Sara S. & Wali Ahmad
There it was, posted online in 2019 for all of the gaming community to see: Gamer Free Palestine ranked 72nd in the world for Super Smash Bros. Melee.
The man behind the controversial tag is Anees Assaf, a 21-year-old geography student at the Ohio State University who doubles as a Smash Bros. global champion. Assaf is more than just some gamer with a few wins – his tag makes him a unique figure in the not-so-political gaming spaces.
What does Free Palestine mean?
— انيس????????Anees???????? (@FreePalestineRN) February 25, 2019
Assaf’s video game journey began at a young age, and as the internet age shaped his adolescence, he became more involved in the gaming community. In late 2015, Assaf started playing games competitively, finding a niche in Smash Bros. Melee, an older version of the video game. Assaf described his love for the early 2k video game as stemming from the game being more fast-paced and fun than the game’s newer versions.
Assaf created his first gaming tag when he was 15, opting for a name that has nothing to do with Palestine: Milhous.
If you aren’t a history buff or into specifically strange facts, you should know that “Milhous” was the middle name of President Nixon.
Wondering how a Palestinian activist could possibly ever stan Nixon? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Assaf laughed when discussing his old tag. “I really dislike Richard Nixon as a president and as a person, I just thought it was funny that (Milhous) was his middle name.”
About a year later, the self-titled Milhous witnessed a Twitter trend that asked gamers to explain the meaning behind their tag, and Assaf decided to rethink his own. Suddenly the idea of having a joke as a tag didn’t seem very appealing – especially considering the reputation of President Nixon.
Therefore in some sort of self-correcting Twitter-induced instant rebrand, Free Palestine was born out of the ashes that once was Milhous. Talk about a major switch-up (I’m sure good ol’ Mr. Richard Milhous Nixon is especially pleased about the change).
Milhous, after president Nixon’s middle name being funny to me as like a freshman in high school. Most people thought it was like Milhouse from the Simpsons but that character was based on Nixon’s middle name being so unfortunate
Free Palestine much better though ????????????????
— انيس????????Anees???????? (@FreePalestineRN) August 14, 2019
Tags are ways that gamers see each other digitally and often competitively. As a gamer, you’re somewhat obligated to say other gamers’ tag names, whether you like it or not. Assaf making his tag Free Palestine forces people to confront an issue that’s simply not usually discussed in his community of gamers. People began to quickly notice how badass it was for Assaf to change his tag, which unquestionably forces the situation in Palestine on people’s lips.
Assaf described his community of fellow competitors as a group willing to listen to why he decided to change his tag to Free Palestine. Although some may have expected that many would be upset, Assaf stressed that his friends and members of his community were there for him.
“It helps that we’re such a kind of tight-knit and small community that when you go to travel, you can just kind of talk to these people,” Assaf explained.
He highlighted that there’s far more to his tag than just making people uncomfortable, discussing how his tag brought Palestinian struggle to a space where this issue is never discussed.
“… As you can expect, people in the US kind of don’t really understand the overall issue (of Palestine) that well. And especially you know gamers who are like 18 to 25 don’t really have any stake in these issues,” Assaf said. “So they really come from a background of not knowing as much. A lot of times it’s just me explaining a lot of, you know, why I have (the tag) and why it’s needed and why it’s stuff I believe in.”
It’s also about changing Palestinian representation for Assaf. “Whether for a political purpose or not, it’s just sharing my perspective,” Assaf said. “Which I think is the most important part to understanding why these issues happen, and why or how I can explain where we’re coming from as Palestinians, so that we’re not painted in a bad light as we normally are.”
But it’s not always acceptance. Assaf described how despite the “overall positive” acceptance and community dialogue, digital players can express annoyance at his tag.
Assaf spoke about some of the backlash he’s received due to his tag. Some people refuse to say his tag or shorten it, which bothers him – what does “Free Pal” even mean? – but he says that most of the time, people just don’t understand why he chose to make a political statement using his gamer tag.
Assaf stressed how the people who say things like “keep politics out of video games” can afford to say these things because they’re not in the same position as him or others.
“People who come from a more privileged background, can separate politics from their regular lives, which a lot of people can’t do,” Assaf said. He explained that often, he responds to people who are offended by his tag by discussing how he doesn’t have the privilege to keep political discourse out of his life.
“Palestine matters to me a lot more than gaming does,” Assaf said. He detailed his Palestinian heritage, explaining that both of his parents are Palestinian and that he visits the West Bank fairly often to see his family there.
Assaf detailed how he’s in a kind of “sweet spot”: the game he plays isn’t as competitive as say League of Legends. On such a larger scale, Assaf says his tag would never have been allowed.
If shows like Ramy are conversation-starters within Muslim communities and beyond, Assaf changing his tag name is a discussion-demander. Changing his tag to a subject that’s as fully-loaded and heated as the question of Palestine makes Assaf demand his gaming community to confront this issue.
One thing’s for sure about Free Palestine’s story, it’s that small acts of resistance can make impacts in very niche spaces.