The “conflict-dominated” Middle East has been an appealing setting for video game designers for the past three decades. Popular game developers have repeatedly incorporated the colonial wars such as the Crusades (“Assassins Creed”), civil wars (“Syrian Warfare”), and world wars (“Battlefield 2”) into game plots and narratives to maintain keen fan bases. Such video games are becoming as popular in Arab countries as they are in the United States, with some gaming preference research suggesting that “Shoot Em’ Up and other violent video games are popular worldwide, including in Palestine.
While players of these video games may be aware of the explicit military and political propaganda evident in some of them, they may not realize that some prominent video game franchises promote Zionist propaganda, including favorably depicting Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in their storylines. In particular, the game series “Tom Clancy Splinter Cell” and “Metal Gear Solid” glorify efforts of Israeli intelligence agencies against Palestinians, omitting the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem as well as the rest of Palestine, and distorting historical events in Israel’s favor. Indeed, these and other video game series’ arguably contribute to Israel’s ongoing digital occupation of Palestine which includes: social media restrictions on Palestinian content, segregated mobile phone network services, state funded crowdsourcing technologies deployed against supporters of Palestinian resistance, and Israeli television programs with negative depictions of Palestinians streaming on popular sites like Netflix.
“Tom Clancy Splinter Cell”
Tom Clancy, a well-known Cold War fiction novelist and supporter of the U.S. Republican party, demonized Palestinians in his book, “The Sum of All Fears,” and the subsequent movie that was based on it. In both works, Palestinian resistance groups are depicted as terrorists conspiring to “bring down” the U.S. government. The “Splinter Cell” video game series is also inspired by this work and similarly demonizes Palestinians, to Israel’s advantage.
“Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow,” which is the second volume in this game series, is a third-person stealth game developed by Ubisoft Shanghai and Ubisoft Milan. Released in early 2004, it has sold approximately 2.8 million unit sales across different gaming consoles since its release. In “Mission 4” of the game, the protagonist, Sam Fisher, infiltrates the streets of Jerusalem during curfew in order to locate an Israeli Shin Bet agent and obtain information about a potential biological weapon being developed by a “Syrian terrorist organization.” Promoting Israeli interests, the game presents Jerusalem as “in Israel,” omitting that East Jerusalem is illegally occupied Palestinian territory. Despite being situated in Jerusalem, there is no specific reference to Palestinians or Palestinian culture. For example, the Arabic names of Jerusalemite streets are absent, even though the mission takes place primarily in East Jerusalem. Individuals who appear to be Arabs are depicted as uniformly brown skinned and praying beside the street or living in stone houses.
The “Metal Gear Solid” Series
In 2004, the fifth edition in the “Metal Gear Solid” franchise was released. Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Japan, the “Metal Gear Solid” game series, glorifies the actions of the IDF. It reinforces the ethnic cleansing undergirding Zionism by engaging in propaganda about Israel/Palestine, including providing false maps of Israel and inaccurate historical narratives. The opening scene of “Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain” displays maps of the Middle East from the year 1984, presenting “Israel” as including occupied Gaza, the West Bank, and the Syrian Golan Heights. Since 2001, the game’s arms inventories have included Israeli weaponry, such as the Uzi. Invented by Israeli engineer Uziel Gal in 1951, the infamous Uzi sub-machine gun became popular following its lethal use by the IDF against the Egyptian army during the Suez Crisis in 1956.
In the game’s 2004 edition, players are exposed to distorted discussions about contentious historical events, such as Egypt-Israel relations. A radio conversation between game characters Venom Snake and Ocelot, for example, present an inaccurate perspective on the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat:
Ocelot: And there’s been no end to regional conflicts and civil wars. Lebanon, the Falklands, Grenada, Iran, Iraq… The story never changes. Egypt and Israel did sign a peace treaty. But then the driving force on the Egyptian side, President Sadat, was assassinated afterward. Apparently, his actions were considered a betrayal of his fellow Arabs.
Venom Snake: Islamic extremists?
Ocelot: Yes. Fundamentalist extremists have been responsible for some bold acts of terrorism in recent years. We’ve had extremist students in Iran take U.S embassy workers hostage, and suicide bombings in Lebanon. Over 300 foreign soldiers stationed there have been killed. But countries have yet to develop an effective means of dealing with terrorism. Afraid of losing their own men, they pulled their forces out, handing private forces a golden opportunity.
In reality, “Islamic” extremism was not the driving force behind Sadat’s assassination. The assassination was, instead, driven by politics and was a response to Sadat’s decision to enter a peace agreement with a belligerent force. Prior to the Camp David accords, the IDF had killed more than 11,000 Egyptians during the Six-Day War, making the peace deal incredibly unpopular inside Egypt.
Aside from popular video games, a different type of video game called “serious games,” which focus on education or health benefits, also have traces of Israeli propaganda. Israeli psychologist and former IDF Captain Asi Burak, now chairman of the New York-based organization Games for Change (G4C), headed up the development of the “perspective taking” serious game “PeaceMaker.” The game, which was developed by Impact Games, attempts to get both Palestinians and Israelis to understand each other’s’ “perspectives” in the context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, in order to achieve a “two-state solution.” Even with some psychological evidence signaling the game has generated more support for the Palestinian “perspective,” “PeaceMaker” normalizes the Israeli occupation of Palestine by presenting an unwanted brutal occupation as a balanced “conflict” with two equally valid “perspectives.” Arguably, this recontextualizes the brutal occupation more favorably for the State of Israel, reinforcing the problematic narratives embedded in the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” rhetoric reflected in media reporting.
Limiting Palestinian Perspectives
It is not just the inclusion and promotion of Israeli propaganda that contributes to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian culture in popular and serious video games. Being a Palestinian game designer in the video games industry is also not without its challenges. In 2016, Palestinian game designer Rasheed Abueideh experienced difficulties with publishing his video game “Liyla and the Shadows of War” on Apple’s App Store because the game was deemed “not appropriate for the games category” by Apple. “Liyla and the Shadows of War” is a minimalist and visually engaging game in which players guide a family safely through Gaza while avoiding bombings, drone attacks, and other dangers carried out by the State of Israel. Abueideh’s game has since been published on the Apple App Store due to public backlash and other attention brought to the issue from various video game media outlets.
This was not the first time a video game about Gaza generated controversy. In 2014, a hate-inspired ethnic cleansing promotion “game” literally called “Bomb Gaza” was in fact published and then later removed from the Google App Store. “Bomb Gaza,” originally published by PlayFTW, allowed players to virtually bomb “targets” in Gaza from an Israeli military aircraft. Human Rights Watch estimated that approximately 2,100 Palestinians were murdered by Israeli forces in Gaza in 2014 – 1,500 of them civilians and 11,000 injured.
Arguably, the digital occupation of Palestine is as prominent as the physical one, driven by the State of Israel and its supporters to promote the already operational ethnic cleansing of Palestine and combat Palestinian resistance to the brutal occupation. Game developers and researchers should not contribute to this phenomenon for entertainment or educational purposes. Players of video games must also become more aware of the ways in which some of our favorite games further Israeli propaganda and support Palestinian oppression.