Hasbara, the activity of explaining, defending, and teaching about Israel, takes place across a variety of media. Video games and other forms of interactive entertainment hold a tremendous amount of untapped potential to engage, educate, persuade, and entertain large audiences around the world, either directly or indirectly. Directly refers to games that are specifically designed or modified for hasbara purposes, while indirectly involves the utilization of existing games with a social component and no ostensible connection to Israel or the Jewish people as opportunities for individuals to engage with others about Israel and Judaism.
While some games are inherently social and require players to interact, others have a social component that is ancillary to the actual game play – voluntary and spontaneous communications to coordinate strategy or simply banter with other players. Participating gamers, no matter the specific game, frequently engage in unrelated casual conversation just as any group of individuals would in other social situations. These casual interactions hold great potential for subtle forms of hasbara and should be considered and promoted as such.
Gamers often find themselves engaged in conversations with people from different countries. For Israelis, who generally don’t have much direct contact with individuals from the Muslim world, video games become avenues for track 3 diplomacy.
For example, a JPPI staff member enjoys playing casual online games in her free time. She’s been playing various games with the same people for several years and has developed friendships with them. Her friends are from various countries around the world, including Iran. Predictably, when Israel engages in large-scale military operations, she finds herself defending and explaining Israel’s actions. Her experience is not unique. It is only natural that when Israelis, or Diaspora Jews for that matter, play video games with other players from around the world, the Israeli-Arab conflict comes up.
Recently, another staff member at JPPI was playing an intense ‘first person shooter’ (fps) game with several people from all over the world. Fps are what many may think of as the quintessential video game – players going around shooting each other. While playing he noticed a fellow player named “TalesOfQusair” whose profile picture (below) featured the Hezbollah flag.
Qusair is a strategic Syrian town along the border with Lebanon that was briefly controlled by Syrian rebels until Hezbollah forces retook the town on behalf of Assad’s forces. The combination of the username and the flag obviously suggested a veneration of Hezbollah. Within the game chat TalesOfQusair said that s/he lives in Lebanon. The JPPI staff member responded in the chat for all those playing the game to see, that he was “his neighbor” to the south. TalesOfQusair responded by asking where. Once told that he lived in Israel, TalesOfQusair responded by saying that Zionists killed 120,000 women and babies in Lebanon. The Israeli responded by saying that fewer people had been killed in the entire Arab-Israeli conflict since 1880, and that “[s/he] should stop relying on Hezbollah propaganda as a source of information.” After more back and forth, other game participants came to Israel’s defense and TalesOfQusair angrily quit the game. Subsequently, TalesOfQusair removed the Hezbollah flag from his/her online profile and accepted the JPPI staff member’s friend request within the game platform.
Both anecdotes demonstrate the extent to which video games can be considered a tool for people-to-people diplomacy. In 2010, the Ministry of Information and Diaspora Affairs initiated a program to harness the power of Israelis traveling abroad in Israel’s PR effort. A similar program should be considered with respect to Israeli and Jewish gamers. Yonatan Wishniak, the creator of Israel Island, describes video games as “the front line of the clash of civilizations.”11 It is important that policy makers consider gamers valuable assets in a prime position to positively educate others about Israel and the Jewish people.
Uri Mishol, an Israeli high-tech and social entrepreneur, has used the interactivity and collaboration of popular online games, such as “Minecraft,” as platforms to engage Israeli and Palestinian youth in a trust-building exercise to help facilitate conflict resolution. His project, Games for Peace, recognizes the power that social games hold for track 3, person to person, diplomacy – what has been described as “inter-ethnic youth engagement.”12
Along with utilizing the social dimension of games as a vehicle to deliver soft advocacy, games can be created for the specific purpose of hasbara. It has been observed that games have a unique power of persuasion. Ian Bogost, the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, argues that games, through their use of rules and procedures, use a new type of rhetorical device he calls “procedural rhetoric” as a form of persuasion.13
Games designed with hasbara in mind could educate about, help normalize perceptions of, and increase empathy for Israel. They could have positive effects on tourism and showcase Israel’s culture and contributions to humanity. The possibilities are endless.
Video games could be an important addition to the hasbara toolbox for several reasons: First, like movies and television shows, many games are story based with a plot arc that players interactively make their way through. Games have the ability to tell stories and/or convey information in engaging and captivating ways. Blockbuster video games often take several dozen hours for a player to ‘beat’ the game and finish the story. Such extensive playing of a game gives the player a unique attachment and familiarity with a given story.
Second, video games have become a visually impressive experience that can be utilized to familiarize gamers with Israel and facilitate attachments to it.
The image below demonstrates how far the graphics in games have come in the last 17 years. It compares the main character from the ‘Tomb Raider’ game franchise as she appeared in the game in 1996 and in 2013. It is important to emphasize that the character is a three dimensional object viewable from any angle, not just a two dimensional figure.
Tomb Raider character Lara Craft in 1996 and 2013.
Today’s video games offer three-dimensional photorealistic worlds for players to explore. Playing video games is an experience similar to travelling, in which players can go to an unfamiliar location and explore new sights and the beauty of nature. Many games are set in specific cities or geographical regions. Video game makers often try to replicate reality as closely as possible to give the player a life-like experience. After playing a game set in a specific location for countless hours, players become so familiar with the geography it is as if they had actually visited the location.
