Israeli Defense Force Responds To Criticism Of Games On Its War Blog

The Israeli Defense Force spokespeople behind the IDF Blog, the @IDFSpokesperson Twitter feed, and the rest of the Operation Pillar of Defense social media campaign were quick and forthcoming in response to my inquiries about the light-hearted game that took over the gravely serious blog yesterday. I included some of the IDF comments in yesterday's story but I want to look more closely at the rest of their messages.

The IDF spokesperson who responded to me explained that "[t]he game 'IDF Ranks' was conceived and launched four months ago ... as part of our efforts to create a interactive community to encourage social interaction generated by the IDF social networks online." Basically, it gives you badges and ranks for actively using and sharing the stuff on the blog. Not very fun, but not a big deal.

"The IDF blog itself was launched in 2009 and is not a 'war blog,' but rather a site meant to encourage transparency and provide breaking news regarding events in the area," the IDF says.

Surely that was the original intent, but that changed on Thursday when it became a live blog for an ongoing attack. And again, just to be clear to critics, I did not find that practice inherently problematic. I found it interesting and mostly successful.

"During Operation Pillar of Defense we provide our readers with news updates and operational information regarding IDF actions. In other times, though, the blog has hosted varying content, from reports about routine activities to more lighthearted personal stories. It is this content that 'IDF Ranks' was meant to promote."

Yes, I'm sure it was, but the IDF turned the game off at the outset of Operation Pillar of Defense, and then it turned the game back on. When asked why this happened, the IDF offered this explanation:

"Over the past two days the blog has experienced technical difficulties due to high traffic, and 'IDF Ranks' was temporarily taken down to make necessary adjustments to our systems."

I was on top of the live-blog story very early, and I never saw a trace of any game components until 36 hours or so after the campaign began. It's plausible that the IDF took it down for traffic reasons at a very low level of traffic, but, if I may editorialize just a little, I'm suspicious of the answer.

I followed up to ask why the game was turned back on and got this response.

"We turned it on because it is an integral part of the blog and has been for four months. After the site was briefly down because of the spike in traffic, we isolated it as a potential factor and, once we rectified the technical difficulties, brought it back up again."

If you say so. Whether this is the entire explanation or not, we can certainly conclude that running a fun game on a live blog about serious military action wasn't troubling to the decision-makers at the IDF.

This is the meat of the IDF's explanation:

"In no way is 'IDF Ranks' meant to gamify Operation Pillar of Defense or any military actions during the operation. We embarked on the operation for serious reasons - Israeli civilians have been the target of rocket fire for over a decade - and we continue to see it with the utmost seriousness."

I take that response very seriously. But I'm genuinely surprised that the decision to turn IDF Ranks back on did not strike anyone as unserious. As I've tried repeatedly to make clear, I thought the initial social media campaign was quite seriously executed. It was well done. It captivated the media and steered the conversation. Then the game knocked it off the rails.