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.