It’s no secret that Arabs and Muslims are not exactly the darlings of American culture. We’ve been demonized in the US since at least since the 1970s, when the OPEC oil embargo and the Iran hostage crisis stoked new levels of hostility toward middle easterners in the American public. I experienced this as a child in the 1980s, when movies showed rabid Libyans gunning down Doc Brown in Back to the Future, and my real world saw the Arab community center in my Michigan hometown burned to the ground not once, but twice, by arsonists. Things haven’t gotten much better since – from the first Gulf War to the backlash for the attacks on the World Trade Center nine years ago, the dial on the “Muslims are dangerous” rhetoric has long been cranked to 11 in America. All this time, popular culture has played a role in shaping that rhetoric, from “classic” cheeseball action flicks like Chuck Norris’s Delta Force to contemporary “torturetainment” like 24. With a few notable exceptions, TV and movies have been telling Americans for years that all Arabs and Muslims are our enemies.

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Videogames have, often enough, contributed to this rhetoric, but games also complicate and even undermine such universal hatred. Like TV and Hollywood movies, the purposes of videogames are to make money, and to entertain. But that’s not all videogames do – games can also teach us how to think about “other” peoples, how to hate “bad guys,” and, once in a rare while, how to take a second, more critical look at the Us vs. Them dichotomy that we’ve been handed by other parts of our culture.

Tales of the Exotic East

In Orientalism (1978), his landmark study of Western attitudes toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, the late Columbia English professor Edward Said defined “Orientalism” as Western culture’s tendency to depict the Middle East through “a series of crude, essentialized caricatures.” Some of these caricatures “present [the Islamic world] in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.” Others are more positive, but still treat the Middle East as an exotic land perpetually stuck in the past. Gaming has as many examples of the latter as it does of the former.

The original Prince of Persia, a ground-breaking platformer released in 1989, is the game that made this mold. Its plot revolves around a blonde-ish foreigner who comes to ancient Persia, falls in love with the princess and is swiftly locked up in the Sultan’s dungeon by the evil vizier Jafar. He spends the course of the game escaping the dungeon. I can recall how refreshing it was for me as a young geek to sit there controlling the on-screen hero, hanging from ledges, avoiding spiked pits and quaffing potions – doing all the stuff that videogame heroes did – all while being the Prince of Persia! For a young Muslim gamer, it was nothing short of revolutionary. It wasn’t until years later that I reflected on the fact that the hero was blonde, while the evil swordsmen wore turbans.

A later game in a similar mode is Disney’s Aladdin. Arabs and Muslims have had a love-hate relationship with the Disney production of Aladdin since the film first hit theaters. On the one hand, coming after a decade and a half of demonization of Arab men in American action movies and TV shows, Aladdin featured a swashbuckling Middle Eastern character that Muslim boys could root for. On the other hand, the film (and thus, to a degree, the game developed by Sega) seems to equate “goodness” with whiteness. Aladdin and Jasmine’s personal style and phenotype are basically Ken and Barbie in Middle Eastern gear. But the corrupt vizier Jafar (why is the evil vizier always a Jafar?) is dark brown with a camel-sized snout. The opening theme song, “Arabian Nights” originally featured the lyrics “Oh, I come from a land /From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam/Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” before protests from Arab-American groups convinced Disney to change the offending lines in home video releases of the film. But the film and the game alike still depict the “Arabian” landscape as being a dirty, dangerous place populated by fat brown guys with huge swords.

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In general, such games set in the “Exotic East” mythologize the Arabian/Islamic past rather than demonizing it. But this is a mixed blessing. These games reinforce the notion that the only Arabs or Muslims worth rooting for are those who exist in the distant, mythical past – and those who are fighting other Arabian types. Videogames in general draw on the mythical past for their heroes – knights and wizards, ninjas and barbarians. But it’s worth noting that, as far as gaming is concerned, the safe, distant past is the only realm in which an Arab can be a hero.

Kill ’em All, and Let Allah Sort ’em out

In the James Cameron travesty True Lies, Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, after learning that her husband, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a secret government operative and all around bad-ass, asks if he’s ever killed anyone. “Yeah,” he replies, “but they were all bad.” Ah-nold then spends the rest of the movie blowing away Arabs.

It is this sort of spirit that’s on display in many videogames: Muslims are villainous killers whose only purpose is to serve as bullet sponges. Like Indians in a 1950s Western, the Arabs of these games are swarthy, savage, bloodthirsty madmen who gibber incoherently at the hero as they try to mow him down. There’s only one sane way to deal with such a threat – blow ’em all to Kingdom Come. And that’s just what we are encouraged to do in games like Metal Slug 2, Full Spectrum Warrior, Desert Strike, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, America’s Army, and so on.

