“All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably proaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda… when artists or art critics make the assertion that art excludes propaganda, what they are saying is that their kind of propaganda is art, and other kinds of propaganda are not art. Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is the other fellow’s doxy.” – Upton Sinclair
A few months ago I wrote about America’s Army, a first person shooter game developed by the U.S. Army as a recruitment tool for young people. In it, the player participates in a round-based tactical confrontation with other players online, simulating realistic combat conditions. Judging from the series’ more than 11 million registered users who have played a combined 260 million hours, America’s Army has achieved a level of acceptance in American society.
The U.S. is not the only country where government actors have created a game as a recruitment tool. In Lebanon, the armed political and religious group Hezbollah has created its own video game franchise, in a similar vein to America’s Army. The Special Force games place the players in the shoes of a Hezbollah mujahid fighting against Israel. The most recent entry into the series, Special Force 2, was published on the anniversary of the 2006 war fought between Israel and Hezbollah.
Special Force 2 places the player in the midst of the 2006 war, reenacting several of Hezbollah’s victorious battles in the 34-day conflict. In the first mission, the player carries out the July 16 raid which captured two Israeli border patrol soldiers and brought them back into Lebanon to force a prisoner exchange. The second and third missions showcase battles where Hezbollah repulsed Isreali offensives – in Bint Jabril, a town that remained in Hezbollah position despite three Israeli attempts to take it, and in Wadi al Hujeir, a valley where Hezbollah guerrillas were able to hold off a massive Israeli offensive. A further challenge allows the player to capture a fictional island and sink a destroyer.
The propaganda twist with which Special Force 2 represents these battles is fascinating, if not exactly subtle. Lebanon is depicted as a bird-filled forest, with green, rolling hills; Israel is silent desert. At close range, Israeli soliders’ lips curl into a snarl – when killed, they fall to the ground calling out for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Video cutscenes between missions only depict dead or defeated Israelis, or Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah shouting before cheering crowds. It’s a one-sided depiction of the war, which in reality Hezbollah won only at great cost. At no point does the player learn that close to 1,200 Lebanese were killed in the conflict, or that Lebanese infrastructure suffered nearly to $2.5 billion in damages. Everything culminates to glorify Hezbollah as protectors of the realm, and the military equal (or superior) to Israel.
Upon release, the game garnered little reaction (save scorn) from western audiences, but in the Arab world Special Force 2 gained plenty of positive attention. Special Force 2 quickly ran out of its initial 100,000 physical copies and soon became available for free online. The audience was Arab youth in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Bahrain and the UAE, but before too long, an unofficial English patch was created so that non-arabic speakers could play the game as well. It is difficult to know how many people were playing the game, but by all accounts, Special Force 2 had reasonable staying power. A friend of mine reported to have seen the game played in Lebanese internet cafes more than three years after its initial launch.
The Special Force games showcase one way that governments can communicate with an audience using interactive media. They are a recruitment tool, proudly displaying Hezbollah’s military successes over Israel and projecting the career of a mujahid as one of power and strength. Speaking about the first game in the series, Mahmoud Rayya, an official from the Hezbollah media bureau, told the Daily Star that “in a way, Special Force offers a mental and personal training for those who play it, allowing them to feel that they are in the shoes of the resistance fighters.”
The game also provides an opportunity for youth to “resist the Israeli occupation through the media,” according to Rayya. The box cover on the original Special Force declared that “the designers of Special Force are very proud to provide you with this special product, which embodies objectively the defeat of the Israeli enemy and the heroic actions taken by heroes of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon… Be a partner in the victory. Fight, resist and destroy your enemy in the game of force and victory.” By fighting in simulations of real battles, Arab youth experience these moments of Arab victories against Israel as a matter of personal agency. In a way, the game allows them to feel as thought they are a part of the battle against Israel, and that they can win.
For a game that stands so starkly to Western game experiences, Special Force 2 relies heavily on the work of Western developers. The game was built from assets illegally stripped the 2004 game Far Cry, developed by the German company Crytech and published by Ubisoft. Player controls, gun models, vehicles, animations, A.I. behaviors are all pulled from the original game, sometimes with a visual overhaul but often copied in their entirety. Whereas the Far Cry games take place in a tropical, leafy environment, Special Force 2 is largely barren. Looking at the game it’s clear to see which assets were created by Crytech and which were developed by Hezbollah – the quality of the textures as well as the level of detail applied to game objects is somewhat inferior for the latter.
