The portrayal of Muslims in videogames


Saladin Ahmed wrote an interesting article on the way Muslims have been portrayed in videogames since the 80s.

Here are a few extracts:

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.

[...]

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.

[...]

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.

[...]

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.

[...]

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.

Given the Ground Zero Mosque polemic and the threat of Iran as a nuclear power, the article has not been that well-received. Perhaps the timing isn't that great, or maybe it's indeed the perfect time to release such an article.

But anything that makes people sit down and think is a good thing. . .

Problem is, I can already see people throw their hands up in the air and scoff at Saladin's article. I'm afraid that one of the comment will also be echoed by many readers: "maybe if moderate muslims took a more front and center position against extremists, and took back your religion from facists that seek to define it and jihad as some war against non believers, instead of the internal struggle with faith."

Needless to say, this article won't solve any of the problems American Muslims face on a daily basis. Still, well worth a read. . .

25 commentaires:

Juhan said...

Great article!

machinery said...

oh please ....
this is just pathetic.
just another attempt of making something out of nothing.
i very much doubt that people who play games actualy consider the "role of muslims" in the game, how many such examples are there anyway ? 5 ????
wow !!!
a clear proof of intent over 30 years of pc games.
wow !!

Anonymous said...

I wonder how Christians are portrayed in Muslim countries? And is there a "Habib's Fantasy hotlist" that cares?

What Liberal America fails to realize is that tolerance is a two way street. Americans are "islamaphobes" because Muslims openly hate us and hate every religion other than their own. They continually fail to stand against extremism in their own camp and we see it and know it. Once they become more tolerant, then maybe we will too. Until then, fuck em.

Khaled said...

To Anonymous: Suspending your own standards of moral and ethical behavior -- such as tolerance -- until a country such as Saudi Arabia catches up with you is pretty pathetic. Do you really want to compare your country to Saudi Arabia? Is that even flattering? It also shows others that either you don't hold very strongly to such egalitarian ideals, or that you are very fickle or easily swayed.

Secondly, Muslims as a whole don't openly (or secretly) hate other religions, just like Christians or Jews as a whole don't hate Muslims. You forget that so-called Muslim countries often have sizable populations of non-Muslims that have lived there for centuries. Sure there are tensions, but most of those are cultural and not due to some religious injunction that states 'Hate the other'. Most groups have, in fact, intermarried.

Christians actually play a very prominent role in several Muslim countries. Egypt is the first country that comes to mind. Lebanon is nearly 50:50 in terms of Christians and Muslims.

As for Muslims stepping up to extremists, I think we do a comparable job to other large groups. The fact that hate groups in Florida can publicly decree a day of burning Muslim holy books without much public anger or denouncement, suggests to me that moderates on the other side of the aisle aren't able to reign in extremists either.

Anonymous said...

To the Anonymous poster above, "Americans are islamaphobes because Muslims openly hate us and hate every religion other than their own". I'd like to know where you derive such an absurd notion.

In any case, there is no sense in arguing with people who will probably never use a bit of common sense. I'd like to point people to this link that will put everyone's "fear" of a Ground Zero mosque to rest.

Pat, if you haven't seen this already, I highly recommend you do:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZpT2Muxoo0

Daniel Abraham said...

Anon said:

Muslims openly hate us and hate every religion other than their own.

I reply:

For the record, the Muslims I know are decent people, and I don't find them any more or less tolerant than the Mormons or Catholics or Jews or atheists I hang with.

The Jews I know didn't shoot Rabin. The libertarians I hang out with didn't set off the bomb in Oklahoma City. The Catholics I used to live with don't abuse children. My atheist buddies don't slaughter Christians. The Baptists I know would like Fred Phelps to STFU.

My problem with violent Islamic lunatics is that they're violent lunatics.

Cecrow said...

Wow, that makes Saladin's point right there. Muslims full of hate, etc ... Ever seen "Little Mosque on the Prairie"? Any Muslim coworkers? Friends, neighbours? No? Perhaps a case in point of someone whose impression has been formed solely on news headlines. And video games.

