Seven video games that also serve as propaganda

A still from Guardians of the Skies, a game developed for the Indian Air Force.
02 August, 2014

When it comes to recruitment, the Indian armed services usually rely on staid ads invoking grand patriotism, and promising glory and adventure. Recently, however, the Indian Air Force embarked on a new recruitment method by releasing a mobile game, titled Guardians of the Skies, intended to induce such an intense patriotism in players that they immediately sign up for the air force. “The best message actually goes through if we can make people go through the act of playing the game as a fighter pilot,” said Sameer Joshi, the creative director of Threye, the Delhi-based startup that created the game. “Flying an aircraft, taking on enemies, that’s the ultimate propaganda experience.”

While your enemies in GOTS are the fictional Zazurians of a neighbouring country, other games in the past have been much more specific in their premises, directly promoting political and ideological stances. Here are seven games that are less about play and more about propaganda.

1. Fight as an American soldier

America’s Army was released by the US Army on 4 July 2002 and, up until now, 41 versions of the game have been released in total, all financed by the US government and available for free download. The game is a recruitment tool, and each version has two parts: Operations, in which the player battles opponents in a first-person shooter mode, and Soldiers, in which the player advances up the various ranks. The most notable feature of the game is its attention to realism: a player’s stance and breathing determines their aim; standing too close to an exploding grenade means that the character won’t function for ten seconds because it is stunned; and in accordance with the US Army’s Rules of Engagement, a player’s character is imprisoned if it kills its teammates or innocents. However, it has been noted that the game “globally promotes a one-sided and self-glorifying message about this army and its interventions.” NYU Professor Alexander Galloway wrote in Game Studies that the game could be viewed “as a bold and brutal reinforcement of current American society and its positive moral perspective on military intervention, be it the war on terrorism or ‘shock and awe’ in Iraq.”

2. Find and kill Saddam Hussein

Quest for Saddam was released in 2003 by a company called Petrilla Entertainment, which had previously released a game called Quest for Al-Qa’eda after the September 11 attacks on New York. The game is a first-person shooter in which the player takes on the character of a special-forces soldier and has to complete a series of missions in a desert compound, with the aim of locating Saddam Hussein and killing him. It is infused with elements that the developers presumably consider funny: the compound is set in the fictional Iraqi town of Huminumadad and turbaned Iraqi soldiers yell “Huminumanuma” when they attack. The mocking portrayal of the enemy extends to the décor in a bunker, in which a homo-erotic picture of Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, lying in bed and drinking wine, hangs on the wall. Jesse Petrilla, the owner of the company has since gone on to found the United American Committee, a political action group that aims to promote “awareness of Islamist extremist threats in America.”

3. Find and kill George W Bush

In response to Petrilla’s Quest for Saddam, the Global Islamic Media Front, an underground media outlet associated with al Qaeda, released Quest for Bush, in which the player must find and kill George W Bush. The developers also seemed to respond to Petrilla’s attempt at humour, though it took quite a dark turn. For example, the text on the loading bar, which generally says “Loading,” in this game reads “Jihad Happening.”

4. Fight as a Chinese soldier

The Chinese have their own recruitment-cum-propaganda game that is similar in many ways to America’s Army. Developed by Giant Network Technology Co. and financed by the People’s Liberation Army, the villains in Glorious Mission are identified as the US and Japan—the latter are referred to by the derogatory word “guizi.” While players engage, their characters shout nationalistic slogans such as “You will not violate our sovereign territory!” China Daily reported that soldiers who played the game found it “quite fun,” and like a simplified military text book.

5. Defend China against the Japanese invasion

Developed by an online gaming firm, PowerNet Technology, and the Chinese Communist Youth League, Anti-Japan War Online is set during the Japanese invasion of China in the early twentieth century. Players can choose to play as one of seventeen Chinese characters, and the developers told The Guardian that to help players differentiate between the two sides, they made the Japanese soldiers ugly. The game is meant to be “a patriotic game that is both interesting and instructive, and can attract and guide young player” a CCYL official told a Chinese news site.

6. Fight as a Palestinian under siege

Under Siege, a game developed by Radwan Kasmiya, a developer from Syria, is less propaganda and more an attempt to give the player a sense of life under occupation. It focuses on a Palestinian family during the second Intifada, the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, with events drawn from the United Nations records from 1978 to 2002. The game is played from the perspective of a young man named Ahmad, witness to the fundamentalist Baruch Goldstein opening fire in a mosque in Hebron, West Bank, in 1994. Ahmad has to first chase down Goldstein and then has to complete various missions against Israeli soldiers without hurting civilians—Israeli or Palestinian—in the process. Reviews noted that the game conveys the desperation of the Palestinian situation, where resistance gets you killed and non-violence seems to be just as deadly.

7. Punch the president of South Korea

North Korea is also in the business of creating propaganda games, against its southern neighbour. One crude and violent game, called Beating up Rat LMB, involves repeatedly pummeling South Korean president Lee Myung-bak while he offers zero resistance.