The games market in the Arab world is growing, but still largely ignored by the majority of games publishers and developers. Most focus on North America, Europe, and South Asia as their primary markets, maintaining virtually no presence in the Middle East and North Africa. Few foreign games dedicate the time or expense to translating their game to Arabic, which would require the conversion of their engines to a right-to-left writing system. Many Western games are furthermore perceived as culturally insensitive. In this space, games like Special Force 2 have greater appeal. Mahmoud Rayya states that Special Force was “designed to compete against foreign computer games that show Arabs as enemies and Americans as the heroes that defeat them.” Arab youth looking for a game that caters to Arab experiences may find much appealing in Special Force’s unique message.
Special Force 2 is undoubtedly a propaganda game. For its one-sided depiction of the 2006 war with Israel, and for the demonization of enemy soldiers, the game has earned that title. Yet one could also argue that Hezbollah has simply done with a modern day war what many commercial American games have done with wars from history. Here in the U.S., there is an impressive litany of World War 2 games that pit the player against a one-dimensional German or Japanese foe. As terrible as either of these imperialist powers may have been, can we reasonably claim that American games as an industry represent war with more depth or subtlety than Special Force 2?
An excellent Extra Credits lecture points out that our ability to recognize propaganda in games often depends on whether we agree with the game’s underlying message. In recognizing Special Force 2 as a propaganda game, we must also be prepared to question whether the games that we play present a truthful reflection of reality or simply one that fits with our own preconceptions. It is also worth remembering that Special Force 2 represents a broadly held narrative in the Middle East, and that for many, it is less of a propaganda game than others produced here in the United States.
Follow Derek Gildea on Twitter: @derekpost
Readers interested in learning more about Special Force 2 may be interested in watching an analytical video series produced by the author, available here.
In the last few days much talk on has centered around Apple’s recent rejection of of an app called Endgame: Syria. The event has many lamenting Apple’s policies regarding violence in games, which insists that enemies in in software “cannot solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity.” But the game itself deserves some attention for how it uses mechanics to inform the user about a complicated issue: the real-world Syrian civil war.
Endgame: Syria rests somewhat uncomfortably in the mainstream conception of a “game”. The app places the player in the midst of the modern Syrian conflict, asking him or her make decisions for the rebels and guide them in their struggle to gain public support and inflict military damage upon the regime. Though it presents a complicated issue with a somewhat simple perspective, Endgame ia an interesting case study on how games address serious issues.
Endgame doesn’t seek to be a simulator – to accurately reflect the complex interplay between politics, society, and war in Syria – but it does impart a basic understanding of the sort of challenges faced by the Syrian opposition. The player makes decisions during two “phases” of interaction: the Political stage, where the player strives to earn support from world leaders and enact various sanctions against the regime, and the Military stage, where rebels face off against powerful government forces.
Through gameplay, Endgame emphasizes the relationship between the military and political achievements of the Syrian rebels. Support from Qatar, or Saudi Arabia, or France in one phase directly translate into support during another, supplying the rebels with resources necessary to employ fighters. By placing the user in the position of making these important decisions, the game instructs the player on how vital these international supply lines are. Quite apart from being told that politics are important to the rebel cause, the player experiences the reality of resource scarcity firsthand.
As the game progresses, the regime steadily brings greater and more powerful forces to bear, including tanks, helicopters, and jets. The opposition must work with smaller forces, typically infantry. The player is presented with an attack from the regime and must choose which among his or her (mostly inadequate) forces will be selected to repel the opposing fighters. Using more powerful engines of destruction – captured tanks, often – results in a greater fighting chance but endangers the lives of civilians, which directly translates to a loss of foreign and domestic support. Placing the player in the shoes of an opposition leader making these decisions makes the combat realities of the Syrian rebels a little more understandable.
Endgame falls into a series of games which force the player to make difficult decisions and come to understand the perspective of real-life decision makers. Like Impact Game’s Peacemaker, which places the player in the role of either an Israeli or Palestinian leader in the peace process, Endgame revolves around making difficult choices where short-term decisions have long-term consequences regarding public approval and support. Sitting down in front of either of these games, the player can experience the challenges faced by a Syrian opposition commander, who has to balance waging a war with protecting civilians, or an Israeli politician, for whom ordering the evacuation of a settlement may amount to political suicide.
The experience is certainly an interesting way to encourage the average consumer, playing the game on an Android device or in a browser, to engage with the Syrian conflict that has claimed more than 60,000 lives to date.
Not everything about the game is perfect. Issue might be taken with Endgame: Syria’s somewhat simplified and smoothed take on a very messy war. The conflict is distilled down to monolithic representations of the regime and the rebels, leaving aside, for the most part, a wealth of sectarian and political subdivisions that exist on both sides. In having the player always responding to regime attacks, the rebels are presented as generally on the defensive, while real-life opposition forces have been on the offensive seizing land and making strategic gains across the country. Nowhere in the game is the player presented with the option of brutally executing captured regime soldiers, an act which has occurred after opposition victories and makes at least some of the rebels liable to be indicted for war crimes. For all its ambition to convey some of the challenges of a rebellion with legitimate grievances, the game runs into the classic problem of media surrounding conflict: how to tell a compelling story without wandering into the realm of propaganda?
