In his 2000 video Sheik Attack, new media artist and former Israeli soldier Eddo Stern reconstructs the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict using footage from various video games. Different genres are utilized in order to evoke particular historical periods. Clips from the strategy game The Settlers III (Blue Byte 1998) depict the early utopian days of Zionist farmers; towering buildings from SimCity 3000 (Electronic Arts 1999) symbolize the growth of modern-day Tel Aviv. As the video progresses, these images give way to rougher sequences taken from military action games. The climax is comprised of a tense scene in which unidentified commandos sneak into a house and find a woman kneeling on the floor with her arms behind her head. In a scene appropriated from an anonymous, yet emblematic, first-person shooter game, the commandos shoot her, and she collapses on the ground.
Fig. 1. Sheik Attack (Eddo Stern, 2000).
Although Stern uses the anonymous virtual violence of mainstream video games, by assembling and situating it into the real-world context of the conflict, his video transcends the indifference and desensitization generally associated with video games. Viewers are intrinsically moved by the footage despite the fact that it features computer-generated characters. This is because they understand that, at some level, it represents the death of real human beings (Halter 2006: 329).
Stern’s work is significant to this article in many respects. Born in the 1970s, Stern belongs to the first video game generation for whom appropriation of games for conveying artistic and political messages corresponds with their communication patterns, whether they live in the United States, Europe, or the Middle East. Video games are a sociocultural phenomenon of increasing relevance. They constitute a mainstream leisure time activity for broad levels of society and foster the mediated construction of reality (Bogost and Poremba 2008). The Palestinian/Israeli conflict has also become an increasingly popular game theme, allowing players to re-enact events, immerse themselves in the conflict, and reshape how they comprehend it (Šisler 2008; Höglund 2008). For example, the Syrian first-person shooter game, Under Siege (Afkar Media 2005), re-enacts the 1994 massacre in Hebron when an Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Palestinians. Flight simulator Israeli Air Force (Electronic Arts 1998) engages the player in air strikes on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan during the 1967 and 1973 wars. Historical strategy games, like American Age of Empires 2 (Microsoft 1999) or Syrian Quraish (Afkar Media 2007), retell the stories of Saladin’s encounters with the Crusaders and the Arab conquest of Jerusalem, respectively.
Stern’s Sheik Attack video attempts to transcend the seeming dichotomy between computer-enabled reconstructions of reality and actual events. He uses games which are not specifically geographically located to express real experiences of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a different vein, this article explores how the real Palestine and Israel are envisioned, represented, and constructed in video games. By doing so, it examines these games’ narrative, graphical representation, and game play, in order to discuss how they (re)construct reality.
Theoretical and Methodological Framework
Ian Bogost (2007: vii) suggests that video games are an expressive medium, which represent how real and imagined systems work, and invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. Unlike film or other audiovisual media, video games are interactive, which implies that any content analysis has to cover three intertwined levels: audiovisual signifiers, narrative structure, and game play. The interactive element of game play is of crucial importance for the gaming experience, yet it poses substantial theoretical and methodological difficulties for analysis. The player of a typical video game is as much a consumer as he is a performer: actively engaged in an interactive state that is both physical and mental (Whitlock 2005). As such, the gaming experience is difficult to describe and reconstruct using classical audiovisual methods like segmentation into sequences and shot-by-shot analysis. Instead, computer-enabled simulation and its rules, which both provide and limit player’s actions and choices, have to be studied. As Frasca (2004: 21) puts it:
Video games not only represent reality, but also model it through simulations. This form of representation is based on rules that mimic the behavior of the simulated systems. However, unlike narrative authors, simulation authors do not represent a particular event, but a set of potential events. Because of this, we have to think about their objects as systems and consider what laws govern their behaviors.
The rule system that enables players’ interaction with the game also intrinsically limits it. Typically, a game provides players with a limited number of possible actions and its game play consists of their iteration. Bogost (2007: 12) refers to these typified actions as “procedural forms” and defines them as the common models of user interaction as utilized by particular video game genres. For example, typical procedural forms for the real time strategy genre are gathering resources, building, and commanding units, whereas typical procedural forms for first-person shooters are movement, shooting, and taking cover. In other words, game genres emerge from the assemblage of similar procedural forms. As suggested in my previous research (Šisler 2008: 214), the video game industry reinforces the iteration of proved and successful patterns in game genres and content, mainly due to high production costs and the competitive nature of the game market. Therefore, in games utilizing the same genre we witness almost identical patterns of representation and game play.
