Muslim blood is cheap.
It’s easy to depict Muslims as the villains in video games these days. How we show Muslims in video games is slanted in a way that reflects the storytelling biases of Westerners who don’t follow Islam. And the voices and perspectives of a minority group that consists of more than a billion people around the world is rarely represented in mainstream video games. These were some of the conclusions of a panel dubbed “Muslim representation in video games” at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
The panel’s moderator was journalist Imad Khan of The Daily Dot. It included Farah Khalaf, game artist and a board member of the New Zealand Game Developers Association; Ramil Ismail, indie game developer and cofounder of Vlambeer; and Romana Ramzan, game design lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. (Ismail will be a speaker at our upcoming GamesBeat Summit 2016 event on May 3 and May 4 in Sausalito, California).
The panel wasn’t meant to be just a gripe session. It was aimed at showing the Eastern perspective on Western games, and it was intended to educate developers who are working on historical fiction on nonfiction video games, giving us all a better understanding of the feelings of Muslim gamers and the value of considering game narratives from new angles. The consensus on how to fix this? More diversity.
Here’s an edited transcript of the panel.
Imad Khan: Why is this panel necessary? It goes without saying that the current election in the United States has been fueled by certain prejudices. There’s been latent animosity erupting in the last year, leading to unwarranted criticism and actual violence.
The role the media plays in forming how we perceive the world has proven to be far more pronounced than we would have assumed. The reason this discussion needs to happen is simple. The Western world makes games. The Western world informs what is popular around the world. Dominant influences and large corporate structures greenlight ideas that appeal greatly to a Western audience.
By thinking of the U.S. audience first, that creates stories that favor one side over the other. Because the U.S. acts as an entertainment hegemon, it requires a responsibility among us to be cognizant of biases we may inadvertently inform. If we truly believe that gaming can be everyone, it’s time to stop looking through a single lens and hash out some of these issues through meaningful discussion.
I’m Imad Khan. I’m a freelance game reporter and Esports reporter, mainly for the Daily Dot. With me is Rami Ismail, who I assume many of you know. He’s an independent developer from the Netherlands, known for being outspoken on subjects of representation, especially from the Arab world. He heads Vlambeer, which recently released Nuclear Throne.
Next up is Farah Khalaf. She’s a student at the Auckland University of Technology. She’s on the board of the New Zealand Game Developers Association and works as a community organizer for events like Workshop for Kids and Teens. Then we have Dr. Romana Ramzan, who is a lecturer in game design at Glasgow Caledonia University and was named one of Develop’s 30 Under 30, and is one of the top 100 women in games in the U.K. according to MCV. She was also one of the main founders and organizers of the Scottish Game Jam, and was previously a director of Global Game Jam.
Let’s go through some definitions. Who is a Muslim? It’s someone who follows the teachings of the grand prophet Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allāh. That little blurb is like an honorific that Muslims use after prophets and people who are highly regarded in Islam. My first question would be for Dr. Ramzan. When I see a character in a video game who doesn’t look obviously American, how do I know that character’s Muslim? What signifies a Muslim?
Romana Ramzan: At a very high level, what encapsulates who a Muslim is, it’s core belief. The in-game representation of Muslims, though, generally exploits typical clichés and generalizations.
To backtrack a little, Muslims have contributed significantly to the civilization of the Western world – in science, education. It was two Muslims who founded the first university. Things like health and algebra, the coffee we all drink, that all came about through the Muslim world. For a people and a religion that’s given so much, we’re now often reduced to four or five stereotypes.
That’s usually summed up by things like the clothes you wear. For instance, Muslim women will wear the hijab. A man will probably have a beard and may be wearing national dress. Muslims are portrayed as quite aggressive. They all like to kill things. That’s what usually transcends into games, unfortunately. In games we’ll be represented as the other people who you need to kill. You’ll see a dark-skinned character running around shouting “Allahu Akhbar” here and there carrying an AK-47 and lobbing bombs. If he isn’t doing that, maybe he’s in the company of a camel or a goat.
