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Report: Video game designer sentenced to death in Iran over propaganda charges
Report: Video game designer sentenced to death in Iran over propaganda charges
January 9, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

January 9, 2012 | By Eric Caoili
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    31 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing



A U.S.-born video game designer has been sentenced to death in Iran over charges that the CIA paid him to create games to sway public opinions on U.S. policies.

Iranian-American Amir Mizra Hekmati allegedly confessed to spying on the country and designing propaganda games, according to the ruling from the Islamic Revolutionary Court.

After the former U.S. marine was detained while visiting Iran in August (supposedly to visit family), local daily newspaper Tehran Times published excerpts from a purported confession in which Hekmati admitted to helping create games designed to "manipulate public opinion in the Middle East" at New York City-based developer Kuma Reality Games, under the CIA's direction and payroll.

Hekmati allegedly said, "[Kuma] was receiving money from the CIA to (produce) and design and distribute for free special movies and games with the aim of manipulating public opinion in the Middle East. The goal of the company in question was to convince the people of Iran and the people of the entire world that whatever the U.S. does in other countries is a good measure."

Along with various titles themed around dinosaurs, mobsters, and World War II, Kuma's catalog includes a free episodic first-person shooter set in the Middle East, featuring localizations in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu alongside English releases. Its Kuma\War series re-created scenarios in which players killed militant Islamist figures like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden.

The studio even released a Kuma\War episode titled "Assault on Iran," speculating on how the U.S. could respond to the country's nuclear weapons program. In the episode, players had to infiltrate an Iranian nuclear facility, "secure evidence of illegal uranium enrichment, rescue [their] man on the inside, and destroy the centrifuges that promise to take Iran into the nuclear age."

Kuma CEO Keith Halper previously told Gamasutra the release had an impact in Iran: "There were hundreds of thousands of downloads in Iran. We were denounced by name in the newspaper controlled by the supreme Ayatollah as a possible precursor to real US policy, which is absurd on the face of it, but speaks to the great power of real-time video games as a storytelling medium."

Halper also admitted to Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo in 2006 that his company has previously accepted contract work to develop training software for the U.S. army as a side project. However, he did not state that the developer is bankrolled by the CIA or any other U.S. government organization to produce the Kuma\War series or other titles that Kuma released for consumers.

In addition to his confession that was published by Tehran Times, Hekmati appeared on Iranian state television in December and claimed to have been sent to the country by the CIA. He said his mission was to infiltrate Iran's intelligence ministry by providing them with information, gain their trust, and eventually report his findings to the U.S.'s own intelligence agency.

Iranian news agency Fars reported that the Revolutionary Court, which specializes in trying those accused of attempting to overthrow the country's government, found Hekmati "Corrupt on Earth and Mohareb (waging war on God)." The New York Times says the ruling "is routinely used in cases against alleged enemies of the Islamic Republic, and the charge carries the death sentence."

"Allegations that Mr. Hekmati either worked for, or was sent to Iran by the CIA are false," said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council. "The Iranian regime has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent Americans for political reasons."

The White House is demanding Hekmati's release, and has called on the Iranian government to grant him access to legal counsel via diplomats from the Swiss Embassy, which represents the U.S.'s interests in Iran.


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Comments


Harry Fields
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Who isn't "corrupt on Earth"?



And this guy's coerced confession is ridiculous. I hope this is all a show and some chest pumping and they ultimately let him go as a propagandized "humanitarian" gesture.

A W
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That regime needs to be destroyed.

Nick Wiggill
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The one run by corporate lobbyists? The one that meddles in the affairs of other countries (using force) on a regular basis, and then tries to justify such using mass media tactics? I couldn't agree more, even as I feel sorry for those of its citizens who are smart enough to know that what's going on is wrong at so many levels.

Brad Borne
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@Nick Wiggill: Your post is freaking sick, given the content of this article.

Yeah this is from a long time ago, meh.

Bart Stewart
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First, let's stipulate that this is seriously bad news for Hekmati, and that the Iranian regime's lethal intolerance of criticism is just one more reason why the community of civilized nations ought to be repudiating Iran's current rulers at every opportunity.



That said, I'm puzzled why a U.S. Marine and designer of games critical of current Iranian public policies/actions would even be in that country. Is this bravery, or foolhardiness (like people hiking anywhere near the Iranian border)? There must be more to this story.