Anonymous said...

The problem I see goes back to the question Pat brought up. "maybe if moderate muslims took a more front and center position against extremists, and took back your religion from facists that seek to define it and jihad as some war against non believers, instead of the internal struggle with faith."

Which was also brought up by the anonymous poster you all are ragging on. I see Catholics condemn child abuse all the time. No one openly took the side of Tim McVay. If someone in our society act's criminal it is put down, railed against, and targeted until it is stopped. And to the one who compared book burning to radical extremism. c'mon. A little different than blowing your self and innocent other's up isn't it?

Our moderates stand against hate and crime. Yet when 9/11 happened the Muslim world looked the other way. And they still do now. Can any of you answer this question? Or will you just continue to attack the poster rather than address the issue. To me this is the bottom line that has not been addressed in 9 plus years.

Anonymous said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aisha#Age_at_marriage


They are pedos.

Saladin Ahmed said...

"Yet when 9/11 happened the Muslim world looked the other way. And they still do now."

Except...not so much:

http://www.muhajabah.com/otherscondemn.php

Daniel Abraham said...

Also for the record:

None of the pedophiles I've been unfortunate enough to know were Muslim. Granted, there have only been a couple.

Anonymous said...

American Muslims & Muslims as a whole don't condone the acts of violence done by extremists in the name of their religion.

Just as many Americans don't condone the violence that their government has perpetrated & continues to perpetrate around the world.

Jens said...

My impression is that the more religious folks are the more intolerant they become.

Look at examples from the three Abrahamic religions:
Fred Phelps - I know he's not speaking for most Christians but his "God hates fags" is in fact pretty consistent with the bible. It should be "God hates homosexuality not the homosexuals" but anyone familiar with the bible knows that it is not at all sympathetic with homosexuality. That goes for Judaism and Islam as well.
Look at the orthodox Jews. I'm not familiar enough to give names but they have very strange views from a modern perspective - but perfectly in line with their sacred texts!
In the Muslim world you have the Taliban, the Hamas and other extreme organizations that draw from the most sinister passages of the Quran - but this passages cannot be talked out of existance.

Look at the Dark Ages in Europe. Honestly, I wouldn't like to live in times like these.

I'm not very much familiar with Eastern religion so due to my ignorance I will not comment on them.

Now, I have the impression that since the Englightenment the Western world has strongly moved away from these extreme positions though they still exist here and there.
The vast majority of people are not very religious anymore (at least over here in Europe).
Many of the ones who called themselves Christian are largely unfamiliar with the bible in its entirety. They pick & chose the passages that are nice and ignore (or probably are truely ignorant) of the rest.
There is hair-raising stuff in the bible, lots of it in the Old Testament that is strongly at odds with the modern sense of justice and morality. But Christianity for the most folks seems to be reduced to a slight expansion of the "Love thy neighbor" doctrine - which isn't the worst.

As for the Muslim world, I think that people there are still more religious in general but the ordinary people also exclude much of the ethnocentric bits of Islam. I have journeyed in Morocco once and humbled by the hospitality I encountered.
There are several passages in the Quran that advise (or command) Muslims not to befriend unbelievers. Apparantly many Muslims ignore these passages and do make friends with Christians and other non-Muslims. I think this is wonderful but seems to affirm my assumption that the less strictly religious (or maybe I should say the more moderate) people are the more tolerant they become to others who are not members of their faith.

machinery said...

khaled, why this politics over video games ?

ridiculous.
but at least be honest.
in any arab country where sharia laws are state laws (as it is in most of them), the non muslims are dhimis, and are fringed.
maybe that's why 50% of christians in the PA have left to europe and the USA.

and the kopts and other christians have suffered and continue to, in egypt because they are not muslims.

who are you kidding ?

leave the politics out of the video games.

Saladin Ahmed said...

@ machinery

Blame me, not Khaled since I wrote the original article.

