First released in 2009, the redistribution of “Beat the Arab” last month has caused a great deal of controversy. Saudi-owned TV network Al-Arabiya’s Persian section reported on a “racist game” being made available on an Iranian website registered with a local domain. In response, Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance issued a statement warning that any website offering or advertising this “divisive” game will be filtered under the country’s Computer Crimes Law.
The computer entertainment industry first began to take shape across the world during the 1970s. One decade later, in the 1980s, it had reached broad popularity. Its productions reached Iran in a limited manner during the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
Over the past decade, computer games have been transformed from a simple source of entertainment into an industry in Iran. After Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei emphasized the "necessity of planning for new cultural products and especially in terms of computer games" in his annual meeting with the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, the councilpresented a proposal to the Ministry of Culture for the creation of an organization tasked with coordinating and supporting development of these games. This ultimately led to the formation of the Iran Computer and Video Game Foundation (ICVGF) in June 2007.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, ICVGF Chairman Hassan Karimi Ghodousi says the Ministry of Culture asked his foundation to filter the websites that made “Beat the Arab” available. Referring to a “similar” incident that led to a “similar” response from the ministry last year, Ghodousi says, “A game was released where the user could assassinate some Iranian politicians. The ministry requested that our foundation filter the websites that had released this game, and we conveyed the order to judiciary officials.” The politicians users could shoot included jailed opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Zahra Rahnavard, as well as former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
Not long before the release of “Beat the Arab,” Iranian media outlets reported on a game targeting Iran that had been released on websites linked to the Saudi government. That online game, called “Wahdat al Nimr” ("Tiger Unit"), involves an “anti-terror” unit targeting the Quds Force — the foreign operations branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — and militant groups such as the Islamic State. News agencies and websites with ties to the Iranian authorities called the release of this game, which coincided with more aggressive Saudi policy in the region, an attempt to create Iranophobia in cyberspace.
“Beat the Arab” makes a cultural problem in Iran, anti-Arab sentiment, into a game. Its tagline reads “Beat up and insult the Arab.” Notably, however, its creators replace "Arab" with "Saudi" in the tagline — which reads “Beat up and insult the Saudis” — in an apparent attempt to convey that Iranian Arabs are not the target. But the Arab residents of Iran’s southern city of Ahwaz and civil society activists have reacted nonetheless on social media.
After the Ministry of Culture’s statement, Culture Minister Ali Jannati attended the closing ceremony of Tehran’s Fifth Video Game Festival to speak on the cultural effects of this industry. Jannati said, “Video games can pave the way for Iran’s soft diplomacy, first in Asia and then across the world, helping it become a success.”
Hamzeh Azad, secretary of the Iranian Student Game Developer Festival, tells Al-Monitor that the main reason for the Ministry of Culture’s decision to step in was the issue's prominence in the media. He says, “After what happened at Saudi Arabia’s airport [where two male Iranian pilgrims were sexually harassed in March 2015] and with Saudi websites releasing an anti-Iran game, some unknown angry people uploaded this game — which is very weak in terms of standards — onto several websites. The media did a lot of reporting on this, and so the government was forced to give a response. This game is in no way approved by the Iranian Society of Game Developers.”
Iran’s Expediency Council has also paid close attention to the game industry following the recent controversy. Ali Akbar Velayati, who heads the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research and serves as foreign policy adviser to Khamenei, met with officials and industry professionals to evaluate their challenges and find “solutions for improving the quality of Iran’s game industry.” Now, it is expected that the Center for Strategic Research will soon set up a video game working group.
Ghodousi, the ICVGF chairman, tells Al-Monitor he finds the meeting and the formation of a working group “encouraging.” He says, “This shows that the subject of video games is being taken seriously and that [the authorities] want to do something for this industry. Velayati’s presence and comments are simply to establish a series of very general solutions, but this will in fact create more sensitivity among organizations that are active in this field.”
At present, video games in Iran are rated in an age-dependent classification system by the Entertainment Software Rating Association. Ghodousi says this system, set up in 2008, is the only age-based video game rating system in the Middle East.
But is it necessary for the developers of these games to obtain a permit before distributing them? Ghodousi says the law “varies” in this regard. “The video games distributed through DVDs have to obtain a permit from the ICVGF before they can be sold. Those that are released on the Internet have only been obliged to obtain a permit since last year, and the games made for cellular phones do not need any permits. Currently, many games are being uploaded into cyberspace, but they will usually not be monitored unless there is a problem.”
All things considered, it appears that the policies of Iran’s Ministry of Culture toward video games are changing. But is this just a response to the controversies of past years? Ghodousi says the driving force is not merely the various debacles, but also an appreciation for the economic and cultural importance of video games. On the matter of racist games that may appear in cyberspace, he concluded, “It’s natural that if a game targets the culture of Iran or another country, its distribution will be stopped and we will filter any websites that are linked to them.”