For three days this week, the Washington Post described the technological sophistication of our enemy in the Global Tussle Against Those Way-Out-There Fellas. "[A]l Qaeda, led by educated and privileged gadget hounds, adapted early and enthusiastically to the technologies of globalization," Steve Coll and Susan B. Glasser wrote in the first of three terrific "e-Qaeda" stories. Osama Bin Laden was an early adopter of satellite phones. His followers make videos with handheld cameras. And his sons play video games.
Coll and Glasser don't say what games the Bin Ladens Jr. play (or if they use an "Iced Coffee" mod to add burqas to the women of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). The world's jihadist gamers do have several titles to choose from. Hezbollah produced a game called Special Force that allows players to simulate attacks against Israeli troops. The pro-Palestinian Under Siege is in the same genre. And there is at least one children's game with some jihadi content: Innovative Minds' Islamic Fun features a game called "The Resistance" alongside inoffensive-sounding kiddie fare like "Tree Hop" and "Two Bunny Race." The storyline: "You are a farmer in South Lebanon who has joined the Islamic Resistance to defend your land and family from the invading zionists."
Games like these, created in reaction to the many popular titles that let you play U.S. soldiers, center on Arab conflicts with Israel. But last month, news reports suggested that the jihadi-gaming trend had gone a step further, into video games that portray al-Qaida's worldwide war against the West. The Wall Street Journal cited Islamic video games as a potential connection between al-Qaida and the July 7 London bombings. The newspaper noted ominously in two separate stories that the suspected bombers frequented the Iqra Learning Centre, a bookstore that claims to be "the sole distributor for Islamgames, a U.S. company that made video games featuring apocalyptic battles between defenders of Islam and their opponents." New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman flagged the Journal reports and quoted this tidbit: "One game, 'Ummah Defense I,' has the world 'finally united under the Banner of Islam' in 2114, until a revolt by disbelievers. The player's goal is to seek out and destroy the disbelievers."
Friedman fretted that the United States is losing the "war of ideas within Islam" and strongly implied that IslamGames' products helped turn "one of the world's great religions into a death cult." To those who scoff, he warned: "Video games matter."
In order to evaluate the games' subversive appeal, Slate ordered three IslamGames titles—Maze of Destiny, Ummah Defense I, and Ummah Defense II—from a British Web site. Iran may be 10 years from the bomb, but based on these games it will be twice that long before there's an Islamic Halo 2. Or maybe radical Islam dreams not only of restoring the borders of the Caliphate, but also of freezing gaming technology at the level of the old Nintendo Entertainment System.
In Ummah Defense I, the game cited by the Wall Street Journal and Friedman, you fly a spaceship and shoot down a fleet of attacking robots. The vertically scrolling game play resembles a less sophisticated 1941 crossed with Galaga. Ummah Defense II flashes forward to 2214 and places you in the role of a man who looks like Robocop. Your task: Destroy yet another robot army, this one made up of a legion of rolling, turtlelike machines. A 2-D platformer, it's pretty much Super Mario Bros.—Super Mullah Bros.?—with a laser gun. (Only much, much less fun than that sounds.)
Maze of Destiny is a tiny bit more sophisticated. Its closest cousins are probably The Legend of Zelda and the NES version of Gauntlet. You're an anonymous boy in a white turban and blue tunic whose goal is to rescue the opening chapter of the Quran from the clutches of Darlak the Deceiver. Players must gather giant keys to open doors, set bombs to open secret passageways, and endure a soundtrack that sounds like a prefab mix from an old Casio keyboard. Along the way, you are instructed in the ways in which the evil Darlak departs from Islamic teaching.
The fact that these games are derivative, look primitive, and aren't very fun to play doesn't mean they're not important. But they're also ideologically untroubling. In the Ummah Defense games, the "disbelievers" that must be destroyed are robots, not human soldiers. There's an outside chance that the robots are a metaphor for the Predator drones used by the United States military, but I doubt these games are going for that level of subtlety. It's more likely that the robots are a metaphor for Space Invaders.
If you ignore the titles of the Ummah Defense games and the occasional in-game messages—"Alhamdulillah, You Destroyed the Command Ship!"—it's impossible to tell that you're playing an "Islamic game." When I destroyed the third of the four command ships controlling the "Flying Evil Robot Armada" in the first Ummah Defense, I didn't ruminate on whether my real-life allegiance should be with the robots. I just thought, only one more ship to go!
The action in Maze of Destiny is more clearly Islamic in nature, as you go about collecting Arabic letters and learning from Quranic experts. But the obstacles in your path are dogs, scorpions, and guards who wear Viking helmets and carry pikes. My conscience didn't flinch when I slew a couple with my scimitar. The game's connection to political Islam is tenuous at best.
Granted, you could argue that Maze of Destiny's Darlak is a stand-in for the West. He initially appears as a friend. He divides Muslims by emphasizing their "small disputes." He studies "our great traditions of mathematics, science, history and even our moral teachings, but he use[s] all his knowledge to serve himself instead of His Creator." He plies the people with "[a]lcohol, drugs, prostitution, gambling … you name it."
But Darlak is more likely a proxy for the secular world as a whole. Some Christian groups produce their own games to compete with what they see as debased mainstream products. Maze of Destiny, with its religious lessons, seems to fit in this tradition. It's certainly a world apart from games that let you shoot Israeli soldiers. (Though, if Steven Johnson's thesis is right, games like Special Force and Under Siege would reduce jihadi violence rather than encourage it.)
I wasn't able to conquer Maze of Destiny's 20-plus levels in a couple days' time. Maybe there are cheat codes that unlock a 72-virgin afterlife. And it's possible that, in the end, Darlak unmasks himself to reveal the visage of George W. Bush. The instruction booklet, however, informs us otherwise: "Although he appears most commonly as a wizard, it is rumored that his true form is that of a horrible squid-like creature, with one eye." (Bush has two eyes, and if you're going to reverse-anthropomorphize him, you'd make him a chimp, not a squid.)
Tom Friedman is right: We're in a war of ideas. In that war, it's a bad idea for a prominent American columnist to panic over innocent games with an Islamic theme. Video games do matter. Just not the ones from IslamGames. As Ummah Defense I would put it, "Subhanallah, Try Again!"