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Interactive Propaganda

ON THE TRANSFORMATION OF WAR INTO PLAYABLE ENTERTAINMENT
DISCUSSED
Ringer Tees, American Flags, Flight Simulator 2000, “Shock and Awe,” “Paint It Black,” G.I. Joe, Bombed-Out Dollhouses, Buck Rogers–Style Spacemen, Deadly Laser Cannons, Raspberries, Raiders of the Lost Ark, “This Scud’s for You” Lung Biscuits

Interactive Propaganda

Ed Halter
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The MPG-4 download is a news clip, crafted like a low-budget rendition of Fox News, complete with rat-a-tat-tat theme music and swooshing swipe edits. In front of a glowing-green world map, an anchorman details how American soldiers of the elite 101st Airborne Division killed Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay during a siege of their compound in Mosul, Iraq. Footage from July 2003 shows the two corpses on gurneys, their eyes closed, loins covered by thin blue hospital sheets, torsos riddled with gunshot wounds. The brothers have hard, shiny skin, like gruesome mannequins. In a subsequent clip, a wedge of Iraqi men on the street cheer to the camera; the newscaster says they are celebrating this brutal and direct evidence, joyous that their dictator has been undoubtedly re­moved from power.

The anchor introduces retired Major General Thomas L. Wilkerson, a former Marine commander, who offers commentary on how the raid transpired. He’s followed by a second, very different commentator: Jax, a twentysomething hipster woman in a ringer tee, who, the anchor says, will provide a “walk-through.” As the anchor describes the events of that day, the illustrating images shift from ­actual news footage to computer-generated simulations of actions inside the compound—pictures taken from a first-person shooter game created to re-enact the raid. Wilkerson expounds tactical reasons why powerful anti-tank artillery was brought to bear on the brothers’ villa. Jax, the “Game Analyst,” subsequently explains “your mis­sion”: to sweep the area of enemy combatants who might in­terfere with the missile-support troops before they take out the compound. “While we’ve modeled the real-world terrain and chronology closely,” Jax says, “we’ve revved up the opposition considerably.” She smirks slightly to the camera. “Enemies are everywhere, and you should consider anybody with an AK to be hostile.”

“Well, there you have it,” the anchor concludes as the music swells. “A key turning point in Operation Iraqi Freedom and a milestone in the War on Terror. It’s a difficult and critical mission. From all of us here at Kuma, best of luck.”

Consumers once had to wait years for a conflict to become a video game: now one company trans­forms war into playable entertainment in a matter of days. Launched in 2004 by Kuma Re­ality Games, Kuma\War melds news reporting and online gaming: it’s a series of military games based on re­cent news events from conflicts world­wide. Kuma\War descends from the traditions of historical war gaming, but shrinks the temporal gap between event and simulation to match the pace and design of the internet and 24-hour cable news networks. Rather than provide a single sprawling scenario like most PC and console games, Kuma of­fers a constantly updated selection of mini-games on a subscription model. For a little under ten dollars a month, players can download new first-person “missions” based on the latest military operations.

A year into the service, Kuma of­fered a library of over sixty scenarios, from Marine patrols of Fallujah to the anti-Taliban Op­eration Anaconda. All but one is gamed from the American perspective, and a majority deal with the current war in Iraq. Each game arrives with a multimedia dossier of information: a Kuma-produced QuickTime “news­cast,” a chronology of real-world events, a weaponry rundown, tactical essays by CIA agents, military figures, and other subject-matter experts and links to further information from government and news sites. The games themselves, Kuma says, are created by combing through news reports, satellite photos, and declassified government doc­uments. The whole package is designed to give an in-depth, if largely tactical, experience of a wartime event, de­livered as a form of entertainment. It’s almost embedded gaming.

Kuma also includes a few historical conflicts as well, including a 1996 incursion of North Korean spies into South Ko­rea, and American military attempts to free the hostages in Iran in 1979. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Kuma even concocted “John Kerry’s Silver Star,” a re-creation of his 1969 Swift boat mission, giving prospective voters the chance to de­­cide whether or not Kerry could have really earned his medals. The Iran hostage mission adds an alternative-history spin; it allows players to explore an original Pentagon plan for Delta Force operatives that wasn’t followed when the U.S. staged its actual botched attempt.