Yet while the game may provide a simplified version of the regime and the rebels, it might be forgiven. Endgame: Syria provides a more serious take on war than most games on the market. Each of the player’s choices are connected with the inevitable death of civilians, driving home the reality that the war he or she is waging has real-world consequences for innocents. The game has multiple end states, including a peace deal that fully satisfies none of the parties, and a violent breakup of the nation into chaos. Most often, the player will simply lose, succumbing to Assad forces and leaving the dictator to rule over a broken country. Far from being a power fantasy in the vein of the world’s Call of Duty franchise, Endgame: Syria conveys an ambiguous, inglorious image of war… uncommon enough, in the games market today.
The game’s designer, Tomas Rawlings, is well aware of the challenges associated with engaging with a serious topic through a medium most often associated with frivolous entertainment. The trailer above was released alongside Endgame, as a sort of introductory primer for audiences unfamiliar with viewing games in a serious style. In the video, Rawlings pays homage to the work of Joe Sacco, whose exploration of the Palestinian conflict through a comic is an example of what Rawlings considers to be a “pioneer” of a addressing serious topics in non-traditional mediums. Sacco’s work addresses the themes of death, loss, and suffering in a medium that until recently was considered only appropriate for less serious fare. Rawlings, the creators a game focusing on rebellion and warfare, seeks to have Endgame exist within a similar space.
Today, comics appear to have made the leap into cultural acceptance in a way that games have yet to accomplish. Yet one can see that the two mediums have undergone similar journeys. One of the most famous serious comic series, Maus by Art Spiegelman, tells the story of the author’s father’s experience of the Halocaust. Although he eventually received the Pulitzer prize for his work, Spiegelman often worried that the story might be too complicated for comics to convey. Games, it seems, are beginning to experience a similar trial. ”It is not the medium that is the issue,” says Rawlings, “but what you do with it.” Endgame: Syria is an honest look at a complicated issue, and is what we should hope to see in the medium of games.
As a company Google has a reputation for being clever, but their latest Android app Ingress seems like a particularly intelligent method of gathering data from their ever expanding user base.
Developed in Google’s Niantic Labs division, the game makes use of mobile phones’ geolocation abilities and augmented reality for a unique gameplay experience. Users join one of two secret factions that are battling over what to do with an energy source that is entering into our world. The creators of the game urge players to “move through the real world using your Android device… to discover and tap sources of this mysterious energy. Acquire objects to aid in your quest, deploy tech to capture territory, and ally with other players to advance the cause of the Enlightened or the Resistance.”
Why is this clever? Ingress, as does Niantic Lab’s earlier project Field Trip, encourages players to walk around outside, travel from point to point around within their city. This data is invaluable for a company seeking to find the best possible walking routes in a crowded cosmopolitan environment. In addition to its normal complex algorithms, Google is cajoling its users to provide it with real-world-data on how best to get from point A to B on foot. This can help Google to further improve the quality of its Google Maps application, both on smart phones and for its Google Glass project, whenever that arrives.
Tech Crunch’s Darrell Etherington points out that the game follows in the footsteps of start-developers like Massive Damage, whose games Please Stay Calm and Shadow Cities use location-based gameplay. But whereas those games are available to anyone with a smartphone, access to Ingress is limited to a closed-beta set of users… possibly to enhance the mystique surrounding the game.
The takeaway is that organizations like Google are using games to gather information in new and effective ways. By wrapping data collection in the trappings of an engaging interactive experience, Ingress is actually fueling a desire amongst its users to provide it with information (and giving the company positive coverage to boot.) NGOs and governments can find a lesson in this – by creating a games project that is worth engaging with, they can shape users’ behavior and thinking.
Earlier this month Take Five launched a series on serious games and the way that various organizations use games as a tool to communicate. This week, we take closer look at how the military has been using games to pursue its recruiting and public relations goals.
In some ways, the Department of Defense has an easy job relating to the American media. Americans seem to like action and violence. Soldiers and government spies consistently break records at the movies and games box office – the military shooter franchise Call of Duty, for example, is worth over $3 billion dollars and is one of the most profitable franchises in gaming history.
