we will be represented as the 'other' people, the ones you have to kill.
January 23, 2020 11:41 AM   Subscribe

A How-To Guide for Muslim Representation in Video Games [Discussion at GDC from 2018][24:30] “Islam has an image problem. And it's not just recent world events that have led to an undue level of scrutiny and prejudice. The media has been pigeonholing Muslims for years. You need only watch a few episodes of 24 or Homeland to see that Muslims, particularly those of Arab descent, are almost always painted as the enemy. "The current political and cultural climate is the reason in media we are the bad guys right now," said Rami Ismail, a co-founder of Vlambeer, an independent game studio based in the Netherlands. The same broad brush, he says, applies to video games too. The Call of Duty franchise, for example, is rife with Muslim villains -- like Khaled Al-Asad in Modern Warfare. "That's Call of Duty, over and over. Shoot all the Arabs," said Ismail. "Muslim blood is the cheapest in the world." Ismail spoke last week on a panel at the annual Game Developers Conference about Muslim representation in video games. The presentation's tone was a sombre one. [via: Engadget]

• Shattering Muslim stereotypes with Islamic Relief's mobile game [GamesIndustry.biz][Game Trailer]
“Representation is enormously important to Ahmad, and this title gave him the chance to "combine the two dominant strands" of his life. To date, most Muslims in games "usually tend to be terrorists you have to shoot," but Virtue Reality introduces a wide array of managers and specialists to help you on your project. Their religion is not vital to their role in the game; instead these characters are hired for their expertise. Ahmad believes subtle yet positive depiction is the way to improve representation, not only in games but in all areas of life. "It's about normalising mainstream Muslim activity as opposed to pushing people to be more inclusive," he says. "The way you get more people to see that Muslims are not necessarily a threat is to see Mo Farrah winning races, to see Mohamed Salah doing the sujud after scoring a goal, to hear Liverpool fans singing 'If he scores another few, then I'll be Muslim too.' They're in the pub singing that, and that to me is beautiful. That's a start... It's about progress."”
• Our Favourite Muslim Characters in Video Games [Kakuchopurei.com]
“While many Muslim characters in games tend to accentuate certain negative stereotypes, these are several that buck the trend and show that Muslims can be portrayed in a positive (or neutral) light. [...] Battlefield 1 was unique amongst most FPS titles in that it featured World War 1 as its primary setting, as well as a campaign that focused on different protagonists from various fronts of the war. One of those War Stories starred a female Muslim protagonist of Arab Bedouin ethnicity named Zara Ghufran, who participated in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The story was ground-breaking, portraying a strong female Muslim in a leading role. She works alongside T.E. Lawrence AKA Lawrence of Arabia (you know, from that classic 1962 movie). In the game, she’s instrumental in destroying the Armored Train Canavar and weakening the Ottoman’s foothold in Saudi Arabia.”
• Assassin’s Creed: Playing It Straight with Islamic History On the Xbox 360 [The Muslim Link]
“In a time when an entire generation is fed imagery of Muslims in derogatory cinematic roles, it is interesting when the Muslim character in a video game is not a antagonist but instead a beloved ally of the protagonist. It’s even more interesting when the character is a historical figure who lived in what historians consider the golden era of Islam. [...] The appreciation for historical accuracy is always worthy of some respect. With the history of Islam so largely misunderstood, there is something to be said about the successful design of a historically accurate 16th Century Constantinople that is neither unreletabely intellectual nor completely void of intelligence. While we demand it in documentaries, news reports, and textbooks, the content of those mediums may not be reaching the masses. Popular culture as it manifests itself in movies and video games has an enormous impact on the perceptions of entire demographics and while many don’t set out in search for historical context on the next level of the latest iteration of a video game franchise perhaps there is room for a quick lesson or two where you may least expect it. ”
posted by Fizz (18 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
There is a fascinating piece of fiction that touches on this subject in the New Yorker:
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/06/playing-metal-gear-solid-v-the-phantom-pain
posted by bitslayer at 12:30 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


The current political and cultural climate is the reason in media we are the bad guys right now

We've been the bad guys since the breakup of the Soviet Union meant they couldn't be the default baddies anymore. Media could have gone with domestic players after the Oklahoma City bombings but that would require a bit more nuance and would probably risk alienating a large chunk of their audience. If China weren't such a big market I could see them taking the USSR's place but they are a big market and no Muslim country is so here we are.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:33 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]


I came to also recommend the story that bitslayer posted.
posted by tofu_crouton at 12:35 PM on January 23


Heh. There's already a post about that.
posted by Fizz at 12:39 PM on January 23 [3 favorites]


We've been the bad guys since the breakup of the Soviet Union meant they couldn't be the default baddies anymore

Not to get too sidetracked on the subject of Russians as bad guys but I have been noticing a lot more of the stereotypical Russian bad guy creep back into film/television. Everything with Trump/Putin, it's become a bit more fashionable to vilify them again.

That being said, Islam/Muslims = terrorist has never really gone away and is just too entrenched in the media. It's why we need diverse voices in creative spaces so that this narrative can be pushed back against and challenged.
posted by Fizz at 12:44 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


I just recently read John Varley's Dark Lightning, and one of the events in recent history in that book is a massive Muslim terrorist attack with basically all the stereotypes. It's not the only sociopolitical bit of stuff from his recent work that's got me thinking I might not read him anymore, but it was one of the most blatantly off-putting bits.
posted by Foosnark at 12:49 PM on January 23


I got to see Rami do a short talk a few years ago where, at the start, he walked through a basic tutorial of one variation of Arabic script, getting folks to get up to speed on a few letters and theirs sounds, and words made from those letters, and the way that ligatures depend on the placement of a given letter at the start or terminus or middle of a word, just sort of blitzing through this in five minutes without explanation and making the audience shout along, before putting up an image from some game (maybe CoD, something milsim-ish with a big budget) and asking the audience what was wrong with the sign in Arabic script in the screenshot. To which everybody in the audience, five minutes into their first exposure to the language, could confidently shout "it's backwards!".