This article argues that representations of Palestine and Israel in mainstream video games oftentimes exploit cultural schematizations and clichés. Moreover, given the lack of media critique and academic coverage, these schematizations seem to appear in games in a more overt and explicit manner than in other media (Reichmuth and Werning 2006: 47). At the same time, many video games dealing with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict directly serve parallel, albeit contradictory, political and ideological interpretations of real-world events. This is achieved not only by persuasive narrative and graphics, but also on the level of game play, by shaping and limiting a player’s interaction with the simulated reality. Bogost (2007: ix) calls this new form of persuasion “procedural rhetoric” and defines it as the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions, rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures. For example, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively, procedural rhetoric is the practice of authoring arguments through computation and execution of processes. In the case of video games, the term procedural rhetoric means that the rules of the game themselves convey a persuasive message to the player.
This article focuses on the structural layer of games, i.e. on their rule system and procedural forms, in order to explore how they (re)construct real Palestine and Israel. By doing so, it reconsiders the ability of video games to model reality and/or to mediate the authentic representation of lived experience. Essentially, this article argues that the procedural forms, i.e. the possible actions of player, fundamentally determine and limit the ways reality is communicated. A number of games analyzed in this article, albeit produced by different developers and providing fundamentally different evaluations of Middle East history and/or the Arab-Israeli conflict, share in common procedural forms and/or procedural rhetoric. I am not suggesting that various producers utilize the same discursive strategy and result in similar content, nor am I equating producers’ contradictory political and ideological viewpoints. My focus is on game genres, and my critique is on two contrasting but equally significant and simultaneous aspects of video games: the persuasive power of procedurality and the inherent limitations thereof.
This article stems from research based on content analysis of more than 50 video games dealing with Palestine/Israel, other materials related to these games such as booklets, manuals, and websites, alongside interviews with different game producers. The content analysis involved playing the games while taking notes, recording the narrative and analyzing the structure of game play via simplified Petri Net formal description (Natkin and Vega 2003). The games were played in English, Arabic, Hebrew, and Farsi. In what follows, I classify games according to their historical time frame and genre which is typically used to render that particular time frame.
Replaying History in Strategy Games
A substantial amount of video games that take place in the historical and quasi-historical Middle East are not geographically located in any particular country. Instead they exploit Middle East textures, topoi and characters in an Orientalist and fantastical manner. Particularly in those games produced in the United States and Europe, the Middle East is construed as an exotic, timeless, and ahistorical entity (Šisler 2008). Games that take place in the historical land of Palestine and are based on real events are significantly less common and almost exclusively exploit the topic of the Crusades, like Age of Empires 2, Stronghold Crusader (Gathering 2002), Civilization 3: Conquests (Atari 2003) or Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft 2007).
With the exception of the action game Assassin’s Creed, all of these games utilize the strategy genre: be it real-time or turn-based. In terms of representation, they constitute a significant exception from the general framework which depicts Arabs and Muslims as the cultural ‘Other’ (Šisler 2008; Reichmuth and Werning 2006). Most of the above-mentioned games located in Palestine allow players to take on the role of an Arab/Muslim hero. Both Age of Empires 2 and Stronghold: Crusader feature Saladin’s campaign to ‘free’ Jerusalem. The introductory narrative in the former summarizes the conflict as “an attempt of once-cultured Saracens to drive back the invaders and save their homeland.” Upon closer examination, however, we see that allowing the gamer to be an Arab or Muslim does not necessarily change the schematizing framework itself. Most of the games in question stay within the cultural stereotypes that surround the Crusades in European popular culture. Choosing Saladin, oftentimes depicted as “the Noble Prince of Islam,” to be the virtual Muslim representative does not in fact contradict Orientalist tendencies. Saladin as “far nobler than any competitor” (Stanley 2002) can be easily incorporated into the narrative of European knighthood. Other Arab rulers remain within the typical scheme, such as the computer-played opponent, the Caliph, in Stronghold Crusader: “Cruel and vindictive, the Caliph is skilled at bringing misery to both his own people and to yours. If he can get his tyrannical act together, his underhanded methods of fighting will prove a constant thorn in your side.”