That’s how I feel Muslims, in the games I’ve played and the media we consume, have been portrayed. To be reduced to that is a travesty. It’s disheartening.
Khan: Going on with that point and discussing what is representation—It’s constructed through symbols and images, and as you were saying, it’s all over the place, but generally stereotypical at the moment.
The current representation we see in the media—I like this definition, by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “The Arab world is 23 countries, several world religions, a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups, and hundreds of years of history reduced to a series of images.” This is what’s often referred to as Islamophobia, defined as an intense dislike or fear of Islam, especially manifested as hostility or prejudice toward Muslims.
When we look at representation of Muslims in games, we have to look at some of the characters we see. Maybe the most notable example is Altair, the hero of the first Assassin’s Creed game. I was talking to Rami about this a little while ago. You have something to say about his name, right?
Rami Ismail: It’s funny. Ubisoft did a really good job with the name Altair Ibn-La’Ahad. The story of this character—His father was killed and he grew up without parents, raised by the fictional Assassin’s order. I thought it was very well-done, the way they created a character who, in that tradition, had patriarchal labels and names. It was interesting to see. Then they released some backstory, and they named his father. They also named him Ibn-La’Ahad, “without a father.”
I guess that’s the way we do things in the Western world. Your last name is your last name and it goes from father to child. In the Arab world, though, having your father be named the exact same thing as you is kind of…weird? Altair’s supposed to be this Muslim, Arabic character, and then they named his father “son of nobody.” I was kind or surprised by that.
Khan: Definitely an oversight. The Assassin’s Creed has also hosted a lot of other Muslim characters in its historical fiction. We’ve had Suleiman from the Ottoman Empire, in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Uncharted 3 had Salim.
What’s interesting about Uncharted 3 is, at the end, djinn played a role in the story. Ultimately they were explained as hallucination, but for context, djinn are supernatural creatures in Islamic theology, along with humans and angels. They’re one of the three sapient creations of God. Djinn have free will, so unlike Christian theology, where the devil is a fallen angel, in Islamic thinking the devil, or Shaytan, is a djinn.
Farah, you were a big Uncharted fan. What did you think of the way those themes were used in that game?
Farah Khalaf: As someone who grew up listening to stories about djinn and other Arabian myths and legends, I found it somewhat comforting. It was my first time seeing djinn visualized and portrayed as bad guys, beings of fire. I wasn’t really surprised. I’ve found that there’s always a bias portraying other people’s cultures. Using it to their advantage to portray them in a good light. So I wasn’t really surprised.
Khan: It’s interesting, because other than a terrible movie called Djinn, which I don’t think anybody’s seen—Growing up, we really don’t imagine it. That’s the first time I’d seen that theme represented.
We have Faridah Malik from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. According to the Eidos Montreal blog, she’s “a petite woman in her late 20s with Arabic features, the chief helicopter pilot for Sarif industries, a third-generation American born in Dearborn, Michigan, which has the largest Arab population of any city in the United States. She’s adventurous, spiritual, and short-tempered. A faithful practicing Muslim, she believes that every day on this earth is a gift from Allah. She counts herself blessed that he’s chosen to make her a talented pilot. She respects the faiths of others and neither advertises or proselytizes, expecting the same respect in return.”
Ismail: I liked her character. It’s one of those things that falls back into the stereotypes of the “good Muslim.” Beyond that, it was refreshing to see somebody that was a Muslim, but that was just part of the character. It wasn’t like, “This is The Muslim.” That was nice. I don’t think it was even mentioned much in the game itself. I mostly got it from the backstory. But it was actually pretty cool.
Khan: Ramana, you had some thoughts on Faridah being the sort of perfect mold of the Western Muslim.
