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Couch of Duty

Five reasons why video games are lousy propaganda.

When Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, the alleged U.S. spy sentenced to death by Iran, confessed to his captors that he had been designing video games for the CIA, it seemed to confirm our darkest fears. When governments routinely practice "information operations" in the real world, why shouldn't they do the same in our virtual worlds?

Hekmati's confession was delivered from an Iranian jail cell, so one has to assume it was made under duress. There is reason, however, to suspect that spooks are looking to the video game market to advance their agenda -- as the saying goes, even paranoids have real enemies. And it's not paranoid to note that Hekmati's former employer, New York-based Kuma Games, publishes Kuma War, a free shooter game played over the Internet, where players can assume the role of U.S. soldiers in 85 missions with titles such as "Baghdad Surge" and "Assault on Iran." Although there is no evidence that Kuma is a CIA contractor, its games are a propagandist's dream.

Kuma isn't the first company to produce games that would warm the heart of any neocon. Blockbuster shooter titles such as Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty, which portray U.S. soldiers fighting traditional bogeymen such as terrorists, Iran, and China, already take a stridently nationalist tone. What Pentagon press officer wouldn't love a game where American warriors embark on a whirlwind of slaying mujahideen, destroying Chinese tanks, or fighting North Korean invaders in San Francisco?

A growing number of so-called "serious games" also consciously seek to deliver a message. Perhaps the most successful is America's Army, the popular first-person shooter designed as a U.S. Army recruiting tool. Other games have been used to publicize genocide in Darfur or treat cancer-stricken children.

The U.S. Army is also transforming games into a cornerstone of training -- an inexpensive way to reach 18-year-old recruits who would snore through a PowerPoint lecture. And if the U.S. military can use games to destroy its enemies, why shouldn't America's enemies return the favor? Hamas and Hezbollah have produced their own video shooters, while in Iran's "Special Operation 85," it's the turn of U.S. and Israeli soldiers to be slaughtered by an Iranian commando unit.

Video games would seem to be ideal propaganda tools. Where comic books and newsreels once enthralled the Greatest Generation, today's millennials are in love with video games. American consumers, for example, spent $25 billion on games in 2010, while gamers worldwide play 3 billion hours a week. Games also offer advantages over traditional propaganda mediums like television or newspapers: They are interactive and immersive, they and deliver challenge, competition, and the hands-on triumph of personally gunning down enemies.

Although it has been argued almost ad nauseam by both opponents and detractors, a video game does not persuade players of the necessity for violence -- it simply thrusts them into the role of a combatant, where they can only win the game by actively, albeit virtually, killing enemies (with foreign names and thick accents). Who could blame a CIA spymaster for pondering whether games could be used to demonize Iran or vilify Venezuela? And who says that only governments could do this? One can imagine interest groups surreptitiously funding a game in which environmentalists are portrayed as lunatics or ecoterrorists, or where characters casually mention that America needs to drill for oil. With product placement already a feature of video games, political messaging is inevitable.

Yet before gamers see men in black lurking behind every virtual shadow, let's put down the Mountain Dew and take a deep breath. Video games have significant drawbacks as purveyors of propaganda. Here are five reasons:

1. Video games are time-consuming. A propaganda movie like Triumph of the Will, which glorified Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, delivered its sinister message in only one hour and 54 minutes. Some video games take 60 or more hours to complete. With today's audience barely having the time or attention span for a five-minute YouTube video, it's no wonder that only 10 percent of gamers actually finish games. This limits the time that virtual propagandists have to make their pitch. Those three-minute, 25-cent games in the college student center from the 1980s were popular, but they weren't propaganda.

2. Video games are expensive to produce. Big publishers spend as much as $60 million to develop a single title. Yes, just as there are lots of indie movies, there are plenty of indie games out there with cheaper budgets. But which movie grabbed more attention: Avatar or the avant-garde flick at the local art-house cinema? At the least, developing a video game with enough glitz to attract a large audience may break the budgets of non-Western countries or less wealthy interest groups.

3. Video games have a short shelf life. There is little sense in developing a game that advocates military intervention in Syria when it ends up in the discount rack three weeks after release.

4. Video games run the risk of blowback. Let's say the CIA funds a video game in India that contains a subtle message in support of bombing Iran. But the game is pirated, and it ends up being played by American gamers. Does this violate the prohibition against CIA domestic operations?

5. Video games must be worth playing. Triumph of the Will was devastating Nazi propaganda because it was a cinematic masterpiece. But despite huge budgets and skilled designers and artists, many games are mediocre or even downright bad. They are buggy, frustrating to play, or too much like last month's game. This doesn't stop the public from buying new titles, but it does mean they don't play them long enough for a political message to sink in.

All this doesn't mean that video games won't be propaganda tools. Games are very popular, and that will make them irresistible to governments and interest groups with deep pockets. But just how effective will they be? If the game industry or Hollywood can't avoid flops, one wonders how many hearts and minds will be swayed by a game proposed by a government committee and designed by the lowest bidder.

Paula Bronstein /Getty Images

The List

The Hit List

Nine top terrorist leaders Obama has whacked.

