Is the CIA funding video game propaganda?
Distressing news came today about an Iranian court's decision to impose the death penalty on Amir Mizra Hekmati, an American citizen who was imprisoned in early 2011 on suspicion of being a spy. American officials maintain that Hekmati was simply visiting relatives, though it's his puported confession which is raising eyebrows, Hekmati admitting to working on the first person shooter Kuma\War, claiming that the game is funded by the CIA and operates as modern-day propganada, meant to sway the attitudes of youths in Iran and other middle-eastern countries in favor of United States military actions.
Kuma\War is a game you may remember making news back in 2003, the episodic war shooter offering a mission which let players fight alongside John Kerry on a Vietnam-era swift boat. If you're like myself, you'd likely be surprised to know that the game is still going strong, Kuma Games press page boasting "19 million users, with an additional 250,000 new players signing on each month." Very impressive numbers, especially when you consider that World of Warcraft has just 10 million active users. Point is, even if most of Kuma\War's 19 million users are inactive, you think we'd know of at least one or two people who play the game. But Kuma\War seems to have been largely invisible here in the states, especially given the abundance of technologically advanced shooters we have access to (Battlefield, Modern Warfare). So who is playing Kuma\War?
Given that the first language option on the Kuma Games website (aside from the default English) is Arabic, we have our suspicions.
Kuma Games' website offers Arabic as the first option before English, with a prominent Google Translate option at the bottom of the page.
As any war historian will tell you, propaganda can be one of the most essential aspects of winning a war, which is what makes the claim of Kuma\War as CIA-funded propaganda seem worthy of consideration. Countries like Iran have no gaming industry to speak of, game shops offering little more than pirated software. So what better way to influence game-starved youth than with a free video game, easily downloaded, which just so happens to paint American soldiers as heroes? Given that the United States Army already has their own piece of video game propaganda (America's Army), it doesn't seem unreasonable to believe that the CIA would be interested in funding a similar game, one intended for players living within rogue states.
It's the game's content that seems most suspect, each Kuma\War chapter highlighting a real-life mission carried out by American troops and their allies. In addition to letting gamers take on the role of these liberators, the game's website also educates players on each mission with links to related news reports. Additionally, Kuma\War is not only free to play, but the required hardware specs are extremely low, the original Kuma\War capable of running on Windows 98 with just 256MB of RAM and any standard graphics card. Obviously any free-to-play game wants to keep the specs low in order to accue more players, though here the specs are so low that the game seems tailor-made for gamers without access to modern PCs.
We're pretty sure Alienware doesn't have a branch in Iraq.
Anyhow, this is all baseless speculation on our parts, though we're not ready to immediately eat up the claims being made by White House officials, claiming Hekmati's confession was entirely coerced. Currently we're unable to find a transcript of Hekmati's full confession and cannot speculate on his claims, though Gamasutra has confirmed that Kuma Games has worked on army training software in the past. Regardless of whether the claims are true, you've got to admit this would make a hell of a Tom Clancy novel.