Kassam rockets are coming in way too fast, raining terror across the western Negev. IAF fighter-bombers are responding with ferocious bombardments of Gaza City, and tanks are rolling in behind them. The whole chilling scene unfolds on the computer screen... until I hit the "escape" button.
As if the constant stream of television coverage of Operation Cast Lead weren't enough, several video games depicting the fighting have been posted to popular on-line gaming sites in the past two weeks. So now the fate of Israelis and Palestinians are in the hands of computer geeks from Nebraska to New Zealand.
Look closely at the kongregate.com or newgrounds.com Web sites, for example, and you'll find current events reflected in the list of free games. In Gaza Defender, a Hamas gunman must fire his AK-47 into the sky, shooting at IAF jets as they drop bombs that tear away at the Gaza skyline. Save Israel is a race against the clock as rockets bombard the South; the goal is to click on the cities being targeted (to sound the Color Red alarm) and then click on the incoming rockets to destroy them before they hit.
Two take-offs on the popular "tower defense" game are used to highlight the disparate forces involved in this (real) war. In Raid Gaza, Israel's high-powered military faces off against woefully inaccurate homemade rockets, in a clear mismatch that leads to an inordinate number of casualties on the Palestinian side. Likewise, Gaza Defense Force pits a handful of rock throwers against tanks and planes in an utterly hopeless battle.
These games were put together quickly, using simple Flash programming and a lack of any real plot development. This is old-school electronic warfare, the kind that is controlled with arrow keys, the space bar and a few well-timed left-clicks on the mouse. At the same time, though, these games are becoming a new front in the Israeli-Arab conflict - a battle for hearts and minds that is anything but fun and games.
IN 2007, Hizbullah released Special Force 2, a game that recreates the Second Lebanon War through the guerrilla army's eyes. A gunman fights his way through the villages of Aita a-Shaab, Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbeil, kidnapping IDF soldiers on patrol, killing a sniper and destroying the corvette INS Hanit.
For Hizbullah, the game's worth clearly lies in its propaganda value.
"This game presents the culture of the resistance to children: that occupation must be resisted and that the land and the nation must be guarded," Hizbullah media official Sheikh Ali Daher said upon its release. "Through this game the child can build an idea of some of... the most prominent battles, and the idea that this enemy can be defeated."
The 3-D game, Daher added, also "features secrets of the resistance's victory" that have been depicted "so that the child can understand that fighting the enemy does not only require the gun. It requires readiness, supplies, armament, attentiveness and tactics."
Meanwhile, in Damascus, Afkar Media is churning out games and movies aggrandizing the Palestinian intifada. A few years ago it released Under Siege, in which the hero - a young man beaten by his Israeli jailers - later joins the armed struggle and takes on soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank. (Interestingly, the game disallows shooting at civilians or carrying out suicide bombings.) More recently, Afkar released Road Block Buster, in which a Palestinian boy taunts and teases Israeli soldiers and devises ways to circumvent military roadblocks.
In some cases, video games come in response not to an actual battle but to other video games.
After the American company Kuma issued Assault on Iran - "an extremely plausible scenario for delaying or destroying Iran's nuclear arms capabilities without kick-starting World War III," the company wrote - Iran's Union of Students Islamic Association went to work on a game of its own. It took it three years to produce Rescue the Nuke Scientist, in which Iranian security forces rescue nuclear scientists who are captured by US troops and then smuggled to Israel. The Iranian agents have to infiltrate Israel, kill American and Israeli soldiers and seize their computers containing secret information.
"This is an entirely Iranian product in response to the US cyberwar against Iran," said the leader of the technical team that produced the game.
"This is our defense against the enemy's cultural onslaught," said a leader of the student group - which, incidentally, is the same group that organized the "World Without Zionism" conference in 2005 at which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
One can only imagine how much Iranian tempers have been inflamed by Rising Eagle, a rather sophisticated, million-dollar video game released just a few months ago by the Israeli firm Invasion Interactive. Although the game focuses mainly on imaginary clashes between the United States, the European Union and China as they are envisioned in 2040, it also offers the chance to see a futuristic version of the Golani Brigade's elite reconnaissance unit face off against Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Gaza Strip. (Hebrew signs, graffiti and billboards are all over the virtual background, and actual Golani combat pins decorate the unit.)
If all that fighting turns you off, though, don't despair. You can always try your hand at Peacemaker, by the Israeli-American partnership Impact Games. The game, meant as an educational tool more than an arcade favorite, gives you the opportunity to try to steer the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through its myriad crises. You can play as either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader, but the goal - calm and a mutually acceptable peace agreement - remains the same in either case.
CALM AND a mutually acceptable peace agreement seem especially far off now, however, as much in the gaming world as in reality. And just like in real life, the latest batch of games about the Gaza fighting has created quite a controversy on-line. Feedback for Raid Gaza, Gaza Defender, Gaza Defense Force and Save Israel has come fast and furious.
Gaza Defense Force is drawing mixed reviews ranging from condemnation to decidedly apolitical delight.
"Innocent people are dying and you make this a joke?... This really isn't funny. I hope you burn in hell for making fun of the hundreds of innocent dying people," wrote one unhappy gamer.