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama didn't sound like the second coming of George W. Bush. But Obama the president has defied critics who claimed he would be soft on terrorism, expanding the CIA's powers and ramping up drone strikes (at least 239 drone strikes were approved in the last three years, according to David Rohde). Far from the squeamish former law professor he was often portrayed as in 2008, Obama has turned out to be commando-in-chief, ordering more targeted killings than any recent president. Here are some of the most high-profile casualties of Obama's tough tactics.

OSAMA BIN LADEN

Al Qaeda's late leader, who gained infamy after orchestrating the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, is seen in the image above in Afghanistan. On May 1, 2011, bin Laden was killed in a covert operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, led by the U.S. Navy SEALS. He was quickly replaced by his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Getty Images

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI

An American-born radical and key leader of al Qaeda's Yemen branch, Awlaki was killed on Sept. 30, 2011, by a drone strike. Fluent in English and Arabic, Awlaki -- who was a U.S. target for two years and had survived a previous targeted killing attempt -- was a radical Yemeni-American cleric who frequently lectured on violent jihad against the United States.

His lectures, which were widely disseminated online, were linked to more than 12 ongoing terrorism investigations throughout Britain, Canada, and the United States. Awlaki's killing was controversial, but the Obama administration insists its assassination of a U.S. citizen without trial was legal. As the New York Times reported, "The administration's secret legal memorandum that opened the door to the killing of Mr. Awlaki found that it would be lawful only if it were not feasible to take him alive, according to people who have read the document."

Wikicommons

ABU HAFS AL-SHAHRI

A Saudi Arabian national and chief of al Qaeda operations in Pakistan, Shahri was killed in September 2011, reportedly dealing a major blow to the terrorist network in the Pakistani region of Waziristan. Around the time of his death, CIA director David Petraeus told the House Intelligence Committee that al Qaeda was far weaker today than it was 10 years ago, though it still remained a threat. "Heavy losses to al Qaeda's senior leadership appear to have created an important window of vulnerability" for the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he explained. "Exploiting that window will, however, require a sustained, focused effort."

AFP/Getty Images

ATIYAH ABD AL-RAHMAN

A CIA-operated drone strike in Pakistan reportedly killed the Libyan-born Rahman, a top operational figure under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahri, on Aug. 22, 2011. The New York Times reported that "American officials described Mr. Rahman's death as particularly significant as compared with other high-ranking Qaeda operatives who have been killed, because he was one of a new generation of leaders that the network hoped would assume greater control after Bin Laden's death."

Wikicommons

ILYAS KASHMIRI

A U.S. drone strike on June 3, 2011 reportedly killed Kashmiri, the commander of the Kashmir-based militant group Harakat-ul Jihad al-Islami and a key al Qaeda operational leader in Pakistan, as he was taking tea in an apple orchard in South Waziristan. Speculation surrounded his death, however, since the strike disfigured its victims beyond recognition and Pakistani intelligence officials had mistakenly pronounced Kashmiri dead in 2009.

Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

BAITULLAH MEHSUD

A U.S. drone strike on Aug. 5, 2009 killed Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, as he was receiving treatment for a kidney illness in Pakistan's tribal areas. A Foreign Policy profile a month earlier had described Mehsud, who was blamed for the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as "Pakistan's biggest problem, and the man who has taken his country of 176 million to the center of the West's war on terror."

Wikicommons

SALEH ALI SALEH NABHAN

U.S. commandos killed Nabhan on Sept. 14, 2009, in a daylight helicopter raid on a convoy carrying al Qaeda targets in southern Somalia. Nabhan was thought to have orchestrated the bombing of an Israeli hotel and a failed missile strike on an Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002, in addition to playing a role in the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. At the time, the New York Times interpreted the operation as a shift away from President George W. Bush's use of cruise missiles and gunships to strike suspected terrorists in Somalia -- an effort by the Obama administration to "go to greater lengths to avoid civilian deaths."

Wikicommons

SAEED AL-MASRI

Masri, al Qaeda's operational leader in Afghanistan and third-in-command (a shifting position), died in an American missile strike in Pakistan's tribal areas in May 2010. An American official described Masri, an Egyptian-born militant also known as Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, as al Qaeda's "chief operating officer, with a hand in everything from finances to operational planning," and "the organization's prime conduit to bin Laden and Zawahri." The Sept. 11 Commission had reported that Masri privately argued against the 9/11 attacks "because he feared the U.S. response" to the assault.

As-Sahab 

MOHAMMAD HAQQANI

This son of the al Qaeda-linked and Taliban-allied militant Jalaluddin Haqqani was killed in North Waziristan by a U.S. drone on Feb. 18, 2010, as he visited his older brother Sirajuddin, the apparent target of the strike. In an article for Foreign Policy, Pakistani analyst Imtiaz Gul observed that while U.S. officials had long accused Pakistan of protecting the Haqqani network, which primarily carries out attacks against international forces in Afghanistan, the attack on the Haqqani compound "could be proof that the two allies are increasingly on the same page on this issue."