Civilization 3: Conquests and Assassin’s Creed take a remarkably different approach to the issue of representation. The scenario entitled “Middle Ages” allows players to choose from four Christian and four Muslim rulers: all are individualized and presented in a culturally sensitive way. Similarly, in the action game Assassin’s Creed, the player represents Altair, an elite assassin, whose task is to eliminate both Crusader and Saracen leaders in the time of the Third Crusade. The in-game narrative states that Altair comes from a mixed Christian-Muslim relationship, leaving his personal religious adherence an open question. His violent mission is framed by a broader ethical context of stopping atrocities committed by both sides.
Fig. 2. Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft, 2007).
Production of video games in the Arab Middle East is in the early stage of development, and the number of games produced remains relatively low. Most Arab and Muslim producers are strongly concerned with what they posit as their misrepresentation in US and European games (Šisler 2008). The key topics pertaining to Arab production continue to be issues of identity and religious and cultural relevance. This also applies to the two games dealing with historical Palestine: real-time strategy game, Quraish, and action adventure game, Swords of Heaven (Afkar Media, in development). The first retells, in the campaign called “Conquer of Syria,” the story of Khalid ibn al-Walid’s conquest of Jerusalem in 637 AD, whereas the latter will, according to its author Radwan Kasmiya, “cover the Crusades from a Muslim perspective and explore the rise of extremism on both sides and the religious and cultural roots of the modern crisis.” Quraish is distinctively based on Islamic historiography and pays attention to topological, linguistic, and cultural details, as well as to the representation of the Byzantine enemies.
Interestingly, there are no video games that include the historical land of Israel. This has led one individual programmer, Richard Ballantyne, to create a “mod” for the game Civilization 3, which effectively adds Israel to the game along with relevant figures and sites such as Moses, King Solomon’s Temple, and the Biblical Gibbor warriors. As he explains: “I feel that Israel has made a significant impact on history (and will make a great impact in the future…), and thus feel they should have been included in the game.” Modding means adjusting graphics, data, and sometimes code of an existing game in order to change or create new content. After a mod is created it can easily be distributed via the Internet and online social networks. As discussed later, modding constitutes an effective practice for dealing with misrepresentations and for localizing products into different cultural and religious contexts.
Although all these games vary significantly in their narrative, visual quality and ideological stances, their procedural forms are similar. Most of these games utilize real-time strategy and engage players in limited types of actions: gathering resources, building structures, training units, and fighting the enemy. As Schut (2007) notes, history in strategy games often focuses on some combination of politics, economics, and war. All of the games examined here, with the exception of Assassin’s Creed, demonstrate the centrality of aggressive power and/or acquisition. The structural differences between Arab and Western production are almost dispensable. When Kasmiya showed me Quraish for the first time, we discussed the level of realism achieved by the game, through aspects such as the introduction of water as a crucial resource in a semi-arid landscape, or the economic and religious connotations of slavery. While adding to the game’s realism, these aspects do not alter the fundamental game play. Similarly, Civilization 3 features aspects previously novel to strategy games, like culture, religion, or nationalism. Nevertheless, on the procedural level, their function is to help the player become more politically, economically, and militarily successful. In this context, Galloway (2006: 103) argues that the transcoding of history into specific mathematical models erases its own historical content, because the diachronic details of lived life are replaced by the synchronic homogeneity of code.
Schut (2007) suggests that the hegemonic bias of traditional historical research, focusing on the accounts of monarchs, merchants, and military campaigns, is echoed in most historical video games, ignoring new trends in the discipline of history. Relating this claim to the issue of Palestine, it is worth exploring Assassin’s Creed, the newest of the games in question. It utilizes the genre of action-adventure which gives substantially more space to narrative. The creators stress the game’s high realism in terms of architecture and depiction of daily life in the medieval cities of Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre. Producer Jade Raymond (2007) claims that, in collaboration with historians, Middle Eastern cities are recreated exactly as they were in 1191 AD. Given its topographical and architectural relevance, the game appeals to many Middle East gamers. The landscape of Assassin’s Creed is inhabited by virtual peasants, traders and beggars, women and children – the latter two who remarkably are missing in all the other games. All the characters are manipulated by relatively sophisticated controls, resulting in the creation of a vivid and vibrant medieval city. Nevertheless, on the procedural level the non-player characters are functionalized roughly into four categories: sources of information, contractors, enemies, or final targets for assassination. The structure of player missions is highly repetitive and does not allow for more sophisticated interaction. Yet, despite its limitations, Assassin’s Creed provides space for greater diversity of subjects and conveys more social, cultural, and critical histories than the above mentioned strategy games.