E McNeill
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He could easily have family or heritage to visit in the country. My understanding is that Iran is a viable, if dangerous, destination for visits. If North Korea can have tourism, Iran doesn't seem out of the question.

Christy Sawyer
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According to an MSNBC article he was visiting his grandmother.

Harry Fields
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He was supposedly visiting family.

David Campbell
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Either visiting family or being a CIA spook.



Odds are small we'll ever know for sure.

Alex Leighton
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So is he an American? The article isn't very clear (at least to me).

matthew diprinzio
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Judging by the fact that the military industrial complex is itching to go to war with Iran, I think there could be some truth to this.

Anton Maslennikov
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I am sympathetic, but this story goes to show that there are always consequences for making politically loaded games.

E Zachary Knight
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In a country with true freedom of speech there would never be any "consequences". The fact is that this guy ended up in a country that has no free speech and was targetted and prosecuted for exercising his speech.



This is a horrible consequence for exercising a human right and in any civilized society would have never happened.

David Campbell
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There is a difference though between making a game with a political slant and working with a foreign intelligence agency. If such allegations were true (which we'll probably never really know as neither the US or Iranian governments are at all credible), that's far-and-away different than just exercising speech.

Nathaniel Marlow
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Anthony, David actually has a decent point. Regardless of this particular case, foreign funded propaganda is way different than an artist simply expressing themselves. He even concedes that in this case, we will probably never know who was telling the truth, so I fail to see your beef with him and why you felt it was necessary to call him a "typical, paranoid anti-American". He was hardly equating the US with Iran when he noted governments are unlikely to reveal factual or complete information surrounding sensitive issues with other nations.



Or are you just sore that you had a disagreement in a previous thread and felt like you needed to bring it here, too? If that isn't the case, can you elaborate on how differentiating between propaganda and artistic expression makes someone paranoid and anti-American?

Nathaniel Marlow
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Anthony, you're jumping straight to the conclusion that the US government is telling the truth and this has nothing to do with the CIA. As noted, we have no actual way of knowing if this is the case or not, and we will probably never know. Would Iran tell us if the CIA wasn't involved? Would the US tell us if the CIA was actually involved?



Even if comparing the US to Iran was some sort of unforgivable transgression, it is pretty accurate in this specific case. David just said "neither the US or Iranian governments are at all credible", in direct reference to the possibility that we will never know the whole truth about this incident. That seems perfectly reasonable and a fair thing to say.



He isn't supporting Iran, he's just helpfully reminding everyone that expressive art and foreign funded propaganda are different things.



Should Iran be supported in its decision, regardless of if this man was working for the CIA? No, of course not.



Is it OK to use this as an excuse to deepen the trenches we've filled with western exceptionalism and erect meaningless idols of Isalmophobia forged from the same ash heap as Iraq's WMDs?

I doubt it.

Nathaniel Marlow
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Simply disagreeing with Iran is fine, I don't agree with Iran either.



Saying "one of them problems with a religion that allegedly rewards people for killing others and dying while doing so" while painting broad strokes with the extremist brush, however, is a bit on the Islamophobic side of the fence.



But anyways, water under the bridge (or whatever), and I'm glad we're finally getting somewhere in an adult manner.



As far as the ignorance you perceive David (or anyone) to have, if you truly think he (or anyone) is ignorant, you should educate them about yourself instead of walking away. Ignorance is easily correctable, grudges aren't. It goes both ways though, but that's only a bad thing if your mind is closed, we could all stand to learn a little more.

Nathaniel Marlow
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Sure, acknowledging that doesn't mean much either way. And using religious people as tools is a legitimate concern in certain situations, but it's hardly unique to Iran and usually involves groups not directly related to the government.



Equating it to the entire country (intentionally or not) is where we run into problems:



"Iran doesn't seem to care about the consequences (one of them problems with a religion that allegedly rewards people for killing others and dying while doing so)"



It would've helped clarify things a bit if you didn't link instability with Islam from the get go, but your view seems reasonable now that you've explained it a bit.

John Seggerson
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Please listen to this piece from On the Media (WNYC) for an idea of what others in this situation have faced. http://www.onthemedia.org/2010/sep/24/irans-blogfather-facing-pos
sible-execution/

Noah Falstein
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The science fiction novel from the 80's "The Moon Goddess and the Sun" by Donald Kingsbury suggested that the Soviet Union could be subverted through the dissemination of a video game through the USSR. Maybe someone in Iran thought it was a planning document?

