Video Games Are Still Failing Arabs When It Comes To Representation
Surprising absolutely no one, video games are still failing Arabs. As recently reported by our own Eric Switzer, a press event for Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 highlighted just how casual violence towards Arabs is in America, and the Western world at large. Years of demonisation and dehumanisation across all forms of media have contributed to a culture where it’s okay to dress people up as Arabs and have games journalists and influencers shoot at them for target practice.
So many games take place in nameless desert countries, where white soldiers or spec ops will storm in, shoot all the brown locals in the face, and then pat themselves on the back for liberating the region and its helpless inhabitants. It’s the same playbook used by the U.S. military. Call of Duty, Battlefield 3, Army of Two, Medal of Honor, and Conflict: Desert Storm are just some of the countless big games that have players kill scores of nameless Muslims for the sake of supposed democracy.
Arabs are seen as so dehumanised, so replaceable, that Six Days in Fallujah – a game that touts itself as a realistic depiction of urban warfare – has shown off a decision to procedurally generate Arab neighbourhoods so that players “never know what’s behind the next door.” Given the real historical context of the fighting in Fallujah, it’s most likely an Arab man who wasn’t allowed to leave the city because they were deemed to be of combatant age. We’re so disposable we’re being procedurally generated now.
All this negative representation wouldn’t be such a big issue if Arabs were represented positively even half as much as we’re used for nothing more than canon fodder. Altair from Assassin’s Creed is the biggest Arab character that comes to mind, and he’s a massive prick for most of the game. Faridah Malik in Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an Arab pilot, something that I’m sure makes a lot of people scared – and Faridah is Arab in name only. She’s a Michigan-born cowgirl turned jockey. She sends a clear message that she’s ‘one of the good ones’, an Arab who has been so thoroughly Americanised she couldn’t possibly be a threat. She is apparently a practising Muslim, though I can’t recall any mention of that during my time playing through Deus Ex.
CI Games, the developer of Sniper Ghost Warrior – seriously, even that name sounds like every war-hungry American teenager’s wet dream – has issued an apology about the PR event, but it misses the point completely. The company asserts that the game is set in a purely fictional place, with a purely fictional narrative. Our review of Sniper Ghost Warrior highlights that there is a clear Arab influence on the game. An innocent father, speaking in an Arab accent, is worried about his young daughter getting a cellphone. Is it a rare moment of humanisation, designed to make you consider a different approach to the game? No. You get extra cash for killing him. It’s also telling that CI Games is a Polish company, meaning either the American depiction of Arabs has become so pervasive throughout the West – or so lucrative in gaming – that it is the only perspective our medium has on the Middle East.
While I initially thought making the man a caring father was a good thing, it actually brings up a negative Arab stereotype: that all Arab men hate women and want to control their daughters. Cell phones, as a cultural object, represent youthful freedom. To deny his daughter of that is to deny the very ‘freedom’ Americans are out there fighting for every day – they do it in other countries though, not their own.
Saying your game isn’t set in the real world doesn’t divorce it from real world politics. Animal Farm has an entirely fictional narrative, but no one denies its politics – so why do so many still angrily type “It’s just a game bro, it’s not even real, who cares?” When games present Arabs as nothing more than dirty, barbaric peasants, and that representation creeps its way into press events based on military training, then I care – and any decent person should care too. Fictionalising a place doesn’t skirt around the issue of poor representation. An Arab by any other name is still an Arab.
There are so many ways to represent Arabs well. Even though I jabbed at Altair for being a dick, I don’t think that’s poor representation. We’re people, and some of us are dicks. Assassin’s Creed doesn’t just depict us as savages who live in huts and ruins; the cities we explore are vibrant and teeming with life, a technological marvel at the time. Turns out hiring a team of multicultural people with various faiths and beliefs actually benefits representation in a game.
If a game just absolutely, positively has to feature gritty, desert combat, then look no further than Texas, Arizona, Nevada, or Utah. Instead of Arab shanty towns, how about American ones? Plenty of those exist too. It doesn’t even need to be a real place, call it Blutah and have spec ops soldiers fight some militia insurgents – after all, Blutah is about as blatantly connected to its real world inspiration as the apparently fake countries so many devs put in their game. I was excited at the prospect of Far Cry 5 when it first came out, because there was finally a game about religious fundamentalist extremists who weren’t Muslim. You don’t need to go as far as the Middle East to find women being oppressed on the grounds of religion – just look to Poland, where abortion is still functionally illegal.
We get characters in some online games, which I do appreciate. Shaheen in Tekken 7, and Ana and Pharah in Overwatch are all Arab, but I’m not sure how far representation in these games can really go – just look at what happened with Poison Ivy in Injustice 2. It’s nice to play as an Arab and beat or shoot the shit out of people, sure, but without a narrative, it feels like a consolation prize rather than getting first place. These games don’t tell stories about their characters, so they’re still lacking in terms of actual representation.
I’m angry, because I know the video game industry can do better than this. Collectively, developers donated over 1,000 games and players raised almost $1 million in support of Palestine recently, and that’s amazing – but we can’t pretend gaming isn’t actively harming the Arab community, because it is. Constant misrepresentation and demonisation can only be fixed by hiring more Arab game developers and funding more Arab-made games. At the very least, Arab consultants should be hired before the next gritty desert shooter is made. Just set the damn thing on Mars, not in the Middle East.
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