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.