Future Tense

This Man Was Banned From Playing a Video Game Because of National Security?

Khan’s Tweet

Screen grab from Twitter.com

There are a variety of things you can do even if you’re on a terrorism watch list, including, apparently, buying a firearm. One thing you may not be able to do? Playing a video game. That’s what Muhammad Zakir Khan learned recently when he tried to sign up for the beta of Paragon, a new multiplayer action game from Epic in which five-person teams of heroes battle against one another in virtual arenas. Gamasutra, which broke the story, reports that when Khan submitted his request, he received an unusual denial, one explaining that his name had come up as “a match against the Specially Designated Nationals list maintained by the United States of America’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.” Epic was, in other words, refusing Khan the opportunity to try out its new game simply because his name resembles that of someone who might be financially involved with terrorism.

Khan tweeted a a screengrab of the rejection form and hashtaged it “#Islamophobia.” Surprisingly, Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney replied to another tweet about the issue, claiming that it had been caused by an “[o]verly broad filter related to US trade restrictions.”

As Ars Technica asks, “The question is … why was this government list associated with something as simple as signing up for the beta of a video game in the first place? Sweeney went some way toward an explanation in subsequent tweets, claiming that the filter in question had been ported over from Unreal Engine 4, the system in which the game was built.

A “suite of game development tools,” Unreal Engine 4 has a wide range of uses, both domestic and foreign, that apparently bring it under the umbrella of trade guidelines. Under ordinary circumstances, those restrictions should only apply to people who are using the engine to create new games. (For instance, the U.S. government presumably doesn’t want ISIS to use the engine to create a recruiting game.) But when Epic used the engine to make Paragon, it accidentally left those restrictions in place. Thus, the filter shouldn’t have been there in the first place, and no one should have been banned from Paragon, regardless of whether they show up on a watch list.

It seems entirely likely that Sweeney is being sincere here, and his company probably didn’t intend to exclude Khan—or anyone else—from playing its game. As Sweeney has acknowledged, in this case Epic was careless rather than consciously Islamophobic, and it has apparently since corrected the error. Nevertheless, this story still points to the ease with which such tools can be misapplied—and demonstrates how the very smallest incidents can best illuminate a problem.