Video-Games & Public Diplomacy: Aaron Mannes in the NY Sun

Today’s New York Sun has an op-ed I co-authored with my boss, University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies director, V.S. Subrahmanian on incorporating video games into the war of ideas against Islamist extremism.

Gaming: Tactical Advantage

November 14, 2007

When Hezbollah released the second version of its video game “Special Force” in August, it demonstrated, yet again, how quickly terrorist groups have taken advantage of technology in order to propagate their worldview. While America dominates the fastgrowing multi-billion dollar video game industry, there has not yet been an effort to develop video games that counter Islamist extremism.

“Special Force 2” updates the 2002 video game with scenarios based on last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah: players kidnap Israeli soldiers, fire missiles at an Israeli gunboat, and launch Katyusha rockets into Israel. When the game was released a Hezbollah press official, Sheikh Ali Dahir, described it as a recruiting tool stating, “The Lebanese child has the right to know what happened in the south so as to imitate the jihadist action and the act of liberating the land.”

Mr. Dahir also showed Hezbollah’s sophisticated understanding of communications when he described “Special Force” as “an alternative to the Western patterns that are presented to us in names, language, and tones that are sometimes devoid of content and at other times for not so innocent aims.”

Hezbollah is not the only organization using video games as a strategic communications tool. There is a growing movement to develop video games to educate the public on various issues. The U.S. military has long used electronic simulations for training. In 2005, the Army released an online game, “America’s Army,” as a recruiting tool. But this understanding of the power of video games has not penetrated American efforts to reach out to moderate Muslims.

True, Hezbollah’s game designers have the easier task. Hezbollah’s anti-Israel message resonates throughout the greater Middle East and last summer’s war provides a ready-made narrative. Games that are blatantly pro-American will only come off as ham-handed propaganda.

The point of waging a war of ideas is not to make America more popular. It is to foster attitudes and ideas that marginalize extremists. Increasingly sophisticated and supporting complex narratives, video games could be an ideal platform for the subtle transmission of values and an essential component in the war of ideas.

The best propaganda doesn’t look like propaganda, and for video games to be successful they must be fun. Fun is a worthwhile value in and of itself, particularly for people caught in the midst of terrible circumstances, but it can also be a tactical asset.

Nations have come to virtual standstills for crucial episodes of beloved television shows. Violence in Baghdad dipped during Saddam Hussein’s trial, as Iraqis were glued to their televisions to watch their former tormentor face justice. In particular, video games could be a crucial tool for reaching young men, the same demographic targeted for recruitment by terrorists.

The possibilities for video games targeted at Muslims throughout the world that marginalize extremist ideologies are limitless. Shoot-em-up games that give players the chance to rescue their countrymen from bloodthirsty terrorists could reinforce the message that Muslims themselves are the primary victims of Islamic extremists.

Other values can be fostered in more complex games modeled on popular strategy games like “Civilization.” These games can help introduce players to the workings of open political systems and modern economies, and even make the subtle case for the education of women. Different games could be developed for different regions. A soccer game based on the venerated Iraqi national soccer team could help foster national consciousness among Iraqis, whereas a different game could be designed for cricket-mad Pakistan. Battery powered handheld games could be developed for areas where computers are scarce or electricity is inconsistent.

Video games can be funny as well. Popular sitcoms like “The Simpsons” have inspired video game spin-offs. Humor is an essential communications tool for building bridges and for ridiculing shared enemies.

Since September 11, policy-makers have been calling for a war of ideas. Terrorists have consistently and quickly adapted their message to the most popular and accessible media. To win the war of ideas, America must adapt to the new forms of spreading their message as well. Video games are one of the great communications tools of this century; it is time to take them seriously. The extremists already do.

Mr. Mannes, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory of Computational Cultural Dynamics, is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. Mr. Subrahmanian, a professor of computer science, is the director of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

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5 Responses

  1. Interesting piece.

    How would such an effort proceed without a shut-down of all the madrassahs? What about all the oil money? Would the State Department allow it?

    Isn’t Islam extreme anyway?

  2. Thanks for writing.

    Video games would only be one aspect – but a potentially important one in the war against radical Islam. It is a tactic, not a strategy. Helping Muslim countries develop an effective education system is another aspect. It will take much, much longer. Despite the oil money, the U.S. has tremendous resources – it is a matter of will. As for State, every president complains about the bureaucracy (not just State, the other departments as well). The best Presidents combine vision and cunning and get the departments to play ball.

    The inherent extremism of Islam is a big question – watch this space for more on this topic.

  3. Hezbollah outsourced this – the guys who created the new game licensed the FarCry engine from a German company (with Turkish founders) and then modded it to include their character graphics and sets… and the first game used a free gaming engine – so they showed they were not just creative but innovative. The top person in the company that made the new game for Hezbollah is a young guy – who ironically enough got his education through distance learning … from a school in the US. So it is not just governments (or quasi-governments like Hezbollah), but cooperation between govt and private groups that can lead to faster turn-around of new products. So it was not just Hezbollah making this, and the US and Western govts have to know that they have to be just as innovative and creative in partnerships.

  4. Great comment and absolutely right. Terrorists, insurgents, and trans-national criminals are innovative in their use of readily available technology. So it isn’t really about the technology (which is developed in the West, primarily) but the creative use it is put to. A key feature of these groups is that they are flexible and can act quickly – getting inside of the decision-making cycle of the governments they target. To defeat them, new more flexible structures will be necessary. Also, there is a movement to develop socially conscious games – there is no reason a similar NGO approach couldn’t be effective in developing games to counter-act radicalization.

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