By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006
A new video game lets players kill President Bush. It's called "Quest for Bush." It looks a lot like a game that hit the market three years ago, called "Quest for Saddam."
In the venerable shoot-'em-up genre, who's the hero and who's the enemy depends on who's programming the game.
"Quest for Bush," a.k.a. "Night of Bush Capturing," is a free online game released by the Global Islamic Media Front, a radical organization that has ties with al-Qaeda. Armed with a rifle, a shotgun or a grenade launcher, players navigate various missions that include "Jihad Growing Up," "Americans' Hell" and "Bush Hunted Like a Rat." In the final stage, you fight Bush.
It's the latest -- and most extreme -- addition to a small but growing list of Islamic video games, monitored by the Defense Department and much blogged about in gaming circles. Some are free, others are not. Either way, they champion issues from an Islamic perspective, in stark contrast to many Western-made games that generally cast Muslims and Arabs as the bad guys. Furthermore, they underscore a brewing game-design war between East and West, a simmering tension of who's writing (and rewriting) history.
"There's a very interesting tit-for-tat going on here, a weird kind of dialogue," says Ed Halter, author of the book "From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games," published in May, and a contributing writer for the Village Voice. "And what's disconcerting about it is that the conversation is often reduced to the lowest common denominator of violent action in games, which is in a way very reflective of the overall way things are going right now in real life."
Radwan Kasmiya, a 31-year-old gamer, can't stand titles such as "Counter-Strike," "Close Combat: First to Fight" and "America's Army," the free online game -- with more than 7.5 million users -- released in 2002 by the U.S. Army to help bolster recruitment.
"We're the terrorist, the enemy, in these games," says Kasmiya. He runs the Syria-based Afkar Media, one of a handful of struggling commercial game publishers in the Islamic world. Speaking on the phone from his Damascus office, he's quick to distinguish his games from "Quest for Bush," which has been downloaded a few thousand times on the Internet. Two clips on the video-sharing site YouTube.com have been viewed nearly 11,000 times. "Nothing but propaganda," he says of that game. He's played it, he says, and calls it "hateful."
"UnderAsh," released by Afkar Media in 2002, views the first intifada from the eyes of Ahmad, a Palestinian teenager resisting the Israeli occupation. Last year a sequel was released. A teaser to "UnderSiege," which tells the stories of five Palestinian families during the second intifada, shows a Palestinian teenager being shot on the street; an Israeli soldier appears to pound him with a concrete block seconds later. "Our games are not propaganda," Kasmiya says. "Our games are a reflection of our history -- past or present. The fact is, most movies, most TV shows, most video games put Muslims in a bad light, so we have to try to tell our side of the story."
Retired Maj. Chris Chambers, deputy director of the Army Game Project, insists "America's Army" doesn't "pick on a single enemy." The country is at war, he says, and the terrorists depicted in "America's Army" come from "all over the world," including the Middle East. "There's no focus on one particular region or one particular people," says Chambers, who helped design the game.
But as with anything, people are free to interpret the game any way they want, he adds.
One of the first Islamic games to gain attention in the Middle East is a free online game called "The Stone Throwers," says Halter. It was created by a Syrian medical student and released in 2000, weeks after the start of the second intifada. According to its Web site, the game is "dedicated to those who lost their lives for the homeland and all those who are fighting for freedom." Other game publishers such as Techniat 3D and Imaginations -- the former based in Syria, the latter in the United Arab Emirates -- developed fantasy-based adventure games such as "Zoya" and "Legend of Zord." But both companies folded in the past five years, unable to find a sizable audience in the Middle East, where piracy is commonplace and U.S.-made games are popular, Kasmiya says. None of these games -- free or not -- have been purchased or downloaded "more than a few thousand times," he adds.
The Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that translates Arabic language television and Web sites, says that in June, Sheik Nabil Al-Awadhi, who has a weekly show on the Kuwaiti channel Al-Rai TV called "Sa'at Saraha" ("An Hour of Sincerity"), spoke of the need for Islamic games that compete with Western games. He also suggested developing a game in which the Muslim player "slaughters the Jews and liberates the Al-Aqsa Mosque." In the West, they turn their wars against Muslims into games, he said, and Muslims should do the same.
Dennis McCauley, who runs the blog Gamepolitics.com, says: "There is a game design war taking place, at least in the sense that today's games are a mass communications vehicle for reaching young people. The Defense Department distributes 'America's Army' for free as both a recruiting tool and a way to market the image of our armed forces. The game is hugely popular. It's no surprise that Islamic extremists are trying to achieve the same goal and imitate that success."
This past summer, the Union of Islamic Student Societies, an Iranian political group, announced that it was developing a game -- as a retort to a U.S.-made game. Last year, the New York-based Kuma Games released a free online game called "Assault on Iran," in which players take on the role of a U.S. Special Forces soldier trying to destroy Iran's nukes. In the Iranian group's game, set for release this March, a fictional "Commander Bahman" fights U.S. Special Forces and rescues Iranian atomic scientists. In response to that response, Keith Halper, head of Kuma Games, said his company will create a sequel to the Iranian-made game from the United States' point of view.
"It's propaganda, but it's also a form of debate," Halper says. "We have made a point, they have responded."
The gunplay in "Quest for Bush" is crude, akin to "Doom," the godfather of shoot-'em-up games. The goal is to kill. It's in English and Arabic and takes about 30 minutes to play. In the beginning, the player goes around what looks like a U.S. military camp, with walls plastered with photos of President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, among others.
"Quest for Bush" is a "mod"-- or modification -- of "Quest for Saddam," released by the California-based Petrilla Entertainment in 2003 for $14.95. The company sold about 3,000 copies of the game.
"They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. But I'm not flattered," says Jesse Petrilla, who created "Quest for Saddam." Last year he founded the United American Committee, a political action group that has used techniques such as hanging Osama bin Laden in effigy in front of a mosque in Culver City, Calif. He says his group seeks to remind Americans of "the threat that radical Islam poses to all of us."
His latest response in this gaming war, says the 23-year-old, is to make "Quest for Saddam" free for players.