News flash: The US military uses video games as a recruitment tool. Those and other video games depict video-game versions of real-world conflicts in Iraq/Afghanistan etc. This has been going on for years. Going back to the old school, when Konami made an 80s jungle combat game, event though it featured aliens as the bad guys, what did they name it? CONTRA (look up the contras if you don't know who they were). Have you ever played Deus Ex? Call of Duty: MW?

*I* didn't put politics in video games, they're already there, for anyone to see...

Sooo...the politics are there already. Nobody *put* them there.

machinery said...

saladin -
the us military using it before going to real combat, has nothing to do with comercial use of videogames, and you know it, it's a different story.
about the games, again, how many are there like that ?
in cod : MW the russians are being manipulated by a traitor american general, how is that ?
i don't know the other games, and it doesn't realy matter.
prince of persia racist ? and anti islamist ?
please, i played it when i was about 17 ( i didn't like it all that much) and the idea of muslim related issues never came to mind, and i live in israel.
this article seems to want to take this into video games, and that's wrong.
some games may be in poor taste, but to make it into a racist world view ?
i disagree, i think you take it off the scale, into places that have no relations to video games.

Jens said...

I read the entire article (and probably should post this comment over there).

While I'm really not an expert on video games I'm reasonably familiar with the movies and other references that were mentioned in the essay.

I think Ahmed makes a very good point but I believe this to be more of a facet of a bigger problem - a tradition of ethnocentricity.

It is not uncommon that the own culture is seen as superior to others. This idea can be found throughout the world. It makes for an easy world view and doesn't require a lot of thinking.
Us - good; them - bad.
Real life, of course, is never as simple as that.

Lots of games and action movies root for this simplicity and willfully avoid (as I think) the complexities of real life.
The gamers / audience is meant to identify with the "hero" of the game / movie. An easy way is to make him/her one of "us" fighting some cardboard enemy: bad communists, evil Germans, Islamic terrorists - you name it.

Ahmed, I guess that you're more sensitive to the portrayal of Muslims in the media than non-Muslims may be, but I think that you read too much into some of your examples.

You mention the Libyans in "Back to the Future". Remember, the plot requires Doc Brown to obtain Plutonium, not exactly an every-day commodity. Turning to terrorists as a potential source kinda makes sense - in the framework of this movie at least.
Now, I'm too young to have been interested in world politics in 1985 (I was only 8 by then) but Libya was considered a rogue state at the time. I just read on Wikipedia that there was an incident a year earlier in the UK - a British police officer was shot by someone within the Libyan embassy which led to a break-down of diplomatic relations for a decade!
With this in mind, putting Libyan terrorists in the plot of SF flic made perfect sense and doesn't look like Islamophobia to me.

You also mention "24". Look, "24" is about Jack Bauer who works for the fictional agency CTU - Counter Terrorist Unit. It should come to nobody's surprise to see some terrorists as antagonists!
Season 1 being produced in late 2001, it would've been tempting to put Islamist terrorist in the plot, what with the general attitude after the 9/11 attacks. And yet, it turns out that the real enemy's background is the Balkan conflict. The motive is vengeance - no religious motivation, Islam / Muslims never mentioned once if I'm not mistaken.

The Evil Vizier such as seen in "Prince of Persia" and Disney's "Aladdin" is an archetype inspired by the Arabian Nights tales which is acknowledged as an exquisite piece of literature.
I don't see how drawing on this body of works should express disrespect for modern Muslims.
It's a completely different genre!

Jens said...

Historical, semi-historical and mythological movies and stories in general have a very long tradiion.
Look at the countless takes on Robin Hood for example. Or the tons of movies about the Roman Empire.
I've never heard an Englishman or an Italian complain that only their past is made into movies...

The line in the "Aladdin" opening song is probably meant to be cheeky but I happily concede that it was bad taste.
By the way, the yearly Disney movie is frequently set in a mythical past or a fairy tale environment.
More recently there were also a number of movies whose plot is set in a non-Western society (which is depicted favorably!): Pocahontas (Native Americans), Mulan (China), The Emperor's New Groove (Pre-Columbian South America) and others.