Kuma’s Tora Bora scenario asks a more recent what-if, allowing players to successfully surround and capture Osama Bin Laden with U.S. Special Forces. “Osama 2001” was uploaded in De­cember 2004. In Kuma’s “Os­ama 2001” newscast, the actress elsewhere appearing as Jax returns as a serious anchor, now clad in a conservative red suit and credited as “Jacqueline Schecter.” She highlights how Kerry accused George Bush of letting Bin Laden get away by farming out the job to Afghan militia; Kuma’s game, Schecter says, will allow players to test Kerry’s theory and see if Special Forces could have actually gotten the job done.

Like the official military re­cruitment game America’s Army, but without the overarching government stamp of approval, Kuma offered virtual glimpses of the front lines at a time when detailed visual re­presentations of the war seemed scarce. It fed desires for knowledge with playable diversions for curious minds. In hoping to capitalize on the overlapping obsessions of (mostly male) game enthusiasts and news junkies, it favored the exciting as­pects of war—open conflicts—over the day-to-day realities that troops face. In this re­spect, Kuma doesn’t stray so far from the practices of mainstream news re­porting, which also highlights mo­ments of death and combat over the tedium of war’s long slog.

In an early press re­lease, parent company Kuma Re­ality Games promised to put “players in the front­lines of real international conflict.” At the end of 2004, Kuma re­leased fifteen of the contemporary missions as a retail game to stores, dubbed Kuma\War: The War on Terror. The packaging laddishly reads, “ACTUAL MILITARY EVENTS! You’ve seen it on the news, now play it!” The company’s publicity indicates that it might use its subscription-based ­news-gaming model to present other themes, like sports or true crime, but as of this writing, Kuma’s only product is repackaging real war.

 

Play It Again, Uncle Sam

Strategy games and first-person shooters meticulously based on real historical conflicts (particularly World War II) have long been part of PC gaming, but tended to appeal to a more specialized audience: an older demographic than the Super Mario/Tomb Raider set, more tuned into the History Channel than MTV. The mainstream console games of the 1990s preferred fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure themes. Even games with terrorist or war themes like Counter-Strike offered fairly anonymous villains with vague political affiliations, or at best, cartoon Nazis.

After 9/11, content shifted sharply. At first, companies altered or delayed games with war themes, fearful of consumer reactions in a heightened post-attack atmosphere. Microsoft issued a patch for Flight Simulator 2000 that removed the Twin Towers from its virtual New York, while Ubisoft delayed the release of Tom Clancy’s Rogue Spear: Black Thorn, apparently to make changes to its anti-terrorist plotline. Other companies with games set in New York changed marketing to remove references to the World Trade Center. Unsure of where public opinion was headed, many chose to avoid anything po­tentially controversial. “Consumer spending on entertainment tends to go up in times of crisis but it is really too early to say what will happen,” Molly Smith, director of public re­lations at Sony Computer Entertainment, told Financial Times in a September 2001 piece about the immediate effects on the industry.

But as the coast-to-coast blossoming of American flags slid in meaning from stunned solidarity to Go-USA cheer­leading, the advent of the War on Terror inspired a slew of mainstream titles for console systems and PCs that evoked not only actual conflicts, but often specific historical battles. Representations of real war entered video games around the same time they re-entered Americans’ daily life. Artist Eddo Stern has observed that, prior to September 11, video games were populated by comic-book scenarios “organized around a dichotomy of Western/ Commando/ Technological/ Organized/ Advanced/ Cop/ Marine/ Good vs. Eastern/ Southern/ Primitive/ Chaotic/ German/ Russian/ Arab/ Central American/ Drug Dealer/ Terrorist/Evil.” But the industry had to position itself within a new ideological climate in which terrorists and war weren’t vague fantasies any longer. “After 9/11, specificity hit hard,” Stern says. “People suddenly knew about terrorists. They knew about the terrorist list [and] within that rhetoric a very clear enemy had been created, which is, at this time, very politically correct to kill…. Now you play games where everything is specific and neat, and you can go to Iraq and kill a lot of Iraqis and hey, if it’s on TV, why couldn’t we do it?”

In fall 2002, shortly before Congress authorized President Bush to send military force to Iraq if Saddam Hussein did not hand over his weapons of mass destruction, Gotham Games released Conflict: Desert Storm, a squad-based shooter set during the Gulf War. Players can choose to act as either U.S. Delta Force or British SAS; missions include disabling Scud missiles meant for Israel with C4 explosives, and sniping “General Aziz,” a mustachioed Saddam look­alike (and no relation, company rep­resentatives claimed, to Iraq’s foreign minister at the time, Tariq Aziz).

