Can the Rise of Virtual Worlds Promote Social Reform in the Middle East?

Virtual worlds have proven applications in fields as diverse as business marketing, classroom education, and political campaigning. But what if Western governments rolled out the virtual welcome mat as a means of engaging Islamic governments and citizens in the Middle East?

Pixels and Policy looks at some emerging research and a bit of industry prognostication to see whether online games could revolutionize one of the world's hardest-to-reach populations.

Expanding the Metaverse in the Empire of Islam

The Middle East is a puzzle for online game developers, due in large part to the hodgepodge of different nations that cluster from the north of Africa into the Persian Gulf and as far east as the Indian subcontinent.

Moderate Islamic nations like Dubai went so far as to host a symposium on bringing profitable online gaming to the Gulf. By comparison, Iran actively stepped on even the most basic Internet communication this summer, after the use of Twitter and Second Life by Iranian activists jeopardized the ruling regime's hold on power.

More than any other region, introducing virtual worlds to the Middle East is a study in welcoming smiles and slammed doors. So it's fascinating to see that native Middle Eastern virtual world developers are fighting the odds to produce online games designed for the mixture of moderate and conservative Muslim audiences.

The above article in Arabian Business outlines how companies across the Middle East are hoping to cash in on the global interest in online interactive worlds. The article's author makes an interesting point about the challenges in the region:

It’s not just cultural and religious sensitivities where the challenges
lie, but also distribution challenges, owing to the region’s relatively
low internet penetration. Normally, a user would be able to download a
game off the net and play it immediately.

But in many countries in the
Middle East, many rely on Internet Cafes to access the web. In Egypt,
for instance, Tahadi has organised for Internet Cafes to have DVDs of
certain games available for users so that they can play these games.

The big question, though, is about whether Western governments can build on the groundwork of these native Middle Eastern companies as a means to expand dialogue and understanding between cultures separated by oceans and religion.

In a previous article, we openly wondered whether the expansion of virtual worlds could improve developing nations from within – now it's time to wonder whether virtual worlds could lay the groundwork for a more productive international relationship between Western nations and the Middle East.

As we'll see, creating a successful cultural exchange across virtual worlds is difficult to engineer, and perhaps the best way to ensure a greater dialogue between cultures is to have government refrain from any official attempts to co-opt private virtual worlds for a very new kind of public diplomacy.

Intercultural Internet

Rita J. King did some groundbreaking research on the use of virtual worlds as a form of intercultural dialogue in her research paper Digital Diplomacy, one of the first pieces to look at virtual worlds as potential vehicles for improving both intercultural relations and individual understanding.

But as we noted above, the path to Westerners and Middle Easterners chatting it up in a Middle Eastern-based virtual world is far from linear. Many of the potential hang-ups have to do with sensitive cultural and religious issues.

Countries like Iran and Syria would be hesitant to allow their citizens free access to a potential virtual soapbox, especially if that soapbox contained foreign players. Online games promote communication, and in repressive regimes, communication is viewed as a national security threat. Clamping down on social media and online gaming is often the first step a government like Iran takes when its population boils over.

The United States lacks official legitimacy in nations like Iran, and as a result, much of the intercultural dialogue virtual worlds can bring will likely be handled by private innovators. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called on gamers to pursue their own "digital diplomacy" through the Internet and social media – a tacit acknowledgment that an official U.S. presence would likely do more harm than good to the social change agenda America promotes.

The potential for macro-level social reform and intercultural dialogue between Westerners and the Middle East exists, but the path is far from simple. There are also countless ways the entire grand experiment could go awry. But as we've seen from other social movements, the first wave need not always succeed to plant the seeds of major social reform.