In 2007, the video game “Assassin’s Creed” was first released. It is a game whose main storyline is about ancient rivalry between Assassins and the Knights Templar, with the player assuming the identity of an Assassin. The game is set during the Third Crusade period when Europeans attempted to recapture the Holy Land from Saladin. Among other places, it features both the city of Jerusalem and Acre as places where the game takes place. Players need to explore these cities to find hidden treasures and complete objectives. The makers of the game replicated these cities with historical accuracy. In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, St. Anne’s Church, the Armenian market, the Dome of the Rock, and the city walls and gates are all reproduced in vivid detail.
Its creators were able to seamlessly infuse a significant amount of historical facts and personalities without infringing on the action and entertainment of the game play, demonstrating that is both possible and profitable to create games that have a subtle educational utility while entertaining wide audiences.
The first person shooter game genre could be particularly effective for hasbara purposes. Many of the most successful of these games use specific historical battles or campaigns as a setting for the action of the game. Replicating the topography, size of forces, and the types of weapons and vehicles that were used, players are able to relive various battles and operations in all their glory, horror, and detail.
Games could be created that recreate Israel’s wars, operations, and campaigns. It is easy to envision a game that, for example, tells the story of Israel’s War of Independence, digitally recreating the various battlefields, stories, personalities, and weapons of the war.
Although some may argue that such games could be provocative, glorify war, violent, or send the wrong message about Israel, the games would not be at all unique in terms of the their general content and style. The video game industry, like the movie industry, uses advisory warnings on games to help ensure they are played by age appropriate gamers.
Writing in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communications, Vít Šisler of Charles University in Prague, notes that since 9/11 there has been an increase in the number of first person shooter video games set in the Middle East. In these games, according to Šisler, “The enemy is generally collectivized and linguistically functionalized as ‘various terrorist groups,’ ‘militants’, or ‘insurgents.’ Most of these games exhibit strong cultural bias by schematizing Arabs and Muslims as enemies in the narrative framework of fundamentalism and terrorism.”14
Šisler’s following observation is especially poignant in understanding why video games could have a crucial hasbara asset:
Conversely, most of the first-person shooters created by Arab designers are located in Palestine and are often based on real stories from the Arab-Israeli conflict… Arab developers utilize Palestine as the place of a broader struggle for Arab dignity and identity… The emphasis is on the just and moral cause of the fight.15
Šisler cites two video games as examples: one created by Hezbollah set during the 2006 Lebanon War and one created in Jordan about the 2002 battle in Jenin during Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield. The Jenin game opens with the following statement: “The Battle of Jenin summarizes the issue of Palestine. On one side, a heavily armed enemy supported by the Western colonial forces and on the other side, unarmed and isolated people of Palestine fighting with rocks and light weapons.”16
To date, there has been one successful mainstream video game about Israel’s wars from the Israeli perspective. Released in 1998, “Jane’s IAF: Israel Air Force” was created by the Israeli software developer Pixel Multimedia, and released as part of the popular “Jane’s Combat Simulations” franchise by the giant game studio Electronic Arts.17 It was a detailed flight simulation in which the player sits in the cockpit of an Israeli fighter jet and flies historical IAF missions. The game came bundled with a CD-ROM containing a documentary video about the history and achievements of the Israeli Air Force.
Since its 1998 release, there has not been a major video game focusing exclusively on Israel’s battles or military achievements. This could be considered a missed opportunity. The extent to which interactive entertainment can be utilized directly for hasbara purposes is limited only by creativity and financial resources, both of which the government can influence. With video games increasing in popularity, and with Israel’s enemies utilizing them as a propaganda platform, the Israeli government should work toward increasing the number and quality of video games that place the Jewish state in a positive, heroic light.
In order to achieve that goal, the government of Israel should create an advisory board similar to the Israeli Film Council. This body would be tasked with fostering and supporting a sustainable game industry in Israel.
The Israeli game industry has already created its own national body, GameIS, to “coordinate the national activities in video game development” and promotes “the local industry, with an emphasis on raising awareness, holding professional gatherings and social events, organizing forums of mutual aid, (and) recruiting sponsors.”18 A government appointed body should work collaboratively with GameIS to better actualize the enormous public relations potential of video games.
Many video games enable players to do “open world exploration,” by creating a virtual location or recreating a real world location players are free to roam and explore like tourists. This could be valuable in bolstering Israel’s tourism industry. Australia’s Ministry of Tourism has already attempted to tap this potential as “a way to inspire tourists to visit Australia.”19 Israel should do the same.
Just as Israel’s Ministry of Tourism is working to attract major movie production companies to film in Israel, similar efforts should be directed to game studios.20 The Foreign Ministry should ensure that Israel’s cultural attachés in regions with large video game industries are trained to promote Israel as a virtual location for video games, and to serve as liaisons between game studios that are already using Israel in some context within their games.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) should also be prepared to cooperate with, and offer assistance to, game studios interested in positively featuring the IDF in their games.