Mediating the Present in First-Person Shooters
The Middle East is a favorite virtual battleground. Especially after 9/11, there has been a significant increase in the number of US and European first-person shooter games focused on the region. Typically, the player controls American or coalition forces. Arabs and Muslims tend to be computer-controlled enemies, represented by dark skin, loose clothes, head cover and other similar signifiers. The enemy is generally collectivized and linguistically functionalized as “various terrorist groups,” “militants”, or “insurgents” (Machin and Suleiman 2006). Most of these games exhibit strong cultural bias by schematizing Arabs and Muslims as enemies in the narrative framework of fundamentalism and terrorism. As a rule, such games do not depict civilians and do not provide background for the deeper understanding of the conflict, reinforcing a bi-polar and conflictual frame (Šisler 2008).
Similar patterns can generally be found in the few first-person shooter games located in sites of Arab-Israeli conflict. One of these is Close Combat: First to Fight (2K Games 2005), which takes place in virtual Beirut:
You are the First to Fight – a US Marine on the frontlines of urban combat in Beirut. Lead a 4-man fire team that executes authentic Marine tactics. Move aggressively, knowing your team gives you 360-degree security, and devastate your enemies with precise air and mortar attacks. Experience a first-person shooter so realistic, the Marines use it as a training tool.
The enemies are stereotypically represented as bearded and red-turbaned terrorists described as “radicals from the extremist group Atash led by prominent fundamentalist Tarik Qadan” or para-military uniformed insurgents labeled as “Syrian-backed Militia”. Beirut in Close Combat is a hostile and bombed city, representing, in the words of Höglung (2008), a frontier zone where a perpetual war between US interests and Islamic terrorism is enacted.
Fig. 3. Close Combat: First to Fight (2K Games, 2005).
Conversely, most of the first-person shooters created by Arab designers are located in Palestine and are often based on real stories from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Again, as is the case of historical simulations, these games are usually produced within a larger discursive strategy: to oppose the restrictive coding that American and European games provide (Kavoori 2008; Šisler 2008). Whereas American designers focus on Iraq and Afghanistan as the geographical manifestation of the War on Terror, Arab developers utilize Palestine as the place of a broader struggle for Arab dignity and identity. Emblematic examples are Special Force 2: Tale of the Truthful Pledge, produced by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and Jenin: Road of Heroes (Al-Khatib n.d.) developed in Jordan. Special Force 2 recounts a story from the 2006 July War between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, while Jenin is based on the Battle of Jenin which took place in April 2002 in a Palestinian refugee camp. Representationally, these games do not differ from the US production model: they simply reverse the polarities of the narrative and substitute the Arab Muslim hero for the American soldier and schematize Israelis as enemies. But unlike the American games, where the hero is usually individualized, Arab shooter games generally promote a higher obligation to a collective spiritual whole (Machin and Suleiman 2006). The focus point is defense against outside aggression. The emphasis is on the just and moral cause of the fight. The introductory narrative for Jenin illustrates this symbolic meaning: “The Battle of Jenin summarizes the issue of Palestine. On one side, a heavily armed enemy supported by the Western colonial forces and on the other side, unarmed and isolated people of Palestine fighting with rocks and light weapons.”
In a similar way, Special Force 2 adopts the rhetoric typical for Hezbollah promotional materials: one of resistance and martyrdom. The game constructs its hero as a fearless warrior winning against the odds, despite being outnumbered by “Zionist forces” (Šisler 2008). A significantly different approach can be found in games produced by the Syrian company Afkar Media which deal with the Palestinian Intifada – Under Ash (Dar al-Fikr 2001) and Under Siege. Both games are partly based on real-life personal stories and their heroes are mostly civilians caught in the spiral of violence. The main character of Under Ash tries to help his friend who is wounded during an anti-Israeli demonstration and he himself is later engaged in a fight with Israeli police. Under Siege loosely recounts the connected stories of five different characters: some of them involving direct combat with the Israeli Defense Forces in fictitious street encounters, some re-enacting real incidents like the 1994 Baruch Goldstein killing in Hebron. In all Afkar Media games the main characters are individualized by emotional introductory video clips and background stories. Nevertheless, as is the case with Hezbollah games, combat remains the only interaction possible with the Israelis. Yet, rendering the combat, Under Siege utilizes distinctive procedural forms, such as using a sling instead of a gun, or taking cover with no weapon available at all. Apart from the symbolic meaning, these procedural forms correspond with the actual reality of Palestinian players more than the heroic Hezbollah games.