Jonathan Murphy
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We live in a very corrupt messed up world run by lunatics. All of coarse depending what country you decide to travel to. I hope the US gets him out.

John Rose
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I pray our government can get him out of this insane situation. Regardless of culture or creed, the execution of foreign nationals for game development is EXTREME. Hopefully they can resolve this before someone dies.

Sean Currie
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While I don't normally make a habit of believing the Iranian government when it comes to, well, anything, this isn't completely out of the ordinary when it comes to CIA operations. Funding pro-American propaganda is a relatively commonplace occurrence when it comes to Western intelligence agencies. Conversely, the Iranian government has funded a number of anti-American video games (one particularly grotesque anti-Israel FPS comes to mind) so countering that with a similar product would make sense.



Of course, the confession being false is just as likely given the Iranian regime's history when it comes to politically "undesirable" individuals, but the designer being a former US marine certainly makes it plausible that he'd have developed contacts that would have granted him access to funding from the American government.



Regardless, the death penalty for any kind of political speech (propagandic or not) is unacceptable and hopefully the US does whatever it takes to get him back.

Ashkan Hosseini
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He was an idiot for visiting Iran considering he's a U.S. Marine and has worked for a company who released a game title "Assault on Iran." At least he got a trial there. If he was on the other side captured by the U.S., he would have been put into Gitmo Cuba and tortured for who knows how long.

Sean Currie
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I heard he also got a hot stone massage and a free trip to Disney World. I don't know what people are complaining about.



*Facepalm*

Jason Chen
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I hope he is able leave Iran as a free man.

Daniel Martinez
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This just has "bad" written all over it on both fronts with video games caught in the middle. As mentioned before in the comments above: neither government is really credible. I just hope real blood is not spilled over this.

Ted Southard
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I'd like to call BS on the spy part, mainly *because* he's a former Marine and has an anti-Iranian regime video game to his name. Maybe the CIA is not that bright, but it's bright enough not to send such a tasty morsel into a country to spy for it when it has such a large pool of willing people in that country who want regime change. This guy would just raise way too many red flags, just off the video game alone, and then the icing on the cake would be him having been a Marine. This kind of thing only happens on TV and in movies (usually followed by intense action scenes that are just as unrealistic).



That said, what I think happened was that he made a call to his family to see what the climate was over there, and the coast looked clear. He went, they ran his passport and he came up on a list of their citizens who they wanted on a rope, and they had him followed and scooped up.



Stranger things have happened, and I don't find the unfounded speculation here helpful to him.

Alexander Lannoote
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A good start to the new year. Peace on Earth!!!

Fred Marcoux
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you could say he took an arrow to the knee....





I cant believe this thread got more comments than Activision ones

Nick Wiggill
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Mass media is powerful, and the Iranis recognise this, just as anyone with two brain cells to rub together would.



Free speech should be a human right, but as others have stated, this man has explicitly acted as a member of an intelligence agency of a country that Iran sees as an enemy.



Did this man think that because he was an American, and previously a marine, and finally a hireling of the CIA, that he would somehow be above the law if he was found out? Or is it that he thought that US law is the only law? As long as you're acting as an agent of a particular country, you can expect to reap not only the rewards but the punishments on behalf of that country as a whole. That means the most extreme punishments. The US hung Saddam Hussein on public television. I would hardly call that a gracious punishment. When you have knocked an enemy to the floor, is it necessary to kill him in cold blood, in front of a crowd? Blood begets blood.



I would only wish this man well if I believed that taking decisions to interfere in the affairs of other countries (often unilaterally) on a regular basis were acceptable, since he was party to such actions. It seems to me there are still plenty of people out there who feel that every US military action since Korea (at the very least) was amply justified on the grounds that it IS acceptable to do so, and that OF COURSE the rest of the civilised world will thank you for it. Increasingly, that has proven not to be the case. His being or not being a game industry professional has absolutely no bearing on my evaluation of this situation. He could be a janitor or a general: The point is that he was applying his skills to artificially engineer Irani public opinion in a way which that government would quite obviously perceive as a threat. I would encourage others to view his situation without bias deriving from a sense of professional or nationalistic fraternity.


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