Lebanese political party and militant group Hezbollah has launched a video game similar to the likes of Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. The game's name, "The Holy Defense: Protecting the Homeland and the Holy Sites", to some extent reflects what the group is promoting, part of the psychological war needed to grow its base.
This is not a new approach to subtly put ideas across; many studies have tackled the underhand messages conveyed through video games. No doubt that this game affects players, particularly with cutting-edge effects that make battles quite realistic and engaging. The enemies are always the bad guys, who gamers zealously exert efforts to vanquish.
Hezbollah says the game tells a story of the takfiri aggression that aimed at "destroying the holy sites and desecrating the homeland". "Join the resistance forces to defend the homeland and the holy sites," Hezbollah tells the gamers.
The Holy Defense tackles religious, political and military disputes. According to the creators' statement, it is a "simulation that aims to document a phase of the holy defense against the takfiri expansion, and the confrontation against the American-Zionist project".
In the first stage, the gamers wander in the Shiite shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the daughter of the first Shiite Imam Ali, on the southern outskirts of Damascus and "interact in a spiritual surrounding", according to the website of the game.
Then comes the "stage of defending the shrine", in which the "danger befalling the holy site" becomes evident. Hence, "players must defend it and prevent takfiri armed groups from reaching it. It is the battle of defending the holy sites".
Replicating Hezbollah's propaganda, the creators of the game depict the participation in the Syrian war as an effort to protect Shiite holy sites -- including the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab -- and not a military endeavor to protect the Iran-backed Syrian regime. However, the fact remains the battles that Hezbollah initially took part in during the war were reportedly in areas far from the shrine.
The Stage of Hadjira
In the third stage, named Hadjira, the player has two missions. First, dealing with the threat of the mortar launchers pointed towards the shrine as terrorists from the Islamic State (IS) group target the holy site from Hadjira. The second mission is to purge the area of all IS men and claim full control.
Hadjira is not made up; it is the name of a Syrian village in Damascus Countryside, near the entrance of Sayeda Zeinab town where the namesake shrine is situated.
In November 2013, the Syrian army fought fierce battles against opposition armed men to wrest back Hadjira and secure the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab. At the time, the regime-loyal media said the armed men hailed from Al-Nusra Front, not IS.
Of course the game does not mention the "Hadjira Massacre" that took place on 18 July 2012, when around 200 people were killed while attending a funeral, presumably in an airstrike. Moreover, it does not touch either on the post-massacre displacement of locals or the fact that regime-loyal Shiite fighters' families settled in the village later on. The whole story is briefly told in one sentence: "The armed men have been pushed away from the Shrine."
The Return to Qusair
The player then moves on to the stage of Qusair which also consists of two missions. The first is to free civilian hostages held by takfiri forces, and then launch a wide-scale offensive to seize control of Qusair city and "keep the danger of IS terror away from Lebanese villages".
The Qusair battle saw Syrian army forces -- aided by Hezbollah -- defeat opposition factions and regain control over the city, which was destroyed in the fighting. The operation had a strategic goal: connecting the countryside of Homs with Damascus Countryside.
Hundreds of civilians were killed and injured in the battle that took place in June and July 2013 before the emergence of IS. Consequently, a large number of armed men moved to areas near the Lebanese borders. Many of them eventually proclaimed allegiance to IS.
Al-Hindawi and Ras Baalbek
In this stage the leadership of the resistance tasks the player with assassinating Abdul Razzaq Al-Hindawi, or Abu Abdo, one of the most important coordinators of IS who transported suicide bombers to Lebanese areas.
In late November, Hezbollah's media office announced the killing of Al-Hindawi, saying he was responsible for transporting the suicide bombers who carried out a twin attack in Bourj Al-Barajneh refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Beirut. Hezbollah and the Syrian security apparatus joined forces to assassinate him in Syria.
The final stage of the game is titled Ras Baalbek; the mission is to repel an attack launched by takfiri forces on the Lebanese area. "It is the battle of defending the homeland," according to the game's website.
The Ras Baalbek battle took place in August 2017, ending with IS forces retreating from areas near the Lebanese frontiers; they were ultimately transported on air-conditioned buses to eastern Syria under the auspices of Hezbollah and the Syrian army.
The Holy Defense -- compatible with Windows 7, 8 and 10 -- falls under what is known as the soft power. "It is a tool to confront the aggressive cultural invasion that has come in the form of games reflecting no sense of belonging," the game's site says.
Aboul-Fadl, a pseudonym for a member of the team that has produced The Holy Defense, told Raseef22 that working on the game took a whole year. "The team has paid attention to every little detail."
He says the video game tells a story of "resistance against the Israeli aggression", yet none of the stages includes battles with Israeli forces.