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Monday, April 15, 2024

Video Games Are a New Propaganda Machine for Iran

Commander of the Resistance: Amerli Battle is a first-person shooter set in Iraq. Launched in 2022, the game pitches players against Islamic State militants laying siege to a town, based on a real-life event that took place in 2014. Its hero—the commander of the title—is a real-life figure too: Qasem Soleimani, a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a military force under the command of Iran’s theocratic leadership. 

Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq in January 2020, was a powerful figure in the regime—and a controversial one, declared a terrorist by the US and accused of overseeing human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings in Iran, Iraq and Syria. 

The game was produced by Monadian Media, an offshoot of the Basij Cyberspace Organization—the digital wing of the IRGC’s paramilitary group, the Basij‚ and it is part of an ongoing propaganda effort by the regime to rewrite history and mythologize its leading figures.  

Facing growing discontent, the Islamic Republic has increasingly invested in producing video games, in the hope that it can use them to influence young people. The games’ narratives try to reinforce the religious identity of the nation, to portray domestic opponents—such as the Woman, Life, Freedom movement that began last year—as sectarian extremists, and to rehabilitate figures like Soleimani, a military commander associated with brutal crackdowns. And it has thrust Iran’s once-thriving games industry into the midst of a battle over Iranian identity.

“Propaganda games [show how] the regime wants the youth to think,” says Ali, a developer who worked on propaganda titles, and who asked to speak under a pseudonym for his safety. “Modern games showcase the weakness that the government feels. In the Soleimani game, you do not dare to play as him because you might fail and die, but General Qasim Soleimani never does … This picture is in sharp contrast with how the majority of Iranians feel about him, but the state wants to change that by using video games.”

Technology has been political in Iran for decades. After the 1979 revolution, which installed Ayatollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme political and religious leader, the government banned most forms of personal technology, such as cassettes and video players, along with chess, card games, and any sports considered “Western” or “secular.” It was only in the 1990s that the state started to relax its grip on technology, and instead began to figure out how it could use it to increase its control over society. 

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The game that is widely considered to be Iran’s first, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves of Baghdad, was created in 1995 by an independent developer, Ramin Azizi. The state’s first game was launched a year later. Called Tank Hunter, it was a simple shooting game in which the player took the role of an Iranian soldier, destroying Iraqi tanks during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war—a foundational event in the Republic, and one which is still used by the regime to create a sense of fear that the country is at risk of invasion.

By the mid-2000s, Iran’s domestic game industry was flourishing as companies like Darinoos localized pirated international PC games, while domestic studios, including Puya Arts and Dead Mage, mined Iranian history for their work, relying on their novelty to build a local audience.

“Although their quality wasn’t on par with Western games, I was pleasantly surprised,” says Reza Moddaressi, a podcaster who used to review games for Persian-language publications. 

Rather than ban the indie developers, the Islamic Republic decided to try to shape the industry in its image. It established the Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation, or IRCG, in 2007. The organization supported indie developers financially, so long as they produced titles that didn’t explicitly conflict with the state’s ideologies; and, it produced its own games, such as Valfajr 8, also set during the Iran-Iraq war. Magazines and television ads were free to provide publicity for both state-backed and indie games. 

“I was truly hopeful [in the mid-2000s],” says Kurosh, an indie developer, who asked for anonymity for his safety. “We had to create everything from the ground up. We didn’t have access to many of the tools that were easily accessible outside of Iran.” But the future looked bright, he says. 

That golden age came to an end in 2011, when California-based Electronic Arts launched Battlefield 3, a first-person shooter partly set in Iran, with Iranians as villains. It came at a time of deteriorating relationships between Tehran and the West, and it sparked an aggressive response. 

“We will answer this with an eye for an eye,” Behrouz Minaii Rais-Bonyad, the head of IRCG, said. Soon after, the IRCG launched a first-person shooter: The Attack on Tel-Aviv.

The government made selling and buying of Battlefield 3 a criminal act. But it also took aim at the sector as a whole. The government stopped investing in indie projects and made it incredibly difficult for game developers to get licenses to release their work.

Ali, who was nervous about sharing details that could be used to identify him, said that even those working within the propaganda industry felt they were on thin ice, worried that the regime would announce a total ban on gaming. Rather than being a single monolithic organization working on orders from above, small groups of developers would be asked to come up with an idea for a game that might be able to get past higher ups’ innate suspicion of video games.

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Some indie developers did manage to keep working despite the restrictions, although some had to base themselves overseas. The acclaimed Tale of Bistun, released in 2022, was created by a small group of Iranian developers but led by Amin Shahidi, who is based in the Netherlands. The game, like many indies, is based on an old Persian story. 

But mostly, the gaming industry came to be dominated by the regime. Ali says that the government-backed sector paid comparably well, and it had become the only place to make a living in the industry. “Otherwise, we had little to no other chances,” he says.

One figure in particular emerged as the leader of propaganda games development—Mahdi Jafari Jozani, a high-ranking member of the Basij. 

Jozani’s first major title, Safir-e Eshgh, was released in 2020. Set during the Second Fitna—a civil war fought across the Islamic world in the seventh century—the role-playing game combined triple-A production values with hardcore Shia doctrine. A sequel, Mokhtar: The Season of Rebellion, was released in 2021. It was Jozani who led the development of Commander of the Resistance the following year.

In an interview with Middle East games website Bazinegar in 2022, Jozani said that he doesn’t just consider himself a producer, but a part of a new “discussion” on games. Despite the controversies surrounding Safir-e Eshgh, the fact that Iranians were talking about an Iranian game was, “in itself, a great achievement,” he said. Jozani said the games have sold well, but there is no way to independently verify this.

Jozani couldn’t be reached for comment. Asked for an introduction to Jozani, one person who knows him told WIRED: “Don’t play with the lion’s tail.”

Safir-e Eshgh and its sequel present a revisionist view of Iran’s history, and they try to fix its identity in the one that the regime wants to promote—a Shiite theocracy surrounded by enemies. The tension between that identity and the richer, more textured history presented by indie developers has increased dramatically over the past six months.

Iran’s most recent protest movement, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman in the custody of the regime’s morality police, has put two very different conceptions of Iranian identity into violent confrontation. 

Hundreds of people have been killed in clashes with the regime, and thousands have been arrested. The authorities have cracked down on digital spaces as well as physical ones. It has shut down the internet at times and has blocked social media, messaging apps, and some online games. The Islamic Republic has said in the past that it wants to create its own national intranet, essentially walling off its internet from the rest of the world. 

Some figures from the gaming community have joined others in the creative industry to raise their voices against the regime’s attacks on protesters. Arman Arian, a novelist and developer of several well-received indie games, was among 800 writers and artists who signed an open letter against the government’s suppression of young people.

In September, Emad Rahmani, the director of Safir-e Eshgh and Mokhtar: The Season of Rebellion, took to Twitter. Using the #MahsaAmini hashtag, around which protesters have rallied, he posted: “Damn traditionalism, damn extremism, half of our lives have passed and still we can feel our stolen identity. I can see it in the cries of people around me and in the goodbyes of friends who fled the country.” Shortly afterwards, he made all his social media accounts private and is now in hiding, according to people who know him.

Kurosh and his wife, who both work in the industry and had been trying to establish their own studio, joined the street protests in the early months of the movement. As they helped people who were injured, they saw the extent of the authorities’ brutality. “This is not how human beings should be treated,” Kurosh says. 

He is now making plans to leave. He still wants to make games, and to honor his heritage and culture, but the space to do so in Iran is shrinking. “I love Iran, I have always loved Iran,” he says. “However, I cannot continue living like this.”

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