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Playing Wargames: The story of “Under Ash” and the lessons learned from it.
Posted on Tuesday, October 12 2010 @ 15:55:34 PST

 With “Medal of Honor” being released today, I did want to bring up another first person wargame that has been in development and was released in the year 2000, a classic known as “Under Ash.”

Now many of you reading this right now may be wondering, what game I am talking about. Well, the game in question “Under Ash” is a 2000 first person shooter conceived and developed by independent game developer Radwan Kasmiya. Kasmiya is a long time gamer living in Damascus, Syria, who developed “Under Ash” with a team of five back in the late 1990’s. The game, based on the real life events of the First Intifada, a declared uprising of the Palestinians against the occupying forces of Israel from 1987-1993.

Now many of you are probably thinking, “oh no, this is going to get serious.” Well, the game has you star as Ahmed, a young Palestinian who feels obligated to become involved in the conflict by taking up arms against Israel. The twelve hour first person shooter features no medpacks, no intel to find, and no possible way of winning, since the uprising ended in Palestinian defeat. If you are shot once, the game ends. If you shoot innocent lives, the game ends. The game is designed to be difficult to mirror the conflict itself, a conflict that is continuous to this day.

Despite being an indie game, it was immensely popular in the Middle East, selling around 500,000 units as of 2010. The game also spawned a sequel, “Under Siege” which has sold over a million copies in the region.

But why am I highlighting two games about the Israeli-Palestine conflict? Well, for perspective sakes frankly. Kasmiya’s game is, of course, controversial for several reasons. It is seen as a major piece of propaganda to Israel, and ironically enough, a weak form of propaganda in Palestine. Internationally, the game itself is often cited as propaganda and a weak attempt at recruitment for the cause in Palestine. But Kasmiya would be the first to point out that this is not the case for “Under Ash” and “Under Siege”. “These are indie games, not propaganda.” He ardently says, noting that “The news likes to put fire underneath stories.” A truer statement if there ever was one.

An experience like “Under Ash” does not just make for a challenging game, but it is also a teacher of sorts for gamers, and not just of another struggle and culture from our own. The unbiased and real presentation “Under Ash” and its sequel present to gamers is an approach many FPS wargames should take, at least when dealing with the storyline. No B-movie action plots, no generic “opposing forces” or jingoistic pride for the “theoretical good guys” in many wargames. What is needed is a raw, harsh representation of both sides of a conflict need to be made, without the attachment of stigmatized labels and media-induced controversy.

But what Kasmiya’s true goal here is not to create a political statement, but an experience that would resonate with many young Middle Easterners. “If you compare my games to a triple-A shooting game, I lose. What I can do is create a unique story.”

 Kasmiya’s story is one that does this. You can’t willingly switch characters in the game, or change the sides and play as the “theoretical good guys” over the “theoretical bad guys” in the game, because there never really is a good or bad side in open conflicts. This is an important lesson, especially since the flack that “Medal of Honor” recently received for including Taliban fighters in the multi-player aspect of their game cause last minute changes to the game before launch.

The U.S military, citing this acknowledgement of the concept of the “theoretical good/bad guys” are necessary for a video game, decided to pull support for the game, which deals with the modern war in Afghanistan. The U.S military decided to pull the game from Gamestops located on army bases, and then pulled any support for the game all-together, with Electronic Arts, in return, renaming the Taliban as the generic “opposing forces” team.

This controversy is not new, as those who remember Konami’s “Six Days in Fallujah” which dealt with a real life battle and interviews of both American and Iraqi soldiers and the use of Al-Queda in multi-player. That game too, was highly controversial and was removed from production by Konami, with developer Atomic Games still searching for a publisher.

What is fascinating to me is how much controversy we have for the real life events of our armed forces when the realm of video games becomes involved. Games like “Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor” have, when dealing with World War II, never been shy of depicting real life events for gamers to enjoy and live through, and not just on the side of the Americans but also for the British and Russian forces as well. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” implied modern turmoil with Russian Nationalists and Middle Eastern Insurgent Fighters as the primary antagonists in the first game, using the efforts of the U.S Military and the amoral British Special Forces as the vanguards of the security of the free world.

The second game in the series was much more poignant, with it being an inside job at the expanse of sustaining war, an aspect of Call of Duty, while I have adamantly dismissed as a slice of typical, espionage war fiction this side of Tom Clancy, is not without its moments of brilliance into the plot. The now infamous “No Russian” mission comes to mind, but even Kasimya believes that is not crossing a line in a sense. “The media created that line.” Says Kasimya. “It is a virtual line. That virtual line is in the mind.” In a sense he is correct, as the hubbub over the mission, I felt personally, was misplaced for “Modern Warfare 2” and was integral to the plot of the game.

But instead of waxing on the particulars of one game, what lessons we need to gleam from this is that controversy in any form can occur for a good game. But how that controversy is dealt with is what would make the game, as a statement of the developers, more poignant. Would removing the name “Taliban” from “Medal of Honor” really be a detriment to the U.S forces in Afghanistan right now?  Should a game like “Six Days in Fallujah” be published because of its more grounded approach at a specific battle in a recent war? Would playing a game like “Under Ash” or “Under Siege” be considered propaganda because they take an eerily realistic approach at events in the past and opt not to gloss it up with staunch jingoism and propaganda? In the end, only we as individuals can decide what we feel is right and wrong about games like this, because there is no right or wrong answer to this conflict.

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