The timing of Conflict: Desert Storm in the lead-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom may have been fortuitous, but its makers very consciously exploited the parallels in their marketing. Gotham promoted Conflict: Desert Storm with the tagline “No Diplomats. No Negotiation. No Surrender,” a ­ballsy slogan that might have been dreamt up by a Bush speechwriter. The title of its sequel, Conflict: Desert Storm II: Back to Baghdad, could have served as a catchy name for the Iraq War itself, and the back of the box reads like the précis of an impossibly jingoistic Hollywood ac­tion flick, complete with allusions to mythical weapons of mass destruction:

From the smoke and fire of the Gulf War, four heroes return to finish the job they started. Your elite operatives will be sent into the most intense combat yet, as they take on the Iraqi regime’s chemical arms, secret weapons and hidden arsenals, which continue to threaten the gulf. Lock and load, and get ready to GO LOUD!

It’s clear that other game companies took notice of the post-2001 surge in national devotion when developing a new crop of vendetta-tinged let’s-roll-playing games. “War is in the headlines and on everyone’s mind these days,” a spokesperson for Electronic Arts told GameSpot in early April 2003, “and we at EA want to be right there in the thick of it.” Just as the U.S. readied to invade Iraq, EA presented its new slogan: “Real War, Real Games.” After Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced with a spec­tacular siege on Baghdad in March 2003, fifteen companies scrambled to file trademarks on the phrase “shock and awe.” Sony re­served the phrase as a possible title for a future PlayStation game, but withdrew its application less than a week later due to criticisms.

The easiest sell in a ­neo-patriotic market was the boom in World War II titles, steeped in the moral unambiguousness of the Great­est Generation, which ap­peared in a number of successful franchises, among them Activision’s Call of Duty, EA’s Medal of Honor, and Ubisoft’s Brothers in Arms. World War II goes down easy for Americans: not only is it the last un­tarnished example of a Just War, but it remains key to our self-image as both puissant superpower and righteous guardian of democracy. Exploring the audiovisual possibilities of then-next-gen console systems, these WWII games strive for a cinematic experience of war, in­fluenced substantially by a gunmetal-gray Hollywood es­thetic. The opening of Medal of Honor: Frontline, for example, strongly recalls the look and feel of the famous Normandy Beach se­quence of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, including its unrelenting slaughter. Its sequel, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, models sweeping scenes of naval destruction on the climax of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor.

Companies took on more controversial wars as well. No fewer than five titles released in 2003 and 2004 brought Americans back to the once-taboo war in Vietnam, in­­cluding Eidos’s ShellShock: Nam ’67, Vivendi’s Men of Valor: Vietnam, EA’s Battlefield Vietnam, ­Global Star’s Conflict: Vietnam, and Gathering of Developers’ Vietcong: Purple Haze, which includes Coppola-esque cinematic bumpers set to period rock tunes (no Hendrix, but Iggy Pop, Deep Purple, and the likely expensive “Paint It Black,” which plays in the background ad nauseam). Vietcong’s retro-macho image ran into trouble in Britain, however. A billboard that included a pull quote from the official PlayStation 2 magazine “Napalm never smel­led this good” drew complaints, and the Advertising Standards Authority  ordered Gathering’s parent company Take 2 Interactive to remove the offending signage and discontinue the campaign.

Although such legal actions never occurred stateside, Vietnam games still unnerved some players. In 2003, popular news-and-reviews site GamePro published a debate between four gamers about the Vietnam titles, most of which had yet to be released. Though some of the gamers said they were interested in the new types of game play that jungle warfare might offer, most participants expressed varying ­levels of suspicion, even disgust, at the prospect of gaming Vietnam. “As the child of Vietnamese re­fugees, I can’t say that I can ever look on Vietnam games as being in good taste,” wrote a gamer under the name Dom Ex Machina. “How can these games possibly do conflict the sort of justice that you hope for? Will there be ‘burn the village to save it’ missions in these games? Will there be search-and-destroy missions where the only way to separate the VC from the general populace is to shoot everyone in sight, à la My Lai? If not, how can they possibly be true to what Vietnam really was? And how can they ever hope to be done in good taste?”

