Friday, May 05, 2006

Play Nice

Today's story in Water Cooler Games about congressional intelligence hearings on terrorists' use of the Internet questioned why this expert testimony presented such one-sided definitions of "propaganda" video games, ones that explicitly don't include U.S. military recruitment tools like America's Army, which glorify militarism and forms of allegiance predicated on the use of force.

WCG's Gonzalo Frasca took particular issue with Reuters coverage of these games ("Islamists using US video games in youth appeal") and the words of Daniel Devlin, a witness on public diplomacy. Mr. Devlin apparently works for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict and is an expert on "strategic influence."

I put the SOLIC banner at the top of this posting; perhaps someone could enlighten me about how a "low intensity conflict" relates to the more ambitious "Global War on Terrorism" that is running concurrently.

Unfortunately, I can't yet see for myself if the Internet experts are selectively chosen for their ideology because the transcript for the House Intelligence Committee's Open Hearing on Terrorist Use of the Internet for Strategic Communications is not yet available. From the Reuters coverage, we do know that military contractor SAIC testified as well.

Of course, such scandalous "mods" that use popular commercial game engines have been around of a long time. In fact, many government-funded game-based software projects use such mods. In my own research, I've looked at Ambush!, Tactical Iraqi, and Virtual Iraq. Ironically, some of the mass market games being cannibalized by the armed forces use art assets and programming elements initially developed by the U.S. military for training.

In February, I heard Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group talking on Public Radio International about the websites of the insurgency, the consolidating messages that they emphasize, their sensitivity to negative user feedback, and what the government can learn from what they might be tempted to otherwise dismiss as propaganda. Although he included discussion of sensationalistic theaters of cruelty, Malley also provided a considerably more nuanced view of the jihadists' use of the Internet. He discussed how insurgents disseminate glossy PDF magazines via e-mail, create counter-press releases that respond with rapidly translated documents from the U.S. government or media, and present varied news-style broadcasts -- sometimes complete with anchor desks -- in their webcasting. And yet, it's not all top-down communication. For example, according to Malley, fewer graphic beheadings are being broadcast because their small screen audience indicated revulsion with the imagery.

When compared to this week's finger-wagging about violent interactivity and youth marketing, the ICG's report, "In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency" offers a considerably more sober assessment of the influence of Internet-based media on all segments of a resistant population. If you don't have the time to read through the ICG report, check out this ABC news video of Malley talking about jihadists use of the Internet and encourage your elected representatives to invite people like Malley to testify!

News Flash! Water Cooler games now says that Reuters might not have gotten its facts right and may be citing Sonic Jihad, which was created by someone in the Planet Battlefield forum not a dastardly terrorist propagandist. On the web, standard Battlefield 2 gameplay from the opponent position might seem to show subversive behavior. Yet it is precisely these practices of risk-taking with convention that have been praised by video game learning theorists, such as James Paul Gee. What is particularly amazing is that the video opens with material narrated by Trey Parker's voice presenting parody from Team America, which no one eager to legislate against it seemed to realize. Talk about intelligence failures! (See previous entries in this blog for more on how institutional authority figures often fall for parodies and false fronts.) I've put in two calls to Washington D.C. to try to get transcripts from the hearings, so hopefully I can get to the bottom of "mod-gate" soon.

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