Hezbollah Designed A Video Game To Appeal To The U.S.

Jul 16, 2018
Originally published on July 16, 2018 5:43 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. has long considered Hezbollah a terrorist group. The Lebanese militia group is backed by Iran, and it has sent thousands of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country's civil war. Along with fighters and politicians, Hezbollah also has an active public relations network. Now it has come out with a video game that's designed in part to appeal to the United States. It claims that when it comes to terrorism, it's on the same side as the U.S. NPR's Ruth Sherlock met the game's creator in Beirut. And just a note - you're going to hear some gunshots and explosions in this piece that come from the video game.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "HOLY DEFENSE")

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: At first glance, it looks like any first-person shooter video game, one that could even have been made by developers in the United States.

HASSAN ALLAM: (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "HOLY DEFENSE")

SHERLOCK: Hassan Allam is the creator of the game, and we meet him in the Hezbollah press office in a gray concrete building in the southern suburbs of Beirut. He fires up his latest creation on his laptop.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "HOLY DEFENSE")

SHERLOCK: There's guys with RPGs firing from behind a wall...

ALLAM: Yes.

SHERLOCK: ...Firing at men with black flags like the ISIS flag, firing rockets. What does this say?

ALLAM: It says "Holy Defense" - defending homeland and sacred places.

SHERLOCK: The "Holy Defense" game is designed to show Hezbollah's version of its involvement in the Syrian civil war where it sent tens of thousands of fighters to rescue the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The game is based on real battles that Hezbollah fought there, says Allam.

ALLAM: Sometimes we had to go to the site directly to take some photos, take some shots, videos and come back.

SHERLOCK: In the game, you the player are a character called Ahmad, a civilian that's volunteered to fight.

ALLAM: Now the action begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "HOLY DEFENSE")

ALLAM: Now I can throw and - grenades.

SHERLOCK: You've thrown the grenade at one of the guys that hit you...

ALLAM: Yeah.

SHERLOCK: ...And then followed up with gunfire. And he's just died. There's a guy on the roof.

ALLAM: Not anymore.

SHERLOCK: Direct hit.

ALLAM: (Laughter).

SHERLOCK: The plot spins a narrative of Hezbollah's role in the Syrian civil war as being about protecting civilians against extremists. That explanation, though, is too simplistic, says Thanassis Cambanis, a Middle East expert with The Century Foundation think tank.

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: They're trying to show their holy struggle in a sort of blameless and nonsectarian context and conveniently erase all the problematic aspects of the Syrian intervention.

SHERLOCK: While Hezbollah has fought ISIS in some places, most of its efforts have focused on fighting any and all opposition to the Syrian regime. It's been controversial even among some of its supporters, and Cambanis says the game aims in part to address that.

CAMBANIS: This video game serves a couple of purposes. One is theoretically to mobilize their support base with a sort of invigorated sense of purpose about their mission in Syria. But more importantly, I think they're trying to target an outside audience. Maybe foreigners who are paying attention to this at least once take a look at this video game for its novelty value and maybe be persuaded by the story it tells.

SHERLOCK: Allam, the game's creator, says it's being translated into English so that it can reach a wider audience even, he hopes, in the United States. It's meant to show that far from being a terror threat, Hezbollah sacrificed itself to defeat ISIS.

ALLAM: We are telling people, this is what we have done. We were protecting you. People of the world, Hezbollah was there to defend you.

SHERLOCK: The game, which costs about $5 to buy, hasn't exactly set the gaming world alight. It's not getting a lot of traction commercially, sold only on CDs and not online. But it serves another purpose. Just like the press trips Hezbollah has organized to see their battle against ISIS on the Lebanese border or the televised speeches by the group's leader, it's all part of a mission to get their message out. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.