It was a good punchy setup for a good short talk about some of the lazy disconnectedness of all this stuff as part of the problem. Producers not knowing or caring enough to sanity-check the set dressing, nobody in the production high enough and eyes-on enough who could say "uh, that's literally backwards". As a specific example the signage thing is a little thing, less of a problem by far than associating a whole swath of religious and cultural identities as The Baddies You're Gonna Shoot, but it's all of a piece it feels like.
posted by cortex at 12:50 PM on January 23 [13 favorites]


When I worked in QA, I once bugged that a sign on a wall in a middle eastern city level was clearly a copy of another Arabic sign, just mirrored left-to-right (I can't actually read Arabic, it's just the sort of thing one notices after running around a single level for hours on end). It was closed as "will not fix" because the developer thought no one would notice.

On preview. Uh, yeah. It might have very well been that one mentioned above.
posted by subocoyne at 12:53 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]


Here's another talk by Osama Dorias at Casual Connect in 2018. Also worth your time.
posted by Fizz at 12:54 PM on January 23


It's why we need diverse voices in creative spaces so that this narrative can be pushed back against and challenged.

I feel like it doesn't even need much pushback. Nothing is really hanging on the bad guy being Muslim or anything else really. Just make up some random cause for your terrorist, have their skin colour match whatever is chosen for the player and you're done.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:09 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Here is the talk by Rami Ismail Cortex mentions. The screenshot is from Battlefield 3. The game I was talking about was Shadow Ops: Red Mercury, a game which game out years before that one. So, apparently this happens a lot.

In case anyone's wondering about more recent games, the very first line of dialog in the new Call of Duty is the leader of Al-Qatala (or "AQ" for short... hmm...), from the fictional country of Urzikstan, saying "Our war is not for our faith." He is saying this via digital video to a group of men in the back of a van who go on to do a suicide-vest attack on London. I guess it's left as an exercise for the player what faith he could possibly be referring to.

There are also friendly Arab characters in the game. They make no mention of their religion either. Friendly Arabs speak accented English, even to each other when there are no English-speakers around (even, in one notable example, as children). Enemy Arabs speak Arabic to one another. Russians are treated similarly, speaking English dialog and having Russian "chatter". At one point, Captain Price says a line of Arabic to someone. I believe he only does so once.

This says to me that they developers/publisher are at least giving some thought to how the stories they tell about the Middle East are going to be perceived, but still want to have their cake and eat it too. "You're going to be shooting a LOT of Muslims, but not BECAUSE they're Muslims. okay?"

As mentioned above, this sort of thing would happen less if there were more diverse voices in development. The issues that actually get caught and addressed in development are often even more egregious than the examples in this post and often easily avoidable with even cursory research. It sticks in my craw because I do enjoy FPS games, quite a bit, but the lazy or often mean-spirited approach to storytelling within them, when it comes to depicting the "real world", turns the wholesome experience of slaughtering one's enemies into slaughtering someone else's idea of what kind of people are "enemies".

Looking forward to Doom Eternal.
posted by subocoyne at 2:09 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


Kumail Nanjiani's bit on the Karachi level in Call of Duty calls this dynamic out. The disjunction he points out between the fact that individual hairs on characters' heads are lovingly animated and the fact that the street signs in that level are in Arabic and not Urdu is pretty poignant.
posted by invitapriore at 4:50 PM on January 23 [7 favorites]


The disjunction he points out between the fact that individual hairs on characters' heads are lovingly animated and the fact that the street signs in that level are in Arabic and not Urdu is pretty poignant.

Such a good point. They lump all brown bodies and even spaces as this monolith. They don't care to get to know each individual or space as unique and worthy of attention. So sad.

*sighs*
posted by Fizz at 6:14 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


We've been the bad guys since the breakup of the Soviet Union meant they couldn't be the default baddies anymore.

Back To The Future came out in 1985. The sea change in American media was probably the Iran Hostage Crisis, which is ridiculous because Persians aren't Arabs. But we're nuance-blind generally.
posted by hippybear at 8:25 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Back to the Future was Libyans. Maybe Qaddafi had done something when they were writing the script for it.

To me True Lies was where it became clear that this was how things were going to go. Even then I figured it was better to be the bad guys than not on screen at all. For video games you don't even get the benefit of Arab/brown actors getting jobs.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:51 PM on January 23


Back to the Future was Libyans.

Yes which aren't Iranians. We lack any sort of discrimination when it comes to that region in general, which is a failure of our education system and of our media system to actually inform our people about how these things all work.

And yeah, probably Qaddafi did a thing. Or Libyans were being used as a proxy for that entire region, which is more likely.
posted by hippybear at 11:12 PM on January 23


Thanks so much for posting! I love Rami Ismail, his Twitter always has super thoughtful commentary.

I went looking for ownvoices Muslim indie games to play and found that there isn't even much representation in the Twine/indie scene, but there is one specific genre with a strong Muslim presence -- dress-up games focused on hijab fashion. Some of them have more than 100k+ downloads, and it's really cool seeing the wide variety of fashion senses and art styles.

I also get a lot of ads for Game of Sultans, which is set during the Ottoman Empire, but uhhhh that's not exactly a thoughtful and nuanced representation of the historical time period and culture.
posted by storytam at 12:18 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]


There is a fascinating piece of fiction that touches on this subject in the New Yorker:
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/06/playing-metal-gear-solid-v-the-phantom-pain


holy shit this is beautiful
posted by Chaffinch at 5:31 AM on January 24


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