Unlike the “Exotic East” heroes, the villains in these games are present-day Arabs and Muslims. In the slightly less offensive versions of these games, the bad guys are from imaginary or unspecified countries. But increasingly, as games have aimed for more and more supposed realism, the countries and villains depicted are real places where real people live. A truly realistic game would investigate the complexities of the conflicts they depict, and would show that the “hostile levels’ of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, etc., are in reality countries where the vast majority of the population are civilians – women, children, and men just trying to live their lives without being blown to pieces. The aliens of the Halo franchise are more humanized than the bad guys in America’s Army, who are really just endlessly spawning born-to-die vermin with AK-47s and rocket launchers.

This type of game reached its noxious pinnacle in 2008 with the homebrew throwback shooter Muslim Massacre: The Game of Modern Religious Genocide. The game was supposed to be a joke, however vicious and cruel – but its viral popularity illustrates that it tapped into a very powerful hatred of Arabs and Muslims. That hatred is evoked, if in less cartoonish form, even in more “thoughtful” tactical games like Full Spectrum Warrior.

In a disturbing but probably inevitable case of “two can play at that game,” Hezbollah developed a similarly simple-minded shooter called Special Force in 2003 in which the Muslim hero avenges his martyred comrades by blowing away Israeli soldiers. The graphics are not spectacular, but the message is unmistakable: a two-dimensional, blow-’em-away approach to entertainment can cut both ways.

Islam for Non-Idiots

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Distinct in some sense from both the mythologizing Arabian Nights-inspired games of yore and the “blow ’em away” games that are more popular nowadays is a very small handful of titles that attempt to depict something more complex than either sympathetic cartoonish nostalgia or negative killfests. This category is the least populated, but the games that fall into it are titans.

Sid Meier’s Civilization series has featured Saladin and other Middle Eastern historical figures as playable leaders, thus putting the usually-vilified Muslim character on a level playing field with Western characters. Even more impressively, Civ games have made a point of providing gamers with a historical/cultural context that’s sorely missing from other games. The Civilopedia from Civ III, for instance, displays a sophisticated understanding of Islamic culture that’s worlds away from America’s Army: “Jihad is the only type of war legitimized by Islam, yet the word itself is still misunderstood by Westerners. ‘Holy War’ is the often-used misleading translation of Jihad, which in fact is meant to consist of an individual’s or a communal ‘struggle’ against evil, within one’s self, and in order to protect Islam, but never as a tool for conversion.” It’s true that not every player will bother to look this up, but it’s worth noting that deeper exploration of the game entails improving understanding of Muslim culture, rather than killing more Muslims.

And then there’s Assassin’s Creed.

The tangled plot of the first Assassin’s Creed game is a labyrinth of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy. The game opens with the explanatory note “This work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.” It shows. Assassin’s Creed is quite possibly the most sophisticated and complex depiction of the Crusades that Western popular culture has yet produced. Muslims and Christians alike are shown to have fanatics, thinkers, madmen, thieves, and honorable warriors among their ranks. By analogical extension, it’s also one of the most nuanced depictions of contemporary Western and Islamic relations in American culture. From the perspective of this Muslim Arab gamer, Assassin’s Creed is a work of genius. And I swear it’s not just because, as a guy named Saladin, I get an ego-boost every time Altair passes by the rabble-rousing street preacher who says “We must be strong, my brothers! Strong like Saladin!”

Both Civ III and Assassin’s Creed also locate their Eastern protagonists in the past. But they offer a more nuanced view of the past by calling into question the whole simplistic good/evil divide. More provocatively, they potentially put the player in the surprising position of a Muslim hero facing off against Western enemies.

The relatively short history of videogame depictions of Muslim characters so far closely mirrors the rest of American popular culture, but that doesn’t mean that games must continue to follow suit. Intriguing possibilities for a more honest portrayal of Middle Easterners are already presenting themselves. Games like Assassin’s Creed and Civilization have paved the way for diverse depictions of Muslim heroes. More controversially, the Medal of Honor franchise – in a move that has infuriated armchair patriots but has met with mixed reactions from actual soldiers – will soon complicate simplistic hero/villain dichotomies by offering the option to play as the Taliban during multiplayer matches. I don’t know that such moves will forever solve the dilemma of the Middle East’s depiction in gaming. But I do know that I’m not the only Muslim geek out there hoping to spend more of my gaming hours jumping off buildings in medieval Jerusalem and fewer of them blowing away guys who look like my Dad.

Saladin Ahmed‘s fiction has been nominated for the Nebula and Campbell awards. His Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy novel “Throne of the Crescent Moon” is forthcoming from DAW books.

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