First-Person Shooter

by Kanishk Tharoor

A promotional image from Holy Defense, Hezbollah’s new video game. 2018.

When I was putting together the first season of Museum of Lost Objects, the BBC radio series I present about public memory and the destruction of cultural heritage, I was struck by how much damage had been wrought to Muslim holy sites and shrines in Syria and Iraq. Western media paid a great deal of attention to ISIS’s ravaging of the pre-Islamic past, in places like Nimrud in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. But much of the militant group’s zeal focused on Muslim sites of worship deemed heretical to their austere, irredentist rendition of the faith: the Abbasid-era minaret of Anah in al-Anbar province, the tombs of the prophets Daniel and Jonah, a plethora of Sufi and Shia shrines, and the Tomb of the Girl in Mosul — the resting place of a young girl who, according to legend, died of a broken heart.

The breaking of these much-beloved Muslim structures didn’t seem to resonate nearly as much in the west as the hammer blows to art in the Mosul Museum or the demolition of a triumphal arch in Palmyra. That doesn’t mean others weren’t taking notice. Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based Shia militant outfit not exactly known for its commitment to architectural conservation, has lately sought to protect sacred Shia sites from the depredations of IS in Syria. Most famously, Hezbollah rallied to protect the mosque of Sayeda Zainab (the granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad) south of Damascus, which has come under repeated attack from IS fighters. The defense of the shrine gives Hezbollah battalions in Syria a sense of holy purpose; many Shia fighters wear the phrase “For Your Sake, Sayeda Zainab” embroidered on their combat fatigues.

And for those seeking similar engagement without leaving home, a new Hezbollah video game will now bring the battle for that holy site to your screen. In Holy Defense, players take the role of Ahmad, a Lebanese Hezbollah fighter, who awakens to the perfidy of the Islamic State after a fateful pilgrimage to Sayeda Zainab, and who must mow down IS gunmen in recreations of several battles fought by Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon since 2013. Holy Defense is Hezbollah’s fourth video game release — following on Quds Kid (2000), and Special Force I and Special Force II in the wake of Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006 — though now the great villain is the Islamic State, not Israel or its American allies.

Holy Defense is Hezbollah's fourth video game, and requires players to kill ISIS fighters endangering Islamic cultural heritage. 2018.

Like its American counterparts — including the immensely popular first-person shooter series Call of Duty and Battlefield, both of which premiered as the US entered Iraq — Holy Defense demands the relentless slaughter of anonymous pixelated men, and the navigation of a hostile universe as a disembodied floating gun. The graphics are reminiscent of older generations of shooters from the mid-2000s, with none of the lush textures and diaphanous lighting that make games today so visually remarkable. The tumbledown landscape of shattered Syria has a dusty, polygonal sameness that looks less realistic than cheaply rendered. It also seems the game’s artificial intelligence engine could use some fine-tuning. If a full, nearly hour-long walkthrough of Holy Defense posted on YouTube is anything to go by (Hezbollah, listed as a terrorist group, cannot distribute the game here in the United States), players will breeze through the various stages of the game. IS fighters helpfully stumble before your crosshairs, straighten to make themselves easier targets, and gladly crumple to the ground when brushed by your fire.

The game designers of Hezbollah find a political and even ethical imperative in their recreation of “real” scenarios — quite the opposite of American game franchises, which take merry liberties with geopolitical plausibility. In Battlefield 3 (2011), for example, you play the rugged Staff Sergeant Henry Blackburn, shooting up nefarious Iranian paramilitaries in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, and eventually on the Long Island Rail Road (the game unwittingly moves from Babylon to Babylon). Protagonists in these wide-ranging bloodbaths are invariably gruff men with robust Anglo-Saxon names like John Foley, John “Soap” MacTavish and Sergeant Jonathan “Jono” Miller. A memorable departure from this procession of Johns can be found in the magical 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand (2009), the rapper’s second video game, in which 50 Cent searches for a diamond-encrusted platinum skull (yes, much like Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God), which he received as payment for a concert only to have it stolen by paramilitaries in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The outlandishly muscular 50 Cent prowls and growls his way through this pseudo-Iraq looking for “the bitch [who] took my skull.” The game actually received many positive reviews, with only some quibbles about the mechanics of ducking for cover in the middle of a firefight.

A firefight in Holy Defense. 2018.

Propaganda, much like a bad video game, insists on being taken seriously. According to Hezbollah, Holy Defense “is not just a game, but a tool to confront the violent culture which invades our markets through games devoid of sentiment or sense of belonging.” Yet from its nerdy details about weaponry to its manly static of walkie-talkie communication, Holy Defense appeals to a general idea of military action and culture that isn’t unique in any way, but has been globalized by video games. The game cannot help but suggest that if you change the flags, change the badges, and change the language, impassioned, purposeful men with guns are all the same.

Should Hezbollah want to market a sequel to Holy Defense, however, they might consider pitching one to the global preservationist community. In defending the shrine of Sayeda Zainab, the game participates in a wider conservation trend: the Syrian war has spurred scores of digitization projects to render endangered cultural heritage sites into pixels, providing a form of “backup” from the iconoclastic ravages of jihadists and the devastation of indiscriminate shelling. Holy Defense begins with the player wandering through the shrine of Sayeda Zainab, finding a spiritual communion with its digitally recreated structures. It would be a gesture of alien generosity if Hezbollah would consider lending their pixelated warriors to Syria’s many wondrous non-Muslim sites of cultural heritage. Your yellow-bandana-clad, gun-toting avatar might patrol the ancient port of Ugarit, the ramparts of crusader castles, or the Roman amphitheater of Jableh. The gaming possibilities are endless.

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the presenter of the BBC series Museum of Lost Objects. He lives in New York.