Digital Heroes: Video Games and Identity Construction in Iranian Video Games

//Vit Sisler, PhD is an assitant professor at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague. His research examines the relationship between Islam and digital media, normative frameworks in cyberspace, and educational and political video games. He is also a managing editor of CyberOrient, a peer reviewed journal published by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with Charles University in Prague. He will be speaking at Annenberg on April 8.

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Sisler’s upcoming chapter, Digital Heroes: Identity Construction in Iranian Video Games. The chapter will be featured in Cultural Revolution in Iran: Contemporary Popular Culture in the Islamic Republic, edited by Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh. The book is scheduled for release by I. B. Tauris on May 31, 2013.//

An Iranian teenager deciding which game to buy in one Tehran’s ubiquitous game shops is no longer limited to Bioshock, Oblivion or The Sims. Games of American or European origin are increasingly subject to competition from Iranian domestic producers. This production ranges from governmental games developed in accordance with the official communications policy of the Islamic state to independent games produced by various private entrepreneurs, the latter of which encompass multi-faceted cultural and historical backgrounds. Therefore, the above-mentioned teenager can choose whether he or she will spend hours of virtual game play as Mohamad Marzoghi, an elite member of the Lebanese Hezbollah commando, sneaking through an Israeli military base on a mission to rescue a kidnapped Iranian scientist in the game Resistance (Tebyan, 2008), a member of the Pasdaran Revolutionary Guards attacking and finally subduing Iraqi forces in the fierce battle of the Fao Peninsula in 1986 in the game Valfajr 8 (Tebyan, 2007), or Garshasp, an ancient Persian hero saving the world from the army of darkness in the game Garshasp (Fanafzar, 2011), which is based on Persian mythology.  All of these characters can become the player’s virtual identity, one of many possible McLuhanesque ‘extensions’ of his or her body (McLuhan, 1964).

Video games constitute a form of mainstream media for Iranian youth and they have become a popular leisure time activity. Unlike other audiovisual media, video games immerse consumers in action and engagement, rather than inaction and passive reception.  At the same time, they provide youngsters with a convenient source of cultural symbols, myths and rituals, all of which help them to form their own identities. The question of identity construction is thus central to video games, since they enable a risk-free and socially acceptable way of engaging in virtual role play (Murphy, 2004: 224). Besides personal computers at homes, the so-called ‘game nets’ facilitate access to the latest products of the gaming industry to a younger generation. Until recently, games of European, American, and to smaller extent, Japanese origin have almost exclusively dominated the Iranian market. As Sreberny and Khiabany (2010: 24) note, US embargoes prohibit many software companies from doing legitimate business in Iran. This factor contributes to widespread software piracy in the country, which is helped by the fact that Iran is not a signatory to international copyright conventions. Thus, a typical American or European game can be bought for 2 to 5 dollars in most Iranian cities. Moreover, these games usually appear on the local market soon after their release in the United States or Europe, if not even sooner.

Unsurprisingly, the Iranian authorities are concerned about the negative influence of Western games on Iranian youth. Some games have been even banned, usually due to their explicit display of sexuality or violence, like in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar Games, Inc., 2005). Others, like Call of Duty 4 (Infinity Ward, Inc., 2007), have been criticised for misrepresenting Islam. Alongside this censorship, the Iranian authorities strive to provide young audiences with alternative domestic production. Therefore, the government approved the establishment of the National Foundation of Computer Games (NCFG) in Tehran under the supervision of the Ministry of Cultural and Islamic Guidance in 2006. The aim of this foundation is twofold: first, to boost economic growth in the video game industry segment; and, second, to subsidise the development of games in Iran, i.e. those conceived in accordance with Iranian and Islamic values. The foundation particularly focuses on “the indication, improvement and promotion of cultural bases and Iranian-Islamic identity by this industry with a special attention to the children and adolescent” (NCFG, 2011). Consequently, a variety of independent producers have become involved in this emerging industry.

This chapter analyses contemporary Iranian video games and explores how they communicate different concepts of identity to players in multiple ways. It is based on content analyses of more than 20 games developed in Iran between 2005 and 2011 and interviews with major Iranian game producers. Substantive portions of the materials reviewed in this chapter were gathered during a fieldwork trip to Tehran in 2008 and many of the games that were then in production were obtained for analysis later on. The interviews were made in Farsi and/or English in November 2008.

Essentially, this chapter argues that while the Iranian government perceives games as a new semiotic language for youth and therefore utilises them to promote Islamic values and foster national pride, many independent or semi-independent producers maneuver within and around the state’s interests, presenting instead their own, oftentimes quite different, concepts of identity. Therefore, contemporary Iranian games encompass a broad variety of topics, ranging from the Islamic Revolution (1979) through to popular soap operas and ancient Persian mythology. The resulting concepts of identity are achieved through sensitive negotiations between the demands, funding and restrictions of the Islamic state and the visions and engagement of private entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, this chapter demonstrates that despite varying ideological backgrounds, independent and state-directed producers both share a common belief:  that Iran and Iranians are misrepresented by global video game production and they should strive to present unique and relatable Iranian heroes to their audiences.

The establishment of the National Foundation of Computer Games and the support it provides resulted both in the production of games directly asserting the official concept of Iranian Muslim identity, as well as games whose particular elements challenge this identity. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance often remove controversial elements from games during the pre-approval process. In other words, video game production in Iran is, similarly to other digital environments, subject to friction and competition between factions within the regime, the institutional interests of various agencies, and the tensions between the state and the private sector. Therefore, beyond analyzing the different concepts of identity as constructed and communicated to the players by Iranian video games, this chapter aims to provide case studies enhancing our understanding of the contentious nature of cultural politics in Iran, particularly related to the youth culture, Western cultural production, and the emerging Iranian digital entertainment industry.

//Dr. Vit Sisler

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