I think it’s pretty fair to say games haven’t represented Muslims very well. Not only have the last ten years been a cavalcade of games about shooting Middle Eastern “terrorists,” but even outside the FPS market, fantasy games trade on stereotypes for the faux-Muslims they portray. Untrustworthy merchants. Fat, opulent despots. Diabolical sorcerers. Assassins in head scarves. Noble but savage Bedouins. Muslim writers and those who’ve studied the Middle East have pointed out these problematic depictions for years – so let’s focus on something else. Let’s look at a few steps we can make to fix the problem.
Stop Lumping Everyone Together
A couple of Iraqi students stayed at my dorm as part of an exchange program during college. When I first met them I wanted to make an impression, so I mentioned that my sister was a Middle East journalist who’d lived in Beirut for three years.
I thought they’d be impressed by her bravery, or that maybe we’d find kinship in it – instead they snickered. “Beirut,” snorted one. “Beirut is Disneyland Middle East.”
Since the 19th century Westerners have attempted to lump the Arab world together without understanding its complexities. Colonial administrators often drew national borders with rulers and T-squares, heedless of the different (often competing) ethnicities and cultural groups they blocked in together. One of the legacies of this insane policy is our inability to define the region ethnically or even geographically. “Arab” fails because many countries like Iran neither speak Arabic nor have Arabic genealogy. “Middle East” leaves out countries like Libya and Afghanistan, which share religious or cultural roots with the region. “The Muslim world” leaves out Christian minorities, not to mention Israel and its Palestinian population. The current favorite, the slightly weasel-word term “the Arab world” misfires just as badly as all the rest – it’s about as helpful as making generalizations about the English, Scots, Irish, Americans, and Canadians because they all speak English. Westerners desperately want to group the multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual people of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia under one banner but the whole region resists labels.
Each country contains a multitude of identities. Just like a New Yorker isn’t the same as a Californian, an Iraqi from Tikrit isn’t the same as an Iraqi Kurd from Sulaymaniyah. Even though both might identify as Sunni Muslims their politics might skew in opposite directions due to Saddam favoring most Iraqi Sunnis but practicing genocide against the Kurds. Just like in the U.S., political feelings vary province by province, city by city, block by block, family by family and person to person. You can talk about the “Arab world” all you want, but it won’t stop the Jordanians and Lebanese from sneering at “Saudi opulence” using the disparaging term “Gulfies.”
When creating foreign characters, it’s better to be specific. A little research can go a long way. Instead of throwing a stereotype at the player, think things through – is a character or group Muslim or Christian? What ethnic group are they? What language do they speak? How does that inform who they are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing? Understanding that “the Arab world” contains a vast array of cultures, languages, traditions and political beliefs – some at odds with the United States’ regional goals, some not – gets you a long way to breaking down the stereotyped Western view of Muslims.
Fantasy and Sci-Fi Settings Are No Excuse
You might think fantasy and sci-fi settings would be a respite from stereotypical portrayals, but they’re not. “I think our culture in general has a lot of fantasy-fueled misconceptions about the supposedly dystopic Middle East and the people who live there,” says Saladin Ahmed, author of the Arabian Nights-themed fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon. “So those misconceptions tend to pop up in our stories, whatever the genre might be.”
It’s hard to miss when you look for it: Skyrim‘s “Redguard” loading screen features a Moorish-looking character in a head wrap, peering into a soul gem with one hand on his scimitar – pretty much the default pose for an covetous bandit prince. The Covenant are religious radicals prosecuting a holy war under the order of a prophet, and Grunts frequently suicide bomb the player with plasma grenades. Game of Thrones populates its eastern lands with barbarians, sorcerers, deceitful merchants and slave kingdoms. “If, broadly speaking, science fiction looks to an imaginary future and fantasy to an imaginary past, all of the -isms that taint our collective cultural imagination are going to seep into those imagined eras and worlds,” says Ahmed. “If one is writing underwater, one is going to get wet. And right now our culture is swimming in ignorance about and hatred toward Muslims.”
Throne of the Crescent Moon (which has earned “Best Novel” nominations in both the Hugo and Nebula Awards) is a great example of writing about a fantasy “Arabian” culture without resorting to stereotypes. Though the novel has its fair share of bandit princes, cruel Khalifs, holy warriors and Bedouins, every portrayal is three-dimensional. Characters feel like people rather than props. Demon hunter Adoulla might at first glance look like just another old sorcerer, but he’s also a kind, if cynical, pleasure-seeker. Think a potion-wielding Falstaff after ten miles’ walk in the rain. He’s more familiar than foreign. “Part of this is just the simple-yet-uphill work of reminding readers that there are heroes, idiots, cowards, geniuses, libertines, revolutionaries, despots, fanatics, pranksters, murderers and loud farters in every culture,” says Ahmed. “The challenge is doing so without defaulting to a facile ‘We’re all the same!’ equivalency.”
That subtle alchemy – creating characters who’re culturally different but still relatable and human – is a skill that can change people’s preconceptions. “The older I get, the more skeptical I am of [novelists’] ability to seriously transform things on any kind of macro level,” says Ahmed. “For me it’s all about the micro. I get emails every week from readers who say they’ve had their world opened up a bit by my stories of (mostly) Muslim cowboys, cyber-soldiers and monster hunters.”
As Throne of the Crescent Moon attests, you don’t have to throw away all of the old imagery for fear of causing offence. Developers just need to make sure their scheming viziers or tubby spice traders amount to more than what appears on the surface. Stereotypes cease to be stereotypes when you flesh them out into real characters.
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.