As I said, there has been a tendency in movies to focus too much on the own culture, the hero to be "one of us". But in the recent years I see a trend towards more realistic portrayal of other cultures.
I guess this might be an implication of the globalization. The world has become smaller and (Western) people are travelling the world more than 50 years ago.

I give you an example: Dr. No, the eponymous villain of the first James Bond movie, is supposed to be half-German, half-Chinese. Yet, the actor (a Canadian) doesn't look anything oriental to me.
That was 1962. 35 years later, oriental characters are portrayed by real Orientals (Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin in "Tomorrow Never Dies").

Maybe a similar trend is going on in computer games, people appreciating a more realistic approach rather than the simplistic friend-or-enemy pattern.
The video games you mention at the end apparently are fine examples of this. However, there might be folks who will prefer simpler (and more simplistic) ones, not because of the positive portrayal of Muslims in the game but because of the fact that it seems to be a rather complex game.

To summarize: I think that your claim that too many people show unjustified hostility towards Muslims in general is true.
Yet, I think that you read too much into some of the media examples you're mentioning.

Saladin Ahmed said...

A) I never said Prince of Persia was 'racist' or 'anti-Islamic.'

B) There have actually been hundreds of games based on real-world conflicts -- that means they have some political aspect to them.

C) When you argue about video games but have never heard of Contra, it makes the baby UUDDLRLRBA cry.

Khaled said...

To Machinery:

Sharia law is incorrectly thought of as the state law in several Arab and Muslim countries.
It is not.

Sharia law is not the state law in the following:
-Egypt (some sources say yes, but I'm Egyptian and can emphatically state that it is not.)
-Morocco
-Algeria
-Tunisia
-Iraq
-Lebanon
-Syria
-Jordan
-Turkey
-Indonesia

I don't know enough about Pakistan or the Gulf states, Iran, or Muslim countries in the heart of Africa. In any case, Sharia law (in its many many forms) may have informed local customs long ago, some of which have been adopted as law, but Sharia is not the official state in most Muslim countries.

As to Coptic Christian suffering in Egypt, it's hard for me to say bc I'm not Coptic and when in Egypt I'm in the large cities, where my impression has been that most people don't care what religion you are. The instances that I have read about have largely been in small villages. Not an excuse, not acceptable, but also far from the norm.

Frankly, myself and many Muslims do not consider the Middle East to be a beacon of what we believe are true Islamic principles, those being peace (one of our core values, and a phrase that grammatically related to the Arabic word for Islam), education, and cooperation. In many ways, some of the Western democracies allow for the practice of true Islamic values much more so than the intolerant and injust governments of the Middle East. That's why many Muslims emigrate from the Middle East to places such as Europe and North America. That's not to say that everything is perfect here, just that it's better.

I get frustrated when people say that Muslims don't do enough to condemn extremists. How much is enough? So many Muslim individuals and groups go out of their way to make public statements to condemn terrorism in all its forms, yet these groups don't have the public's attention. So before you complain that Muslims don't do enough (that includes you Pat), do us all a favor and take a look first. If that doesn't satisfy you, then maybe you can ask (nicely) your local mosque for some thoughts.

Otherwise, I just want to be left alone. I have a right to keep studying and working don't I? I don't have to interrupt my day and apologize and make public statements and youtube videos everytime a soldier tortures a detainee, or an entire village of innocents is wiped out by a drone attack, or some lunatic kills innocents in the name of his faith*. It's a sad enough state of affairs. Why complicate it by making everyone not involved feel guilty and make it feel like it's their fault? My neighbor didn't enslave anybody. He's not responsible for slavery, and he doesn't have to apologize for it. And he doesn't have to apologize for Timoth McVeigh, and he doesn't have to apologize for an extremist who tried to bomb an American Muslim mosque.