One of the few mainstream video games presenting the conflict from an Israeli perspective is Israeli Air Force (Electronic Arts 1998). This flight simulator, developed by a company in Tel Aviv, puts the player “in the air against enemies of Israeli freedom.” The game deals with the 1967 and 1973 wars and summarizes the conflict as follows:
When the enemy can cross the length of your homeland in 15 minutes, every square inch of your nation is a possible target. For the State of Israel, the national air force is the only front line defense. Surrounded by potential enemies, the IAF is constantly aware that a simple exercise could quickly turn into a life-threatening conflict.
Unsurprisingly, games dealing with the contemporary Arab-Israeli conflict reframe it in accordance with the developers’ political and ideological viewpoints. Many designers directly utilize video games for persuasive means, perceiving this media as the cutting edge conveyor of political and ideological messages, particularly those targeted at youths (Galloway 2006; Šisler 2008). Yet despite their opposing messages, on the procedural level these games share structural similarities.
First, all of them emphasize the high level of realism simulated by their procedural forms and depicted by graphical representations. Close Combat states that it is “so realistic, the Marines use it as a training tool;” Israeli Air Force claims “unparalleled terrain detail using real stereoscopic satellite data on the Middle East, with photo-realistic coloring and true elevation;” Under Ash tells “real stories about Palestinian people as they were documented by United Nations records”; and Special Force is simply “based on the lives of real people.” The phenomenon of legitimization of the game’s content through a surrounding narrative that is “based on reality” is widespread in digital games. Unlike lens-based media, video games aiming to be non-fictitious cannot claim any direct link to reality. As Halter (2006: 258) puts it: “Descriptive realism befits a visual technology that is increasingly photorealistic, yet essentially distinct from the indexical basis of photography: unlike its nineteenth century predecessor, computer-generated imagery has no natural relationship to any real-world referent. Thus, this relationship must be demonstrated, constructed, or asserted by other means.”
This “legitimization by reality” is established on various levels – through the photorealistic verisimilitude, topographical correspondence to the real world and claims of close collaboration with experts during the game’s development. Nevertheless, the realities constructed by the games are of a highly selective nature with certain parts missing or obscured. As Galloway (2006: 72) notes, realistic-ness and realism are most certainly not the same thing. The more precisely these politically engaged games mimic the real world in terms of descriptive realism, the more they give additional credibility to their presentation of reality in terms of narrative. They all purport to be both realistic and real, meaning that the narrative that the gamer becomes part of, is historically and ideologically accurate (Höglund 2008).
Generally speaking, action war games do not feature civilians and they reconstruct modeled landscapes as being inhabited solely by combatants. Interestingly, Under Siege and Close Combat feature civilian non-player characters, making them exceptional. Moreover, in both games, when the player kills a civilian, he is penalized by an instant game over: the ultimate punishment in game logic. Yet, the developers’ motivations may vary. Radwan Kasmiya, author of Under Siege, told me that by bringing both Israeli and Palestinian civilians into the game and by penalizing the killing of either one, he delivers a clear moral message. Destineer, the studio which designed Close Combat, was originally asked by the US Marines Training Command to develop a simulation that would allow squad leaders to make tactical decisions based on real urban battlefield conditions (Halter 2006: 262). Therefore, the presence of civilians in the game presumably serves as a more realistic environment for tactical simulation.
Finally, and most importantly, the rule-based system of these games utilizes more or less the same procedural forms. All of them, except Israeli Air Force, adopt the genre of first-person shooter. Although this genre offers relatively high levels of exploration, free movement, and manipulation with various objects in the virtual world, the only interaction possible with the non-player characters schematized as enemies is to fight. The pre-defined rule structure frames the player’s choices and doesn’t give them any alternative solutions to violence. As such, as Höglund (2008) argues, these games render the Middle East a site of perpetual war both through their marketing strategies and through game semiotics. The gamer can only be a soldier willing to fight the virtual war, thus supporting the games’ political rationale.
Mediating the Present Reloaded: Modding & Countergaming
Mainstream video games can be appropriated and subverted by individual gamers through modding. Through a Syrian mod for the game Red Alert (Virgin 1996), Palestinian “resistance fighters” have replaced Americans together with a new narrative, graphics, and Arabic audio; one gamer added the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) into Command & Conquer: Generals (Electronic Arts 2003), along with a new scenario in which Syria can finally be subdued; several West Bank cities have been re-created for virtual skirmishes by Palestinian programmers in mods for the first-person shooter game Counter Strike (Sierra On-Line 2000). As is the case of the Israeli mod for Civilization 3, players mostly feel that “their” perspective is missing in the original game and thus strive to change the rules.
