Spending time in the fighting game community makes you accustomed to referring to people by names like SonicFox, HotDog29, and Dr. PeePee. The latest rankings of Super Smash Bros. Melee players are full of such names, and one high-level Smash competitor is using his gamer tag for an explicitly political purpose: advocating for a free Palestine.
As of the 2019 rankings, Anees “Free Palestine” Assaf is considered the seventy-second best Super Smash Bros. Melee player in the world, thanks to performances at events like The Big House and Full Bloom. His placement is a large leap from just missing out on the top 100 in 2018. Previously, Assaf was known as “Milhous,” a handle he chose as a way of poking fun at the middle name of former American president Richard Nixon. In April 2018, Assaf changed his tag in response to a Twitter trend asking players to explain the handle they chose for competition. A little under a year later, he published a Twitlonger further clarifying the reasons behind his decision to change his name and providing a primer on the issues facing the Palestinian people.
Although he was born and currently resides in the United States, Assaf holds dual citizenship with the Palestinian state and has made many trips to the region throughout his life. This has given him a first-hand look at the ways that what remains of Palestine’s territory has been treated under its occupation by Israel, which he equates to an apartheid state in his original Twitlonger post. Palestinians have very few rights compared to their Israeli counterparts under current legislation, and despite numerous United Nations resolutions condemning the treatment of the Palestinian population, the United States has routinely blocked any action from being taken and has stuck by its support of Israel.
“I thought about how big of an issue this is to me and how I’d already gotten a few opportunities to explain this issue to Smash players during tournaments and road trips,” Assaf told Kotaku in a conversation about what had prompted him to change his handle. “Once the tag ‘Free Palestine’ came into my head, I immediately switched it on [tournament sign-up site] Smash.gg and Twitter and haven’t looked back.”
Assaf described responses from the Smash community to the name change as “generally positive,” and he offered an added level of appreciation for his local scene at Ohio State University for their support and willingness to learn about Palestine. As is usually the case, however, online interactions via platforms like Twitch, YouTube, and Twitter have been completely different and often racist. Assaf said he has been told to “keep politics out of Smash” by people whose privilege allows them to ignore the suffering of others, but for the most part, he’s found players are genuinely uneducated on the circumstances and willing to listen.
“People’s understanding of the situation differs greatly from person to person, but I’ve had people talk to me about very current issues and about the history of the conflict, which shows they’ve thought about it for some time,” Assaf explained. “But the other side of that is definitely more common. I’ve had people tell me that they thought Palestine was a city. I’ve talked to people who thought that I’ve been talking about Pakistan the whole time. From the moment I switched, I’ve had people DM me to ask questions about the issue, and at tournaments plenty of Smashers I barely know have asked me about this and given me a chance to explain my perspective.”
Assaf doesn’t put much weight on his placing in the Super Smash Bros. Melee rankings for 2019, apart from what it can do to spread his message. He described being “a little upset” that he didn’t make the cut in 2018, but since then he has come to the conclusion that Smash players put too much emphasis on the rankings. That said, the reach of these rankings also means the Free Palestine tag will be seen and considered by a much larger portion of the community, allowing Assaf’s message to spread further than it already has. Since the announcement of his ranking, Assaf shared that he’s even been contacted by old high school classmates who don’t play Smash.
“I just want people to look into the perspective that Palestinians have,” Assaf said. “Even the facts alone don’t speak for how it feels to be stopped and searched in your own country and to be barred from most of it due to being Palestinian. Even when this is brought up in good faith in our media, the people speaking about it often aren’t Palestinian, so our perspective is lost.”
Ian Walker loves fighting games and loves writing about them even more. You can find him on Twitter at @iantothemax.