Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Better Representing Muslims: A Few Ideas

Robert Rath | 13 Jun 2013 16:00
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Diversify Your Writing Team

Modern Warfare would probably be a little different were it actually written by a Muslim - or even if the team brought on a cultural expert. The fact is, we really love to talk about consulting military veterans when putting together military shooters, but those guys are rarely cultural experts and they always look at a country from the perspective of an outsider. It could really help to bring someone in who really knows a country, rather than has seen it primarily through a gun sight or a camera lens. Someone who can give the environments and people a greater sense of authenticity or suggest a plotline other than ERMAHGERD NUCLEAR MISSILES GO AMERICA SHOOT EVERYTHING THAT MOVES. Perhaps taking down an underground militant network that's been targeting Afghan leaders or hunting a particularly talented bomb-maker. Or maybe Nathan Drake's next adventure will put him on the side of the Jordanian police, tracking down a stolen artifact.

That is, of course, if we're truly as interested in "realism" as we say we are. I suspect when studio PR reps use that word, what they really mean are "realistic guns." These days, we spend more energy making a gun true to life than we spend on the person in its crosshairs.

Translators and Allies

What's so frustrating about the negative portrayal of Muslims in most military shooters is that it would be so easy to fix. While the War on Terror is primarily focused on combating Islamic extremists, neither the U.S. military nor its intelligence services would be able to operate without Muslims - both local security partners and translators.

Games tend to ignore any aspect of war that doesn't involve shooting, but in reality counterinsurgency operations hinge on the ability to work with and understand local needs and grievances. Likewise, intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement require assets that not only speak Arabic and Pashto, but can pass unnoticed in undercover operations. After all, when you hear about the FBI selling fake bomb parts to an aspiring terrorist, who do you think is impersonating the Al Qaeda operative? Sven Olafson from Lake Wobegon?

Translators in particular helped the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. They interacted with civilians, made sure local forces understood orders and served as cultural advisors to the military. As well as serving on patrol, some undertook dangerous operations with special forces - a Pakistani-American translator served during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

"Translators serving along with U.S. Military branches put their life in danger as much as the soldiers do with one exception: the majority are unarmed," says Zuber Hewrami, whose company Hewraman Consultation, LLC recruits translators for the U.S. military. According to Hewrami, many translators join seeking an expedited path to U.S. citizenship or for educational incentives. Others are just patriotic or hope to work in government. "Some join because they think they can help the host country with building a bridge between locals and our soldiers." Without them, the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan - and most of the war reporting from the region - would've been dead on arrival. It's led to a tight relationship between combat interpreters and their soldiers, each protecting the other in turn.

Being an interpreter is a dangerous profession. They take the same small arms fire as the soldiers they work with, the same IEDs. Most fight with nothing other than a flak jacket and their voice. Militias have been known to assassinate interpreters and their families, a threat that became so prevalent that many took to wearing masks. Those that die in the line of duty rarely make the headlines - a dozen local interpreters can get killed in an attack, and the media will report "no military casualties." As the U.S. continues to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan, local translators increasingly find that the visas the State Department promised them aren't forthcoming.

Making a combat interpreter part of your squad, or working with local security forces, could mitigate some of the problems with military shooters. Crucially, it could put a human face on the local population and show that the country contains a diversity of opinion - reinforcing that we're supposed to be fighting against a radical ideology, not a people. And playing as an interpreter, say in place of a vehicle section, could create some interesting gameplay opportunities as you try to dodge bullets while transmitting orders to a local commander. Medal of Honor (2010) made some laudable steps in this direction. During an early mission the players work alongside the Afghan National Army, and in another the player rescues a tribal informant who gives his opinion of the Taliban - saying they're little more than violent thugs.

If we're going to make games about the War on Terror, let's stop pretending that we're the only ones fighting.

Just Regular People

Developers could use any of the suggestions I've given in this article, but here's a revolutionary idea: how about just depicting Muslims as normal people? Is it so difficult to imagine that the people you'd run into while investigating a murder or fending off the apocalypse would be one of the 2.6 million ordinary Muslim-Americans in this country? Omid from The Walking Dead is a great example. He's Persian-American, but beyond that he's also a history buff, comic relief, and puts out such good vibes that Clementine doesn't mind him swearing. For all intents and purposes he's just a nice dude, his ethnic background completely secondary to his likable personality. While characters like Omid aren't cultural bridges in the educational sense - that is, he doesn't advance the player's understanding of Persian culture - his unforced inclusion sends the message that he's a person shaped, rather than defined, by his background.

Games really could use more Omids.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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