*The Qur'an expressly forbids the killing of innocents. It's not a grey statement. It's a blanket statement. There are reparations that can be made and offered, but by no means is it allowed to simply bomb or kill or fly airplanes at innocents.

This post is getting really long, so I will stop here.
-Khaled

Khaled said...

I get frustrated when people say that Muslims don't do enough to condemn extremists. How much is enough? So many Muslim individuals and groups go out of their way to make public statements to condemn terrorism in all its forms, yet these groups don't have the public's attention. So before you complain that Muslims don't do enough (that includes you Pat), do us all a favor and take a look first. If that doesn't satisfy you, then maybe you can ask (nicely) your local mosque for some thoughts.

Otherwise, I just want to be left alone. I have a right to keep studying and working don't I? I don't have to interrupt my day and apologize and make public statements and youtube videos everytime a soldier tortures a detainee, or an entire village of innocents is wiped out by a drone attack, or some lunatic kills innocents in the name of his faith*. It's a sad enough state of affairs. Why complicate it by making everyone not involved feel guilty and make it feel like it's their fault? My neighbor didn't enslave anybody. He's not responsible for slavery, and he doesn't have to apologize for it. And he doesn't have to apologize for Timoth McVeigh, and he doesn't have to apologize for an extremist who tried to bomb an American Muslim mosque.

*The Qur'an expressly forbids the killing of innocents. It's not a grey statement. It's a blanket statement. There are reparations that can be made and offered, but by no means is it allowed to simply bomb or kill or fly airplanes at innocents.

This post is getting really long (I had to split it), so I will stop here.
-Khaled

machinery said...

saladin ahmed, i nev4er mentioned the contra because it's not the issue here.
both you and khaled take this stupid debate to the west vs islamworld.
you take it there, no one else does.
and yet you are angry at so called antagonism in video games.
all i am saying, for the third time, is that some characters in some video games don't make a problem to anyone.
and i'm not being insensitive to others, i just think that people who play games, do it for fun, not for ideology.

Edgewalker said...

@Khaled
"I get frustrated when people say that Muslims don't do enough to condemn extremists. How much is enough?"

Maybe you should put in perspective the reaction of the muslim world to the rather lame danish Muhammad cartoons. Such things get noticed and it is hard for a group of people to get percieved by others in a positive way if a large part of their members behave like this.

machinery said...

edgewalker, the danish cartoon were racist, no doubt about it.
the only thing i had to say about it at the time, was how dare the muslims in the arab countries react like that when they do it to other religions and people )mainly israel and the jews) all the time, it is hippocritical.

Anonymous said...

'Maybe you should put in perspective the reaction of the muslim world to the rather lame danish Muhammad cartoons. Such things get noticed and it is hard for a group of people to get percieved by others in a positive way if a large part of their members behave like this.'

A large number? I cannot be sure of that but a) it was not a large number as in a 1/4 of all muslims and b) the behaviour of some justifies the treatment of all. Some Christians are extremist bigots should we treat them all like that.

Second point - SECTS! FACTIONS! You do not accuse all Christians of the behaviour of extremist Catholics you do not accuse all Catholics of being extremists. The bigoted, violence-endorsing extremists are always the most vocal group because a) they are the ones who believe in shouting their views at you and b) the news outlets focus on them. Anyone here recall the last news item they heard devoted to the Quakers? The Methodists? The non-orthodox Jews?
You do not veto the rights of an entire group due to the attitudes of a few of them that is why after the Second World War Germany was not subjected to total genocide.

Lastly, if some members of a group hurt or vilify the members of a second group that does not mean that members of that second group should be allowed to get away with vilifying or hurting members of the first group right back.

P.S. With regards to the original topic - I believe Mr Ahmed was making the point that as muslims are portrayed generally as villains in video games the CREATORS of video games NOT those who BUY and PLAY them are thinkingly or unthinkingly reinforcing and adding to an anti-muslim stereotype. I think some people have misread him as implying that to buy such video games is the Islamaphobic act.

P.P.S I know that I am banging my head on a brick wall.