Moreover, the emerging scene of so-called “independent games” – complete games created not-for-profit by individuals or small teams – provides a vital alternative to what many perceive as “the dictatorship of entertainment” (La Molleindustria 2004). For example, the Israeli Digital Art Lab in Holon hosted an exhibition called “Forbidden Games” in 2006, displaying a variety of alternative video games related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. As curators Danon and Eilat (2006) explain: “The alternative introduced by the [independent] games is embodied in the political and ideological content, but also in their suggestion for reconsideration of the potential inherent in the medium, the language, and the open code for creating a single package, combining values with hours of pleasure and suspense.”
Bogost and Poremba’s (2008: 18) notion of the authoritarian observer is helpful here: one who creates the illusion of freedom while constantly confining it, the most inherent “dictatorship” imposed on players by the procedurality of mainstream video game lies in the games’ adherence to a binary system of wining or losing (Frasca 2000: 3). In that sense, the only true alternative to the mainstream entertainment industry is one which transcends this binary framework itself. As Galloway (2006: 108) notes, mods tend to conflict violently with the mainstream gaming industry’s expectations for how games should be designed. Many independent titles criticizing official political rationale also undermine the goal-oriented, binary logic dominating interactive entertainment.
For example, War in the North (2006) is based on the 2006 war in Lebanon. The player must mark targets – launchers, houses – for IDF aircraft. As the game progresses, losses on the Israeli and Lebanese sides, damage to the capacity of the enemy (Hezbollah), and the level of objection to Israel in world public opinion are tracked. The game is a reflection of the Israeli perception of the war, beginning with international objection to Israel before the first shot is fired. As the number of Israeli casualties rises, objection decreases, and Hezbollah’s fire-delivering capacity catches up to and even surpasses that of the Israeli Air Force (Danon and Eilat 2006).
Raid Gaza! (Newgrounds 2009), an anonymous game released three days after Israel launched air strikes on Gaza during the operation “Cast Lead” in 2008, represents another example. The game takes a critical stance against the justification of Israeli military actions. The player defends the Israeli town of Sderot against Palestinian Qassam rockets by building missile silos, barracks, headquarters, and airports, and using them to attack the Gaza Strip. The ultimate goal of the game is to kill the most Palestinians in three minutes. The overwhelmingly disproportionate military means between both sides inevitably results in most casualties on the Palestinian side.
Fig. 4. Raid Gaza! (Newground, 2009).
Finally, the most prominent game subverting both the political and gaming framework, is an Israeli activist game, Wolmert against Rallah (2006), created during the 2006 war in Lebanon. Two interchangeable Middle East cities are engaged in an exchange of rocket and mortar fire under the portraits of Hassan Nasrallah and Ehud Olmert. When the player hits an enemy’s position, it immediately provokes a stronger retaliation. The incessant bombardment finally leads to the total destruction of both cities. In a rare case of ceasefire, the virtual inhabitants slowly reconstruct their cities – until a new attack starts their demolition all over again.
These three games successfully appropriate what were originally entertainment media for social and political criticism, but they also destroy the schematizing binary logic of wining or losing. While achieving the final goal set by the game, the player inevitably loses. In Wolmert against Rallah, subduing the enemy results in the destruction of the player’s own city; in Raid Gaza! victory is achieved automatically but simultaneously mocked and denounced; and War in the North simply frustrates the player by not allowing him/her to achieve the goals set by its rules. In the words of Galloway (2006: 111), “mods undercut themselves to such a degree that they almost cease being games.” Yet, as Bogost (2007: 42) puts it, “procedural rhetorics do not necessarily demand sophisticated interactivity.” Although all of these games simplify real-world events, the reality they construct is, in the end, more real. For Israelis and Palestinians, these games portray their actual experiences, anxieties, and frustrations more so than mainstream flight simulators and first-person shooters.
Envisioning the Future in Persuasive Games
The Iranian cultural institute, Tebyan, which is subsidized by the Iranian government, recently produced the action game Resistance (2008) set in the year 2015. The player controls Hezbollah commandoes sent to Israel to seek and destroy a secret military program focused on the development of an unknown weapon of mass destruction. The game utilizes a classic first-person shooter framework, with Israeli soldiers as enemies. Instead of the realistic video clips mimicking actual Hezbollah operations, such as in Special Force 2, the introductory video for Resistance adopts science-fiction cartoon esthetics portraying Hezbollah commandoes as super heroes. Essentially, Resistance is a clear response to US military games:
Computer games can be used for positive or destructive means. The latter represent games preparing the public for military campaigns, such as attacks on Iraq or Afghanistan, and misrepresenting Muslim forces. [Authors of these games] misuse their monopoly for developing and publishing games. [...] Therefore we aim to develop games in accordance with Islamic and Iranian values.
