TEHRAN -- Iranians have scaled back as their economy is squeezed by Western sanctions, scrimping on meat and cutting down on small luxuries.
But now those pressures have intruded on a world that once seemed safe from geopolitical wrangling: an online fantasy realm of goblins, dragons and warlocks enjoyed by more than 9 million paying subscribers around the world.
Sanctions by the United States, it seems, have hit "World of Warcraft."Iranian gamers took to the "World of Warcraft" message board this week, complaining that they had been shut out of the online game. “Well, as if life of an Iranian couldn't get worse, the Battle.net became completely inaccessible as of today,” one "World of Warcraft" fan wrote in frustration.
Another lamented, “Well we had a good run, Goodbye cruel world ...”
Some speculated that the Iranian government must have shut them down, concerned that the game glorified mythology and violence. But a gaming company employee replied this week that U.S. sanctions were to blame for Iranians getting booted after paying for the game.
Blizzard Entertainment, the U.S. company behind the popular game, “tightened up its procedures to ensure compliance with these laws, and players connecting from the affected nations are restricted from access,” one of its employees explained in an online message to gamers.
The same rules stopped Blizzard from offering refunds, the employee wrote. “We apologize for any inconvenience this causes and will happily lift these restrictions as soon as U.S. law allows.”
The U.S. Treasury Department said it hadn't asked Blizzard to block the game and referred questions about the decision to the company. It said that Blizzard could seek government permission to get Iranians back into online warfare.
“Clearly the focus of our sanctions is not on video games,” U.S. Treasury spokesman John Sullivan said. “We would consider a license request from Blizzard Entertainment should they choose to apply for one.”
Other Iranian gamers say that even though they are blocked, they can dodge the restrictions by using software that connects them to networks based outside Iran. Hamid, a 25-year-old software designer, said he had outgrown "World of Warcraft" -– once his favorite game -- but now uses the same technology for virtual gambling.
The drawback is that the software drags down Internet speed, cutting back on the excitement of the game. It can also expire or be hacked by authorities, sending gamers to seek new fixes.
Despite those annoyances, “it is no problem,” said Sohrab, an engineer and educational software salesman in Iran. “Finding a way to bypass Internet blockages is their daily routine.”
U.S. sanctions have grown ever tighter as the West tries to pressure Iran to curb its disputed nuclear program. Though Iran says it is enriching uranium solely for peaceful purposes, the U.S. and Israel suspect that it is working to gain the ability to make a weapon. New American restrictions were ordered at the end of July, adding to the economic pressures on the country.
The realization that the same pressures that have pinched Iranians in the real world could intrude on their online fantasies was galling to gamers in Iran and elsewhere.
"Global politics are a sad fact of life and can even affect a game like this that has bought people together from different countries and backgrounds," one of them wrote mournfully on the message board.
--Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles. Alex Pham in Los Angeles contributed.
Photo: An image from the game "World of Warcraft." Credit: Blizzard Entertainment