While other forms of media regularly discuss the Middle East, whenever it shows up in video games, there’s often controversy. From the new Medal of Honor game to big name companies dropping titles like Six Days in Fallujah. However, there is one man in the Middle East, who wants to create games that properly represent “the other side”. In our hour long phone call, I spoke with Radwan Kasmiya, a Syrian and Palestinian, about his games “Under Ash” and “Under Siege”. During the conversation who also talked about the perception of the Middle East in the digital world and how 9/11 affected his work. In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, very few independent game developers existed in the Middle East. Radwan Kasmiya took a look around and decided he needed to create a something that was more than just an action game where his people were “moving targets”. He wanted to tell his version of what’s going on in the Middle East. He wanted to paint a picture of his people and what their reality was like. At the time Kasmiya was working with a multimedia company called Dar al-Fikr, which mostly published books. He approached them with an idea that eventually would become the game ‘Under Ash’. They misunderstood Kasmiya’s proposal and thought he simply wanted to make a multimedia CD. Regardless, they liked the idea and the project was under way. Yet, Kasmiya had no one to help him start development. So he had to hand pick a team people who had skills that could be translated into what was needed to create a game. After some training and a few months later, his team of multicultural artists and programmers completed ‘Under Ash’ in 2001.
Radwan Kasmiya wanted to make a game that offered more than just his people finally being able to shoot back at Israelis. He aspired to dig down deep and have his players understand the basis of the conflict. He knew that most gamers in the Middle East played commercial (and pirated) games from the West and while they enjoyed the design, graphics and gameplay, they always felt guilty since they were essentially shooting at “themselves”. So ‘Under Ash’ was created to let them play from their own perspective. However, when people in the West heard about the game, they viewed it as propaganda material. Kasmiya believed this was a problem because he was sure that Westerns didn’t even play the game, yet still passed judgement on it. In addition, ‘Under Ash’ was compared to the US Army recruitment video game ‘America’s Army’. Kasmiya felt the comparison was unfair, joking that the monthly electrical bill of the company that made ‘America’s Army’ is probably larger than the entire budget of ‘Under Ash’. The comparison to games like ‘America’s Army’ and even the Lebanese game ‘Special Forces’ (made by Hezbollah) put ‘Under Ash’ in a category Kasmiya wasn’t comfortable with. He wanted to give a voice to “the silent majority” and not take any political stance.
In 2005, Kasmiya released another game called ‘Under Siege’ which acts as the spiritual sequel to ‘Under Ash’. Between those two games, he began to notice something interesting about how his games have affected the Middle Eastern game industry. 95% of the games played in the Middle East are pirated. But people were buying his game in large numbers. According to him “they weren’t paying for a game, they were paying for an idea”. Kasmiya noticed a majority of students and young people were buying his games (his games were being sold for around $10 USD). He was surprised because these kids weren’t working. They were saving their money to purchase his games. Even more surprising, when he released a demo for ‘Under Ash’, it was around 30MB. Which, by the standards of 2001 when the game came out, meant downloading it for several days on a 56k modem. It was downloaded over 1 million times. After 9/11, the perception in the West towards his work turned worse and he even received death threats. According to him – these threats came from people in countries that could not even access his game and even some in the Middle East. Of course, he did receive plenty of encouragement both locally and internationally. Today, his new company Falafel Games has a new project in the works. While he couldn’t say much, it’ll be interesting to see if the idea of an MMO about the past and present will do well. Can his new game bring players from all over the world together to learn about parts of history that are forgotten? Only time will tell. But Kasmiya knows that to reach the youth, we need to find them where they are. He believes that most children today are less interested in traditional media and those looking to send a message and get people talking, need to collaborate in new environments.
In all of Radwan Kasmiya’s games, you can never win. Your character either dies or gets imprisoned. He says he doesn’t want to make “anti-GI Joe” games, he wants to make games that speak truths that are hidden behind louder voices. Voices that are hidden under the ash or under siege by forces stronger than his own people. He wants to tell true stories.
Under Ash is no longer available, but you can visit the old site here:
To learn more about Under Siege, visit the English website:
Visit Afkar Media’s website, here:
See Kasmiya’s new company, Falafel Games here: