all taking this too seriously?

Certainly it can all be taken too seriously -- sometimes a game is just a game. However, it is also the case that games both reflect societal values and may in turn influence them as well. The U.S. military wouldn't be investing money in "America's Army" if didn't think that it improves their image and helps recruitment.

How are games designed outside the Western world different than here?

The major difference is one of historical perspective. The Vietnamese company Emobi Games, for example, recently released a "tactical shooter" game about the pivotal battle of Dien Bien Phu during the early Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, the Viet-Minh are the heroes in the game, and the French colonialists are the electronic opponent. I would expect to see much more of this as video game purchasing power grows in the non-Western world, especially in China.

The Chinese video game "Glorious Mission," to cite another example, is a sort of Chinese version of "America's Army," which extols the role of the People's Liberation Army and where the bad guys use U.S. military equipment.

Do gamers seem to prefer games with global themes, or would they rather just go after zombies?

The mass public is much more interested in casually blowing things up. Plus, it has to be said, going after zombies is cool, and there's no zombie lobby to complain.

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-- Emily Alpert

Photo: Gamers try out the "Sphinx and the Shadow of Set" game at the Interactive Digital Software Assn.'s E3 Expo 2003 gaming trade show in Los Angeles. Credit: David McNew / Getty Images

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