While many non-game-savvy in­dividuals with antiwar sentiments might naively imagine typical video-­game enthusiasts to be un­thinking jingoists, suckered into propa­gandistic entertainment by the hi-tech cool factor of contemporary war games, the GamePro debate portrays a more politically skeptical consumer. “There are eight mil­lion Vietnam veterans alive in the U.S. today,” added one DJ Dinobot. “It is wholly disrespectful to the war’s veterans and victims to trivialize the memory of their suffering for a ‘unique gameplay experience’… In a bizarre twist on the old adage, history is being rewritten by the loser. The current political climate adds an interesting flavor to this bizarre attempt at historical revisionism.”

A moral ambivalence surrounding games based on real conflicts may have influenced Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, his nonfiction account of the 1993 American military action in So­malia. This event saw the bloodiest close-combat operations by American soldiers since Vietnam, and like that war, is remembered for some shocking media images: dead U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Although Bowden’s book provided the basis for the 2001 Ridley Scott film Black Hawk Down, the author would not lend his name to the NovaLogic game Delta Force: Black Hawk Down. “I just told my agent I didn’t want to be involved,” he told Reuters. “To me there’s a qualitative difference between making a game and telling a story.” Nova­Logic’s Black Hawk Down, however, does not go out of its way to explain that the title “Black Hawk Down” is not copyrighted, and the game is not, strictly speaking, an adaptation of Bowden’s book or its film, though it does seem to borrow from the latter’s dark and grimy visual esthetic.

 

Fun as Hell

Even if these real-world themes caused pockets of ethical consternation, game developers engaged in an industry-wide rush to release war titles, egged on by parallel entertainment indicators like the sharp spike in war-movie rentals following the 2001 attacks. The related toy business also saw a return to war themes during this time; Hasbro claimed that sales of G.I. Joe increased 46 percent from 2001 to 2003, and toy shelves became packed with action figures in military and Homeland Security themes.

For Christmas 2002, the Ever Sparkle Industrial Co. Ltd. produced a “Forward Command Post” military action-figure playset that one journalist called “a bombed-out dollhouse” with “a busted balustrade, crumbling bricks, bullet holes pockmarking its pretty pastel walls… commandeered by fatigue-clad soldiers toting assault rifles.” Another company produced a similar item called the “Power Team Elite: Battle Command Post.” This dwelling appeared to be less damaged, looking like a smart duplex that had been ­quickly commandeered into military use. Because the Ever Sparkle In­dustrial’s play-post appeared to trivialize civilian casualties, objections from consumers caused at least two retailers to stop selling it.

By 2004, the emergence of realistic war games as a mainstream genre would have been obvious to even casual players; with Iraq dominating headlines, and war on everyone’s mind, the trend was that much more visible. IGN, another major game-reviews site, noted “with little irony, 2004 is the year of war. It’s sad, true, and ongoing. It’s a year of war—and in the video-game industry, of war games,” adding, “military and war-based video-games sales have in turn reached all-time highs.” However, even if millions of dollars were made on mainstream reality-based war games, they never dominated overall unit sales during this time. From 2001 to 2004, the genre cracked into year-end top ten bestselling titles only twice: Medal of Honor: Frontline was the sixth-best-selling game of 2002, and Medal of Honor: Rising Sun the tenth-best-selling of 2004, according to in­dustry trackers The NDP Group. But games with war themes saw a spike in sales during the earliest weeks of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Game designers didn’t necessarily see their industry’s embrace of real war themes as part of the kiddie mili-toy trend; the average gamer was getting older, they said, and these new war titles were part of a greater interest in creating more mature forms of video games aimed at adult sensibilities. War games, by this definition, may be classified alongside such fare as Grand Theft Auto’s hoodlum-centric carnage carnival, or Acclaim’s BMX XXX, a 2002 game involving topless female bikers with adjustable cup sizes. Though some games, such as Conflict: Desert Storm and the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor series, are rated T (or Teen, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board’s equivalent of the MPAA’s PG), many are rated M (Mature, an R equivalent)—but of course the extent to which re­tailers hew to such ratings is questionable. ShellShock Nam ’67 in­cludes gory depictions of North Vietnamese psy-op tactics: scenes of American soldiers’ corpses strung up on wooden posts, and soldiers’ heads impaled on stakes. ShellShock’s developers claim­ed such content was intended to de­pict war in a grimly serious light. “Unlike war movies, which had moved on from the John Wayne era to the likes of Platoon and Saving Private Ryan, [WWII] video games were still treating war in a very ’50s, glorified manner,” ShellShock commercial director Martin de Ronde told The New York Times, perhaps taking aim at the red-blooded Medal of Honor franchise. “We felt we wanted to depict war, what it was really like. War is hell, and that’s exactly what we wanted to get across in the game.”