Hamid Roustaie, manager of Tebyan, argues that Resistance is essentially about defense, since in the game “the Zionists are developing a weapon which could destroy the whole world.” Despite this rhetoric, the game adopts typical procedural forms of first-person shooter genre and does not result in any clear outcome – the secret materials are found, but the development program is not stopped. The future of the Arab-Israeli conflict is omnipresent and perpetual, and its significance is intensified by the menace of modern science.
Fig. 5. Resistance (Tebyan, 2008).
Two recent games with educational aims provide substantially contrasting views of the future. Global Conflicts: Palestine (Serious Games 2007) puts the player in the role of a journalist who has arrived in Palestine to write an article about the unfolding events. He gains information by talking to locals, e.g. a Palestinian imam, an Israeli soldier, a Palestinian mother of a martyr, or an Israeli teenager. Communication is central to game play and constitutes the only action the player can perform. The reality in the game is constructed through personal memories, whose presentation to the player varies according to the relationship he has maintained with the particular speaker. This is reminiscent of Bruner’s (2003) notion of narrative reality construction and its negotiability. Moreover, by choosing the role of a journalist – whose perception of events is mediated by subjective testimonies – as the representation of player’s virtual self, the authors immerse the player in this negotiability and allow him to explore it in a particular conflict. In the realm of video games, Global Conflicts is unique in constantly contesting the reality it creates, utilizing the persuasive power of the media for a critique of its own authenticity.
The second game with an educational twist is PeaceMaker (ImpactGames 2007), a strategy game in which the player acts as Israeli Prime Minister or Palestinian President and needs to establish a peaceful solution to the conflict. Compared to the hyper-realistic, computer-generated imagery of the action games mentioned above, PeaceMaker utilizes only still photos and news-like articles for in-game events. Yet, it succeeds in giving a realistic impression:
There’s no animation in PeaceMaker, nothing cute, nothing that someone can dismiss as “only a game.” When a missile strike goes awry, or a suicide bomber strikes, the blood and bodies you see on the screen are those of real people. More than any other game I’ve ever played, PeaceMaker portrays the truth – or a subset of it – both the good and the bad (Adams 2007).
The veracity of images extends itself to the perception of the whole game as portraying “the truth,” although in this case as a serious learning tool. The reality constructed by PeaceMaker introduces an important novel aspect in the domain of procedurality: asymmetric game play. The Israeli side has direct control over those issues that most strongly affect the Palestinians: curfews, border controls, and trade restrictions, and the Israeli PM can send or withdraw his armies at will, bulldoze Palestinian homes, or order missile strikes. Yet he can also, after suitable diplomatic maneuvering, invest in Palestinian reconstruction and infrastructure. The Palestinian President, by contrast, has very limited powers and has to beg for just about everything: money from the world community for domestic projects and security concessions from the Israelis (Adams 2007). Again, by subverting one of the fundamental rules of strategy games – the balance of both sides – PeaceMaker and its procedural forms re-create the actuality of the real-life conflict perhaps better than most more technically advanced mainstream video games.
All of the games dealing with the future of Palestine adopt the video game procedural rhetoric for persuasive aims: be it the pro-peace activism of Global Conflicts and PeaceMaker or the pro-Hezbollah propaganda of Resistance. Yet, the activist games, i.e. Global Conflicts and PeaceMaker, utilize the persuasive potential of procedurality to its full extent; Resistance simply echoes other propaganda material. In other words, where the procedural rhetoric of Resistance exposes the player to a reality that the game’s authors have envisioned, Global Conflicts engages him in the game’s reality construction, making a meta-commentary on the instantiation of an event and its media re-creation.
The interdependency of game procedural forms and the ways in which they (re)construct reality is noticeable in the utilization of particular game genres to model distinctive historical periods. Strategy games are mostly used for modeling the past, while first-person shooter games typically mediate the present. Therefore, despite the different origin and background of individual games, their procedural rhetoric mostly follows unified patterns. As such, history is constructed as a relation between quantifiable processes, where everything is a question of the acquisition and allocation of resources. The present, on the other hand, is rendered a place of perpetual war, where the only interaction possible is relentless violence.
