Today's New York Sun has an op-ed I co-authored with my boss, University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies director, V.S. Subrahmanian on incorporating video games into the war of ideas against Islamist extremism.
Gaming: Tactical Advantage
BY AARON MANNES AND VENKATRAMANAN SUBRAHMANIAN
November 14, 2007
When Hezbollah released the second version of its video game "Special Force" in August, it demonstrated, yet again, how quickly terrorist groups have taken advantage of technology in order to propagate their worldview. While America dominates the fastgrowing multi-billion dollar video game industry, there has not yet been an effort to develop video games that counter Islamist extremism.
"Special Force 2" updates the 2002 video game with scenarios based on last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah: players kidnap Israeli soldiers, fire missiles at an Israeli gunboat, and launch Katyusha rockets into Israel. When the game was released a Hezbollah press official, Sheikh Ali Dahir, described it as a recruiting tool stating, "The Lebanese child has the right to know what happened in the south so as to imitate the jihadist action and the act of liberating the land."
Mr. Dahir also showed Hezbollah's sophisticated understanding of communications when he described "Special Force" as "an alternative to the Western patterns that are presented to us in names, language, and tones that are sometimes devoid of content and at other times for not so innocent aims."
Hezbollah is not the only organization using video games as a strategic communications tool. There is a growing movement to develop video games to educate the public on various issues. The U.S. military has long used electronic simulations for training. In 2005, the Army released an online game, "America's Army," as a recruiting tool. But this understanding of the power of video games has not penetrated American efforts to reach out to moderate Muslims.
True, Hezbollah's game designers have the easier task. Hezbollah's anti-Israel message resonates throughout the greater Middle East and last summer's war provides a ready-made narrative. Games that are blatantly pro-American will only come off as ham-handed propaganda.
The point of waging a war of ideas is not to make America more popular. It is to foster attitudes and ideas that marginalize extremists. Increasingly sophisticated and supporting complex narratives, video games could be an ideal platform for the subtle transmission of values and an essential component in the war of ideas.
The best propaganda doesn't look like propaganda, and for video games to be successful they must be fun. Fun is a worthwhile value in and of itself, particularly for people caught in the midst of terrible circumstances, but it can also be a tactical asset.
Nations have come to virtual standstills for crucial episodes of beloved television shows. Violence in Baghdad dipped during Saddam Hussein's trial, as Iraqis were glued to their televisions to watch their former tormentor face justice. In particular, video games could be a crucial tool for reaching young men, the same demographic targeted for recruitment by terrorists.
The possibilities for video games targeted at Muslims throughout the world that marginalize extremist ideologies are limitless. Shoot-em-up games that give players the chance to rescue their countrymen from bloodthirsty terrorists could reinforce the message that Muslims themselves are the primary victims of Islamic extremists.
Other values can be fostered in more complex games modeled on popular strategy games like "Civilization." These games can help introduce players to the workings of open political systems and modern economies, and even make the subtle case for the education of women. Different games could be developed for different regions. A soccer game based on the venerated Iraqi national soccer team could help foster national consciousness among Iraqis, whereas a different game could be designed for cricket-mad Pakistan. Battery powered handheld games could be developed for areas where computers are scarce or electricity is inconsistent.
Video games can be funny as well. Popular sitcoms like "The Simpsons" have inspired video game spin-offs. Humor is an essential communications tool for building bridges and for ridiculing shared enemies.
Since September 11, policy-makers have been calling for a war of ideas. Terrorists have consistently and quickly adapted their message to the most popular and accessible media. To win the war of ideas, America must adapt to the new forms of spreading their message as well. Video games are one of the great communications tools of this century; it is time to take them seriously. The extremists already do.
Mr. Mannes, a researcher at the University of Maryland's Laboratory of Computational Cultural Dynamics, is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. Mr. Subrahmanian, a professor of computer science, is the director of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.