Nevertheless, the gravitas that designers, Subject-Matter Experts, and PR reps evinced in interviews seemed to have little to do with the rest of games’ marketing. Print and TV ads for the post-9/11 crop of war games stressed their entertainment value—cinematic graphics, action-packed play, and booming soundtracks—and always, their un­precedented levels of realism. “This is as close to war as you ever want to get,” raved a pull quote in an ad for 2005’s Call of Duty 2, calibrated for a somewhat less gung ho historical moment. Maybe war is hell, these ads said, but in video-game form, it’s also fun as hell.

 

Final Fantasies

Video games have not al­ways attempted such a straightforward depiction of real war. In the 1970s and 1980s—an age of lower resolution—references to real warfare were more obscure. The perfectly even formation marching of the aliens in Space Invaders may be seen as a design limitation of its age, but it also evokes fantasies of über-rationalized Nazi storm troopers or Soviet military parades. A 1977 arcade shooter called M-79 Ambush may be the earliest attempt to evoke a specific historical conflict through a video game. The game took its title from a type of grenade launcher used during the Vietnam War. Its console came equipped with squat, short-nosed guns built to look like their namesake, and the cabinet was decorated with comic-book explosions and jungle foliage.

More often, references to specific weapons or military vehicles were mixed into a scenario based on science-fiction themes, creating an odd blend of history and fantasy, as if to partially disavow any connections to real war. The most famous example would be 1980’s legendary Missile Command. Even with its minimalist graphics, the game clearly depicts thermo­nuclear war, with ICBMs slowly streaking toward vulnerable cities. If a city is hit, it ex­plodes in a little glowing cloud. Missile Command evokes the ultimate Cold War fear, yet its arcade console was printed with cartoons of futuristic winged spaceships, and its marketing included images of Buck Rogers–style spacemen at control panels. The 1980 arcade shooter Toma­hawk Missile pits the player against not Soviets, but flying saucers. This aspect of ’80s games could be seen as the mere effect of imprecise package design; since graphics capabilities were low, the identities of a game’s enemies, protagonists, and setting were augmented by exterior elements like console art, which often presented merely a mishmash of stuff young boys might like: laser beams, ma­chine guns, space soldiers. But as graphics evolved, the blend of reality and fan­tasy remained. Perhaps the most ex­treme instance is the 1990s arcade game NAM-1975, in which an American solider returns to Vietnam to stop an evil scientist who has perfected a ­deadly laser cannon.

Eighties pop culture liked to project war into fantasy realms, perhaps influenced by a generation of parents who had seen their peers die in Vietnam. Games like these were to be expected from an era that produced films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, with its mix of Nazis and the supernatural, or the Star Wars franchise, which translated WWII naval battles into impossibly swift and noisy outer-space dogfights. While the U.S. was led by a movie-star president, “real American hero” G.I. Joe transmuted from camo dress-up doll to action figure, leaving behind the real-world enemies he fought before 1970 in order to search out and destroy fictional terrorist or­ganization COBRA. After all, for the first generation of American video-game kids, real wars were something that had happened al­most before they were born, even if the prospect of nuclear conflict between the superpowers loomed as a horrific possibility. War was something at best fantasy, at worst theoretical.

This blending of real and un­real began to change with the Gulf War, which brought with it a small but significant output of video games based on U.S. and British involvement in that conflict. Most were straight-up tank and flight sim­ulators, designed to show off the graphics capabilities of a new generation of PCs. In 1991, Spectrum Holobyte released one such PC game, Tank, which put players in control of an M1A1 Abrams tank on desert patrol. Its box cover proudly announced that Tank was “based on the U.S. Army’s SIMNET.” Software publisher Absolute Entertainment followed with its own series of Abrams first-person sims for Nintendo, Super Battletank: War in the Gulf, and Super Battletank 2, which included skirmishes in­troduced by a pixelly General Norman Schwarzkopf, while Electronic Arts entered the post–Desert Storm vogue with the popular M1 Abrams Battle Tank. Sega even re­leased a 1994 arcade game developed with assistance from military contractors Lockheed Martin: Desert Tank, a higher-res update of Atari’s Battlezone. The air war likewise provided game-developer fodder: in 1991, Mi­croprose re­leased F-15 II Operation Desert Storm, a new scenario for its 1989 title F-15 Strike Eagle II, which had presciently included an original Persian Gulf scenario.

