When Geopolitics Meets the Game Industry A Study of Arabic Video Games and What They Teach Us

By Courmont, Barthélémy; Clément, Pierre-Alain | Hemispheres, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

When Geopolitics Meets the Game Industry A Study of Arabic Video Games and What They Teach Us


Courmont, Barthélémy, Clément, Pierre-Alain, Hemispheres


In the past decade, allusions to real events in video games have grown in parallel with their technical complexity. Since the American video game industry has become a bigger market than Hollywood, politics has become much more visible within it. Unexpected actors have begun to re-appropriate this media in order to openly advance their agenda {America 's Army by the US army in 2003, Special Force by Hezbollah, etc.). Firstand third-person shooters are particularly useful for carrying a particular message, thanks to their immersive characteristics.

Besides several ambiguous Western games (where the enemy is sometimes represented as being of foreign descent) and obvious responses by Hezbollah (where the characters kill soldiers wearing the Star of David), the Syrian company Afkar Media sells games that deserve closer scrutiny.

The focus will be put on its most recent game, Quraish, on the Afkar company itself, and on reactions to the game. The game is not a direct means of political manipulation toward radicalization, but it is part of a larger phenomenon: an endogenous set of statements (whose radicalism is a small component) by Arab societies about themselves, to themselves and the Western world. If Quraish can be considered a "tolerance test towards games depicting sensitive events in Islamic history",1 the Western public is a target as well.

This article uses a methodology of content analysis, based on qualitative description. Its objectives are: (1) to show the existence of artefacts of popular culture which are emancipated enough from controversies with the Western world to make an autonomous statement about their societies; (2) to show that this autonomous statement is not free from political motives linked to the relation with the West characterized by a feeling of humiliation. The article consists of three parts. The first explains the specificities of the game (its distribution, its technical characteristics and its subject matter) and its developer, Afkar Media. The second examines Afkar's desire to put an end to Orientalism in video games: (1) Quraish's features resembling any Western strategy game; (2) Quraish, like Civilization, being immune to political manipulation in favour of the military, which is obvious with first-person shooters like America's Army (United States Department of Defense, 2002) or Special Force (Lebanon's Hezbollah, 2003). The third part explores the political content of the game, characterised by an interpretation of history which (1) is free of religious correctness, and (2) matches the cultural demands of Arab societies.

Description of the games

Afkar's C.E.O., project manager and game director Radwan Kasmiya, started up Afkar Media in 1997 with five employees. The company now employs twenty-five people, and has offices in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.2 Principally an advertising company, video games are only a small part of Afkar's activities. In the credits of Quraish, the development team seems to be composed of fewer than ten people. Radwan Kasmiya explains the game cost around US$100,000 to develop. For Western developers, this budget level was common in the 1990s, but is nowadays totally obsolete.3

Since 1998 Afkar has created several games, including the relatively famous Under Ash (2002) and Under Siege (2005), both belonging to the first-person shooter genre (FPS). These games were aimed at counterbalancing the negative image of the Arab/Muslim world, especially in Western countries. Speaking about "digital emancipation", Radwan Kasmiya explains that Afkar's role is to "help [Arabs] to feel equal to other nations so that they can develop into a civilization which will enrich the surrounding world and not only take from it".4 The first game sets the player in the events of the second intifada, while the second retells the killing of Muslim worshipers in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein. If Afkar claims these games deconstruct the victimising image Israel built for itself, these games merely reverse the victimisation and present Israel as the arch-enemy. …

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