While the procedural forms of strategy games offer a broader perspective which enables diplomacy and negotiations, the procedural forms of first-person shooter games simulate only the tactical level where negotiation with the enemy is prohibited by the genre itself. Although this could partially be a result of the momentum of technology (turn-based strategy games were more suitable for the former generation of computers), the shift in genres inherently reflects changes in the geo-political situation. Thus US games from the early 1990s, such as Conflict (Virgin 1990), adopt a strategy genre and construct the Middle East as a space of tension, where peaceful solution is hard to achieve, but possible. At the same time, first-person shooters produced after 9/11 re-create the Middle East as a frontier zone in the omnipresent conflict between US interests and Islamic terrorism.
More recently, Israeli and Arab games which strive to challenge the dominant modes of representation have appeared on the market. These games utilize various genres, including what Galloway (2006: 107) calls “countergaming”, i.e. modding and alternative game outlets, and present reality from parallel – albeit contradictory – perspectives.
Although many of the games analyzed in this article utilize the same procedural forms and rhetoric, by no means does this indicate that they serve the same rationale or function. In terms of Habermas’s (1984) Theory of Communicative Action, similar procedural rhetoric can be successfully utilized in different games for both “strategic” and “communicative” action respectively. As such, the procedural forms of the strategy game genre could serve for persuasion and communication with the purpose of shaping or changing the other party’s views, e.g. Raid Gaza!, and yet the same procedural form could open a path for rational-critical deliberations, e.g. PeaceMaker. Whereas both games utilize the same procedural forms, such as acquisition and allocation of resources, only the latter fits into the Habermasian term of “communicative” action.
Several authors have already suggested that games depicting the region and the Arab-Israeli conflict which are created by developers in the Middle East, be it Arabs or Israelis, achieve a more genuine level of realism. Galloway (2006: 78) argues that realism in gaming requires a special congruence between the social reality depicted in the game and the social reality known and lived by the gamer; a typical American youth playing Hezbollah’s Special Force is most likely not experiencing realism; whereas, a young Palestinian gamer playing the same game in the occupied territories, is (Galloway 2006: 82). Conversely, Tawil-Souri’s (2007) research suggests that many of the Palestinian kids in the Occupied Territories who play these games are very much aware of the (dis)connection between the reality of the game and the reality in which they live. As a seventeen-year-old boy from Gaza (Tawil-Souri 2007: 547) explains:
Of course there are times when [Under Siege] gets me even more frustrated, because in the game I am this strong fighter, I am able to resist, to avoid bullets, to have weapons, to do all these things I am unable to do in real life. . . . It is worse with [Special Force] because there I have this feeling that I am really beating the Israelis and winning the cause. But I know it cannot happen here. I know it is not so easy to blow up their tanks or shoot down their airplanes.
At the same time, many American gamers can actually experience congruence in Galloway’s terms when playing US games about the Middle East, since these games in fact successfully maintain fidelity with their social reality. Zhan Li (2004: 68) demonstrates how many US gamers have been immersed by watching CNN news broadcasts and playing the desert levels of America’s Army (U.S. Army 2002) during the second Gulf War.
Congruence, which determines the level of realism achieved by the game, is not governed just by whether in-game reality corresponds with the social reality of the player in terms of geographical localization and narrative. More importantly, the rule system which governs the player’s interaction with the game, i.e. its procedural forms, plays a role. A key question is whether the game’s procedurality and its limitations relate to the reality of the player – to the limitations imposed on him by his real-world existence. In this sense, arguably the truly realistic games are those which successfully destroy the dictate of genre, escape the binary logic of wining and losing, and subvert the “dictatorship of entertainment.” Given the paramount influence of game genre on the (re)construction of reality, game designers aiming to create a documentary game (Bogost and Poremba 2008: 15), should not utilize the procedural forms pertaining to mainstream video game genres. Rather they should develop new ones in correspondence with the constraints that produced the actual events they aim to document, as is the case of Global Conflicts or Peacemaker, or, to some extent, Under Siege. If one is to take the definition of game genre given earlier – an assemblage of similar procedural forms – then there is no documentary game genre as such, since every truly documentary game recreates its own procedurality.
This article is based on a research project on Islam, the Middle East, and digital media (digitalislam.eu) supported by Charles University in Prague through the research grants “GAUK 125408″ and “GRANTY/2008/547″.
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