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Video Games Popular in Middle East War Zones


FILE - A Syrian gamer uses the Pokemon Go application on his mobile to catch a Pokemon amidst the rubble in the besieged rebel-controlled town of Douma, a flashpoint east of the capital Damascus, July 23, 2016.

FILE - A Syrian gamer uses the Pokemon Go application on his mobile to catch a Pokemon amidst the rubble in the besieged rebel-controlled town of Douma, a flashpoint east of the capital Damascus, July 23, 2016.

Photos of Pokémon characters in the wrecks and ruins of Syria last week drew attention to an unnoticed aspect of the war: Troops in the most dangerous war zones are not excluded from this global trending sensation.

The Pokémon Go craze has reached the frontlines in the Middle East, where a global coalition is battling Islamic State. Louis Park, an Afghanistan war veteran who is in northern Iraq fighting IS militants alongside a Christian militia, recently tweeted that he captured his first virtual monster on the smash-hit cellphone game in Mosul.

With the accessibility of smartphones all around the world and free games on App Stores and Android Markets, getting involved in video gaming is easier than ever before.

Marwan, a voluntary fighter with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces who prefers to go by his first name only, told VOA that he plays different games in any spare time he gets between patrols.

FILE - Pfc. Ralph Abbatiello of Long Island, New York, plays Pokemon while awaiting deployment at a camp in Kuwait, April 3, 2003.

FILE - Pfc. Ralph Abbatiello of Long Island, New York, plays Pokemon while awaiting deployment at a camp in Kuwait, April 3, 2003.

"It gives me a relief from the situation we are stuck in," he said. "It makes my mind distracted a bit and helps me refresh my brain for a while."

Security concerns

There are concerns among armed personnel that rampant growth of smart phone gaming might harm military activities which require high concentration and attentiveness. However, U.S. Air Force spokesperson Ed Gulick recently told the Military Times newspaper that there haven't been any security concerns yet.

"While it could lead to safety and security concerns, at this point, Air Force headquarters is not aware of any security issues by civilians or airman playing the newly released game," he said.

Most advanced, multi-player games are GPS-enabled. And that doesn't fit well in the military world, experts say.

"GPS-based games could be very dangerous for military people and the people in frontlines," said Daryoush Bourbour, a Washington-based retired military officer.

"Any kind of distractive activities must be banned for all members of armed forces as that might cost [them] their lives," he told VOA.

In Iraq, where Kurdish forces are taking center stage in the fight against IS, military leaders have banned the use of cellphone gaming by the Kurdish forces known as Peshmerga.

"When the Peshmerga are patrolling the frontline against Daesh [IS] attacks, they are not allowed to take cellphone devices or anything that can distract them," said Barham Aris Yazin, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander.

"We are very close to Daesh territory in Bashiqa [near Mosul], and we cannot afford to be distracted," he told VOA.

IS, Iranian games

The war in Syria has created an opportunity for different groups, including IS, to promote their agendas, and the video gaming industry has played an important role in that.

FILE - A Syrian artist combined war in Syria and Pokemon Go, Beirut, July 22, 2016.

FILE - A Syrian artist combined war in Syria and Pokemon Go, Beirut, July 22, 2016.

Recently, IS released a smart phone-based game with the aim of indoctrinating children under the cover of Arabic alphabet teaching. The application has games for memorizing enticing Islamic songs. Their lyrics extol Jihad against infidels.

An IS digital team, known as Library of Zeal, released the application that is now available on Android devices.

"Islamic State has a team of very sophisticated experts that run an entire campaign online," said Dlshad Othman, a cybersecurity expert with the ISC Project, a group that provides information security assistance to civil society activists in Syria and elsewhere.

But other parties involved in the Syrian civil war have also developed games to attract more supporters.

The Iranian government, a major backer of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, has sponsored a new combat game that glorifies Iranian troops fighting in Syria.

The phone-based game Delavar — meaning “brave” in Persian — was developed by Iranian Gunay Studio. It is available in three languages: Persian, Turkish and English.

The game is aimed at encouraging Tehran's presence in Syria and justifying its involvement in the Syrian war under the banner of defending Shiite religious sites, according to its developer, Keyvan Malek Mohammadi.

"The application, which is produced with government funding, targets Iranian children and teenagers in Iran and neighboring countries," Mohammadi told VOA. "It really targets those involved in the war on Takfiri groups."

Iran uses the word Takfiri for rebel groups, mainly Sunni Muslims, fighting Syrian government forces.

Experts say that as technology continues to advance, video gaming would remain a significant tool for all sides of conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Rikar Hussein contributed to this report.

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