Spy Games

Does the CIA really make video-game propaganda?

Game controller.

Does the CIA really make video-game propaganda?

Photograph by iStockphoto.

Iran is threatening to execute Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, an Iranian-American whom it has accused of working for the CIA to develop propagandistic video games. Are U.S. intelligence agencies really spending their time making video games?

If so, the projects are top secret. The CIA declined comment for this story and has said publicly that Hekmati was not in fact a U.S. spy. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t video games out there that could be used by the CIA or other agencies to try and win over the hearts and minds of our enemies.

The company Hekmati allegedly worked for, called Kuma Reality Games, has developed a series of online computer games that drop the user into recent real-world military scenarios. Its first installment, Uday and Qusay’s Last Stand, puts the player in the shoes of American soldiers during the battle in which Saddam Hussein’s sons were killed. Others re-enact, rather realistically, the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the troop surge in Baghdad, and the recent hunt for Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. But while the games’ plot and dialogue may reflect a pro-American worldview—many include talking-head commentary from real-life ex-military officers—they have the feel of an attempt to capitalize on recent headlines more than a concerted propaganda effort. And they’re available free online to everyone with embedded ads.

Run-of-the-mill games made for commercial sale in the United States tend to have a similarly patriotic outlook. From Activision’s wildly popular Call of Duty franchise to EA’s Battlefield series, there’s a tendency to have players take on the roles of U.S. military personnel, and while those games are about shoot-‘em-up kicks more than politics, the Americans are almost always the good guys, and the bad guys often hail from real-life U.S. antagonists present and past, such as Iran and Soviet Russia. When Electronic Arts released a Medal of Honor game in 2010 that allowed gamers to play as the Taliban, a swift outcry from military families persuaded the company to drop the reference.

More lifelike are the America’s Army games, a series developed by the U.S. military as a recruitment tool. Again, it’s clear who the good guys are, and the games have taken flak for promoting militarism among the country’s youth. A Lebanese computer game series called Special Force, created by Hezbollah’s “Internet Division” and sold in Beirut for $7 to $10 a copy, seems to play to a similarly domestic audience. The game gives players the chance to blow up Israeli tanks and shoot down helicopters, but there’s little effort to persuade or subvert those who might otherwise sympathize with the enemy.

If U.S. intelligence agencies were making secret video games to foment unrest in Iran or elsewhere, they would likely be less violent and more focused on realistic decision-making scenarios. According to Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech professor who co-founded a company that designs games as marketing tools for clients, the most persuasive games are those that model real-world systems and give users a chance to see the consequences of different courses of action. A game aimed at Iranians might seek to demonstrate the pitfalls of Islamism or the value of participation in a democratic opposition movement. (It would probably not be called, as one Kuma title is, Assault on Iran.) One model might be People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance, a single-player, turn-based strategy game developed by the nonprofit International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in which the player builds alliances and chooses tactics to secure rights and freedoms for an oppressed populace. 

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Explainer thanks Ian Bogost of Georgia Institute of Technology.

Correction, Jan. 11, 2012: The article originally incorrectly referred to Georgia Tech as “Georgia Tech University.” Its full name is the Georgia Institute of Technology.