Presented at Digital Humanities Summer Institute Virtual Conference & Colloquium

I presented “Digital Iran: Narratives of (De)colonization in Video Games” at the DHSI Conference & Colloquium on June 7th, 2021. Throughout my presentation, I discussed the nuts and bolts of the Digital Iran project, including the theoretical frameworks of affect and soft power, discussions on video game examples, project management, and the project’s future trajectories. By covering the technical aspects of Digital Iran like the platforms WordPress, YouTube, Twitter, and Twitch.TV (a popular platform for gamers to livestream), I showed the challenges the Digital Iran team overcame during the project’s dissemination in summer 2020.

As principal investigator, I led a team that included Solmaz Shakerifard, a Near and Middle Eastern Studies PhD student, and Kayla van Kooten, an undergraduate research assistant, to investigate the colonial and anti-colonial representations in video games. Throughout the project, we also noted how audiovisuals in games created a complex narrative between popular products like games and nation-states. Particularly, we asked questions what type of narrative is being constructed (is it fantasy, is it historical, is it an amalgam of fantasy and history to protect a nation-state legitimacy), who’s narrative (is it Iranian, is it from the diaspora, or it from a Western imperialist framework). We noted that game creators, promoted in the market, and at times curated by state agents, intend to carefully articulate self and the ‘Other’ in the narratives (Said). Understanding narrative frameworks, we then analyze the video games text, image, and sound to convey the multimodal nature of discourse present within this popular media content.

Through theoretical frameworks of affect and soft power/war, we provided analysis to viewers in real time while we were live streaming. We noted that Iranian and Western developers have created narratives through perceptions of Iranian culture, which manifests as soft war and soft power. Although games have transcended national boundaries, gender, social class, and age, Iranian video games seek to reinvigorate national narratives while simultaneously decolonizing popular culture. However, narratives of Iran from Western made games often reproduce colonizing and imperial agendas.

We used affect theory, discourse analysis, and soft power/soft war as modes to understand both gaming content as well as our own experience while playing. While the Iranian state describes soft war (jang-e narm) as a “movement of foreign ideas, culture, and influence into Iran through communications technology,” the state has articulated soft war through curtailing and creating cultural products in the communication and technology sectors (Blout 33; Akhavan 5). I define soft war as engendering a cultural impetus and desire to contain a nation-state’s identity or even change that identity from within by either state or citizen actors. Meanwhile, soft power relates to social and political communication, the building of trust, and foreign policy. Those who engage in making games based on soft power seek to acquire a preferred outcome in material and non-material ways so that they may overcome coercive soft war.

Affect is used as another theoretical analytic to describe our experiences as gamers throughout the Digital Iran project. I argue that video games facilitate communication through audiovisual aesthetics and narratives that create affect for the player. When a player experiences affect either through interaction or within frameworks outside of themselves, it corresponds to an intensity within the body which manifests firstly as a sensation then as an emotion (Shouse). Game development teams sometimes even write game narratives to explicitly cultivate empathy from global gamers, such as 1979 Revolution: Black Friday (2017). Since games create an affective moment for players like empathy or fear, video games and streaming platforms such as Twitch.TV allows players and viewers to expand on these entanglements.

For more information about the presentation, please follow the discussion on Twitter:

Works Cited

1979 Revolution: Black Friday. Microsoft Windows, iNK Stories, 2016.

Akhavan, Niki. Electronic Iran: The Cultural Politics of an Online Evolution. Rutgers University Press, 2013.

Battlefield 3. Microsoft Windows, Dice, 2011.

Blout, Emily. “Iran’s Soft War with the West: History, Myth, and Nationalism in the New Communications Age.” SAIS Review of International Affairs Vol. 35, No. 2. 2015 pp. 33-44. DOI: 10.1353/sais.2015.0028. Accessed 10 February 2021.

Cohoon, Melinda. “Digital Iran: Soft Power and Affect in Video Games,” Interdisciplinary Digital Engagement in Arts & Humanities, vol 2(1), In-press.

Garshasp: The Monster Slayer. Microsoft Windows, Dead Mage, 2011.

Shouse, Eric. “Feeling, Emotion, Affect.” M/C Journal vol. 8, no. 6, 2005, DOI: 10.5204/mcj.2443. Accessed 1 March 2020.