Given the speedy conclusion of Operation Desert Storm, Gulf War games had to alter the odds in order to provide a better game challenge—which also jibed with America’s favored self-image as go-it-alone rebels. “In a curious reversal of America’s Gulf War odds, you got to play the U.S. Armed Forces as underdog,” J. C. Herz observes of Super Battletank in her 1997 book Joystick Nation, “It’s just you and your 115 millimeter cannon against all of Saddam Hussein’s Scud launchers, mines, helicopters, tanks, and the entire Iraqi army.” In other words, it’s the Gulf War rewritten with the logic of Battlezone or Space Invaders.

Other Gulf War games were more low-tech. Spit on Saddam, an early shareware game for Mac in the black-and-white line graphics of the time, worked like simple in­teractive propaganda, made to help American computer users get in the Saddam-hating spirit. (An in­formational title screen requests do­nations to a college fund for dependents of war casualties, to be sent to the game’s producers, the Arkansas-based Plaid Software Group.) Players earn “ex­pectorant points” (a takeoff on role-playing games’ experience points) by shooting down Scud missiles launched from an onion-domed building, and then spend the points on various forms of spit to be splattered on a crude cartoon of Saddam Hussein’s face, which ap­pears as the voice of a G. H. W. Bush imitator drawls, “Come on out, ­Sadd’m.” Ten points gets a “rasp­berry,” while thirty buys a “lung biscuit,” which is unloaded with a hawking sound effect upon point-and-click. Crudely made and jingo-populist, Spit on Saddam is its era’s digital equivalent to a “This Scud’s for You” T-shirt.

A stranger attempt at Gulf War exploitation was Operation Secret Storm, produced in 1991 by Color Dreams, an infamously sketchy firm that produced low-budget indie games for the Nintendo En­tertainment System. Opening with cartoon images of Saddam Hussein surrounded by robed guards, and then a childlike map of Iraq (titled in cute bubble lettering), Operation Secret Storm is little more than a clumsy Mario rip-off. The mustachioed plumber has been replaced by a karate-kicking American op­erative, who must fight storybook Arabs, bald eagles, armed female soldiers, and eventually Hussein himself, amidst a multi-tiered landscape of oil barrels and palm trees. According to Color Dreams programmer John Valesh, the game was originally titled Who’s Sane Now and was supposed to have been re­leased during the war, but was de­layed. The “official reason,” Valesh claims, was that Color Dreams staf­fers were afraid that “Saddam Hussein may try to kill us.” The firm had better luck with its more lucrative Christian titles for Nintendo like Spiritual Warfare and Bible Adventures, released through its Wisdom Tree subsidiary.

 

Coda: Two Can Play At That Game

Saddam never went after the programmers of Operation Secret Storm, but Kuma found itself the target of Islamist retaliation, albeit of a virtual kind. In the summer of 2006, members of Iran’s Union of Is­lamic Student Societies announced plans to develop a game in response to Kuma’s “Mission 58: Assault on Iran,” a speculative Kuma\War ad­venture in which players must infiltrate and destroy an Iranian nuclear facility. “Never before has so much hung in the balance,” reads Kuma’s mission overview, “millions of lives, and the very future of democracy could be at stake.” In response, the Iranian student union’s representatives claimed their group would soon complete an Islamocentric ri­poste in the form of a game starring “Commander Bahman,” an Ir­anian hero who enters Iraq in order to rescue a nuclear scientist who’s been kidnapped by American soldiers. Never one to shirk from publicity, Kuma returned the Union’s favor, declaring its intent to upload a pre-emptive “Bahman” sequel titled “Assault on Iran, Pt. 3: Payback in Iraq,” which would purportedly begin where the Iranian game leaves off.

At the time of this writing, both Iranian and American games remain mere vaporware: unfulfilled proposals more like publicity stunts or conceptual art. But this electronic tit-for-tat represents a nevertheless provocative idea. No longer content with replaying the past, designers have caught up with history, replicating global events as they emerge, and homebrewing go-team fantasies even before their own leaders can de­liver the real thing. Blustering cultural totems and digital voo­doo dolls for armchair diplomats, video games have become a continuation of war by other means.

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