"You're right," answered another. "It's not funny - it's hilarious!"
Over on the Newgrounds site, where Raid Gaza has gotten more than 190,000 views in just over two weeks, gamers are also divided, but most seemed to support Israel's position.
"This game is completely biased against Israel," wrote one. "You make Israel out to be the bad guys, when it is actually Hamas and other terrorist organizations such as Hizbullah."
The gaming universe is far from peaceful or politically correct. After all, it is filled with games in which players earn points for making an office worker brutally beat his boss to death with office supplies, or for cheating in a soapbox derby race against the pope. Some games are essentially one long fart joke, or a string of bloody massacres. So being violent and uncouth are practically prerequisites for a video game these days, and all that is considered part of the fun.
One way for games to become controversial, however, is to be realistic. It is one thing, for example, to send a stick figure to his doom, or to fight an army of orcs on an alien planet - but it is another thing entirely to carry out acts of extreme violence against characters that look startlingly like real-life figures, in actual towns, as in the case of Grand Theft Auto.
Another way to draw controversy is to relate to current events or ongoing conflicts. No one seems to mind the hundreds of games about World War I-era dogfights, or the elaborate World War II reenactment games; history has clearly judged who the villains were in those conflicts, and in any case the outcomes have already been decided. But games about the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Columbine High School shooting rampage set off waves of protest. It is only natural that any game touching on an issue as sensitive and as divisive as the Israeli-Arab conflict would inspire strong debate.
For the authors of these games, in fact, inspiring strong debate - far more than sheer entertainment - is the point.
Ami Hanya created Saving Israel explicitly for that purpose.
"I did it as propaganda, to get responses," he told The Jerusalem Post. "For Israelis who might not realize it, I wanted to help people understand the speed with which a rocket comes."
Hanya, a teacher and computer programmer (and part-time juggler, too!) from Petah Tikva, is unlike the creators of the other Gaza games in that he actually makes games for a living. Working for Shoresh, he designs educational computer games about Judaism. His only other foray into war games came two years ago, during the Second Lebanon War, when he designed a simple game that rewards players for shooting Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
"Actually, I'm not really drawn to shoot-'em-up games," he confided. "I thought for a long time how I could do this differently, but I realized I had to show the situation as it is."
Hanya fought in the Gaza Strip during his military service, and he has family in Ofakim, Beersheba and other cities in range of the rockets being fired from Gaza. To clear up some initial confusion about whether his game was intended as criticism of the army for not doing more to stop the rocket attacks sooner, Hanya wrote postscripts to the game that congratulate the IDF (in the Hebrew version) and declare that Israel "has no choice but to fight this war" (in the English version).
Likewise, Aviv Heilweil created Gaza Defense Force, with its built-in futility, to make a point.
"It's a big army against kids and stone throwers. In a situation like that, it doesn't matter who's right, it's just absurd. I considered calling the game The Unfair War," the 25-year-old told the Post.
Heilweil, who designs Internet-based ad campaigns as advertising director for a marketing firm in the center of the country, said it was easier to laugh at the game at the beginning of the war, when he first designed it. "But now that ground troops are involved," he said, "it's not really funny. It's not as entertaining. Humor is always a matter of timing."
Gamers who don't laugh at Heilweil's work have been scorching the comments section of his game page.
"I've gotten a lot of feedback. People write me such strange things, most of them pretty absurd. Those who cursed me, I haven't written back to them, of course," he joked.
Although the game is short and simple - and, of course, unwinnable - it has caught on.
"The whole thing has sort of taken on a life of its own. Apparently it's very popular in Turkey," he said. "It's nice to know that what I did made some waves, and maybe it even somewhere, somehow, in a twisted way, made a small difference in people's perspectives of war."
The first-time game designer is encouraged by those who said they had learned something about the conflict, and now he is considering doing a new game about the 1948 War of Independence. "I've been talking with friends about a game about 1948. It's the kind of thing that could change perceptions on the whole history of this conflict," he said.
The possibilities are endless, Heilweil feels.
"If the Foreign Ministry takes up the idea of using games in its PR campaigns, it can be really strong," he said. "My game has reached millions of gamers all over the world. If I can do this in a day and a half, just imagine what can be done with some funding and a few more days."
The IDF is posting video clips of its operations in Gaza to YouTube. Could Israel soon officially use video games as propaganda, or as a recruitment tool? We've already seen Hizbullah and Iran embrace the medium. The US Army has its own video game unit for designing training simulators, and its free, downloadable video game America's Army is considered to be its most effective and high-quality recruitment tool. So conceivably, video games could play a role in Israel's future PR efforts, or games like Rising Eagle could be used to help prepare troops for combat.
On the other hand, these games could all amount to just another passing fad in cyberspace. As one reviewer of the games made by Hizbullah and the Iranian student group wrote: "How effective are video games, really, as a means of indoctrination? When I play Ghost Recon 2, I'm not focused on the geopolitical implications of Mexican rebels having nukes, I'm just trying to hit the target."
At least there's that. Hitting the target is something you can do with these games, no matter whose side you're on.