It should be no surprise, therefore, that DoD has some influence this scene, giving advice and support to many movies and games companies regarding how things are done in the military. The army even has a consultation bureau which will offer government support as long as the production in question adheres to some strict guidelines about the depiction of the military. Government consultation with a franchise lends it an air of legitimacy, although viewers of last February’s film “Act of Valor”, in which the actors were active-duty Navy SEALs, can affirm that it is no guarantor of quality. While there are plenty of movies critical of the U.S. government and the intelligence or military branches, the Defense Department is at least able to operate and influence the military-oriented media scene, generating popular content that projects the U.S. military in a positive light.
Games, as well as movies, are starting to occupy the military’s attention in some interesting ways. As with other forms of media, DoD’s goal in gaming is to increase public understanding of the Armed Forces and the Department of Defense and to assist Armed Forces recruiting and retention programs. One of its more successful forays into the games world is the “America’s Army“ franchise, a first-person shooter (FPS) series developed and published by the U.S. armed forces. The game places a heavy emphasis on realism; the models of weapons and their sound effects are accurate to real world weapons; the player’s aim is affected by whether he is running or standing. Considerable emphasis, too, is placed on encouraging teamwork among the player soldiers.
Part of the reason for this success is that the mechanics of the series fall so neatly into existing frameworks for play. First-person shooter games have been around since the early 1990s and, in addition to having been huge earners for games consoles, spawned an entire generation of designers who know how to construct exactly how to create them. “America’s Army”, fitting neatly into this genre, is able to draw upon decades of game design; All that is required is to translate the Army’s field manual into a design document for gameplay. On the consumer end of the process, little effort is required to incorporate the game into the existing scene. The fact that American culture already regularly consumes entertainment media revolving around the military ensures that what the Defense Department has to say, people will pay to experience.
Games seem to fit well with the DoD’s ethos on a mechanical level. Games often revolve competition, cooperation, and the achievement of goals – not to mention the violence that so often fascinates a human audience. These concepts are the Defense Department’s very bread and butter, and what makes video games such an effective medium and tool for the military branch of the U.S. government. Games like “America’s Army” are important for internal consumption as well as external – since the army owns every asset that goes into the game, it can re-use the materials for other projects, such as training software.
When next week we look at State Department’s cautious foray’s into games, we’ll be asking a number of the same questions. What are State’s goals with games? What challenges does the organization face in using the medium as a tool? Stay tuned.
Those interested in using innovative methods to spread a message might take an interest in the Half the Sky Movement, an organization dedicated to promoting gender equality in developing nations. This November, Half the Sky will release a game on Facebook. What makes this game interesting – and potentially, will allow it to stand out on a platform usually dedicated to lighter fare – is the way that it links in-game behavior to real-world events. From the organization’s website:
“…Helping in-game does not only reward the players online. Players’ actions and virtual items are tied to micro-donations and matching donations from sponsors that extend to the real world: building schools, donating livestock to farmers or supporting new micro-saving programs. Beyond monetary contributions, players will be invited to share their good deeds with friends and “recruit” them, volunteer their time, organize groups, as well as engage in movies and narratives presented in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”
Half the Sky’s venture is the latest in a burgeoning trend in the games world – the use of “serious games,” or games designed for a primary purpose other than entertainment, to impact real world events. Watchers of the tech world may remember last year when a players of the game Foldit managed in three weeks to create a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, a challenge that had stumped scientists in the field for more than a decade. The project, funded by DARPA, now seeks to develop a protein to help fight sepsis. In this way, scientists are hoping to employ every-day human intuitive and puzzle-solving abilities to resolve problems that typically require advanced degrees and the use of supercomputers.
One wonders whether the U.S. Government, which has been working to incorporate other modern innovations such as social media, would benefit from games as a communication tool. Tech@State, the State Department’s body dedicated to applying technology to U.S. diplomacy, has shown a level of interest. Last May the organization hosted a conference on serious games featuring a variety of NGOs who use the medium. Doubtless someone at State is contemplating that if games can be employed to combat disease and promote gender equality, they might be used to present the U.S. favorably abroad. If not, someone should be.
I believe that games can be of use to for public diplomacy, but only if State realizes that it will be held to the same standard as the rest of the industry. For games to impact a player, they must be engaging – people will turn off a boring game as quickly as they switch from a boring broadcast. To date, the State Department hasn’t generated much by the way of interesting content – it has contracted out companies to produce a few basic apps on topics like U.S. trivia, or oceans. I’ve played several of these. Suffice it to say that they are not explosions of creativity and entertainment.
Those interested might find find Jane McGonigal’s lectures at TED conferences to be worth watching. McGonigal is focused on motivating people to contribute to causes, and not necessarily PR, but she’s a source worth hearing on how games can move people to think and act differently. Start from 16:31 for examples of “serious gameplay” – fascinating stuff.