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The 'soft war' against America's enemies is fueled by video games and movies

It may seem like a whole lot of smoke for very little fire.

Hackers break into the digital catacombs of Sony Pictures Entertainment and make off with terabytes of stolen data including the plot lines of unannounced movies, the nasty internal emails of Hollywood executives, and the temper tantrums and petty requests of beloved actors.

That North Korea somehow might have a hand in the hack, spurred by anger regarding a satirical movie about their leader, doesn't do much to help raise the breach beyond the sort of plot you might find in a mindless summer blockbuster.

But, at least to North Korea, this is most likely war.

The notion of a "soft war," perhaps best identified with Iran, hasn't been around for long. It's built on the premise that along with a war of weapons and soldiers for the physical land and bodies of the enemy, there is an ongoing war by the West to erode the internal culture of countries like Iran, China and North Korea.

In 2009, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps outlined what they described as a "soft war" being waged against Iran by the West. The government believed and believes that enemies of the state are using cultural influencers like movies, television and video games to try and rot out the culture and identity of that country from the inside. It is a concern so overwhelming for the country's government that in 2012, Iran's parliament allocated a hundred million dollars toward defending against it, according to the Center for Global Communications.

That money went into more proactive projects, like creating video games aimed at reinforcing what the government believes should be the country's ideals. They backed a game about Salman Rushdie, in hopes of teaching a new generation of Iranians about the 25-year-old fatwa against the author.

The country's government saw its game and one other as the wall holding back the soft war powered by nearly 150 Western games.

China too worries over an ideological soft war. The country, Jamestown Foundation reports, sees itself as the target of "powerful Western political, military and media efforts to pursue neoliberal strategies of ideological world dominance."

It's the sort of thing — the injection of Western culture, Western ideals, Western beliefs — that can topple governments from the inside. Take the Soviet bloc, an example some believe, of using a soft war to prepare a country for a change to democracy.

And as China begins to open its doors to Western culture and Western money, some of the sorts of entertainment projects that could be seen as offensive in China have received a quick shift, changing focus to become more anti-North Korea.

The modern remake of Red Dawn recast the U.S.S.R. invading force as coming from China initially. That was changed to North Korea. The same is true for the video game Homefront, which, at one point, was to feature a Chinese infiltrating army, but shipped with a North Korean one.

So enter North Korea and Kim Jong-un, the third supreme leader of that country. And enter The Interview, Sony Pictures' movie about an attempt to kill that leader.

Kim is nearly deified in North Korea, held up not only as the epitome of what it is to be a North Korean, but also as godlike.

Releasing a film that includes a very un-godlike death scene for Kim could easily be seen by North Korea as an act of soft war, and it was.

After hearing of the film, North Korean state news agency KCNA said that "making and releasing a movie on a plot to hurt our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated."

Then it began to threaten and cajole, pushing Sony, the White House and the United Nations to prevent the movie from coming out.

Last month that talking and inaction came to a stop, and on Nov. 24, Sony discovered hackers had broken into their system and stolen and deleted terabytes of information. That information has been leaked out to the press in waves.

This week those leaks took a darker turn, seemingly including a threat to attack movie theaters that show The Interview.

"Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made," according to the note. "The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you'd better leave.)"

North Korea has denied any connection to the hack attack. But if there is a soft war, if Hollywood is, knowingly or not, involved in an attempt to destabilize North Korea's government and Kim's dictatorial grasp on his people, this attack was one of this secret war's most noticeable counter-strikes. One that does what some government officials in Iran have long urged: Turn a soft war into a hard one.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.