Ramzan: For me the issue is—You’re trying to represent someone in a game who believes in a faith, and a faith that has 1.6 billion followers. How can you try to encapsulate these stereotypes into one person? You have Muslim people who grow up in the west, Muslim people who grow up in the east, and all of them share a lot in common. At the core we’re all human.
I’ve grown up across many different countries. I was born in Sri Lanka, come from Pakistan, and most of my family lives in Pakistan. I go back there every year, and all the TV shows I watch here, all my friends are watching the same things there. We share the same jokes. We share the same language, the same expressions. It’s not as if things over here are alien concepts to my friends at home, and vice versa. In some instances they may be a bit more modern than I am, even, just in the types of things they do, the things they wear, the things they enjoy in their spare time.
Games should be trying to show these differences that exist within the faith as well, show that people exist on all parts of the spectrum.
Khan: To your point, we should probably talk about our own ethnic backgrounds. As you said, you’re Pakistani. So am I. Farah?
Khalaf: I’m half Palestinian, half Iraqi. I’ve lived in New Zealand since I was four, so I wasn’t really exposed to Middle Eastern society that much.
Ismail: I’m half Dutch and half Egyptian. I grew up mostly in the Netherlands, but spent quite some time in my younger years in Egypt as well.
Khan: Fighting games have pretty well-represented as far as characters from the Middle East. Left to right, we have Hakan from Street Fighter IV, who is a Turkish oil wrestler. Rashid from Street Fighter IV, from somewhere in the Middle East, we’re not sure. Zafina, from Tekken 6. And Shahim from the upcoming Tekken 7, who is from Saudi Arabia.
Romana, Farah, I wanted to ask you guys, of these characters there’s only one woman. What would, in your opinion, a Muslim woman character look like ideally?
Ramzan: My issue is, why do Muslims have to necessarily be represented by their faith? Why can’t they be represented by their nationalities? This is what a woman from Pakistan might look like. This is what a woman from Tunisia, Lebanon, anywhere in Africa might look like. What might a Muslim woman in Germany look like? Why can’t we go by nationalities? Why do we have to be the one group of people that’s most often represented by our religion?
People don’t sit down and say, “What might a Christian character look like?” Unless your game has to do specifically with Christianity, when obviously you’re going to have to think about those things. Fair enough. But we are also diverse. If you look at myself and Farah, we both come from completely different places. We don’t look the same. I’m sure that in the things we believe and the things we do, there are differences between us. If you look around the room as well, you can’t say, “This is what Muslim women look like.”
The question should be more like, “What might a Pakistani woman look like? What might a Moroccan woman look like?” Just to come back to that, I went to Morocco on holiday. It’s a Muslim country, but even I was shocked by some of the people I saw. You had, on the one hand, the very strict, fully clothed, covered women, but you also had Muslim women wearing backless dresses, miniskirts, smoking, drinking, clubbing. People do and follow lots of different things. It doesn’t necessarily make them more or less Muslims. It’s just the way they are. Those are the stories we should be bringing forward and the things we should be showcasing in games.
Khalaf: I’d add that as soon as someone sees an Arab-looking person they immediately assume they’re Muslim. I don’t believe there’s necessarily a proper way of portraying a Muslim woman in a game. No matter what way you choose to design a character, someone’s going to be unhappy about it.
Ismail: It’s interesting. We get codified, usually, as Middle Eastern. That’s the default. How do you codify a Muslim? Middle Eastern. If it’s a woman character it’s in the clothing. If it’s a guy it’s the clothing and the beard. That’s it. Muslim is not a people. It’s 1.6 billion people across the world of various nationalities and cultures and backgrounds and languages. Not all Muslims speak Arabic. In a lot of countries around the world, people recite the Qu’ran as song, almost, more than Arabic language. You understand what it means. And sometimes it goes the other way round.
People don’t realize that, because all we’ve seen in the media is Iraq, Afghanistan, maybe Egypt, Dubai sometimes in hit movies. That’s kind of it. We don’t really exist beyond those stereotypes, from shows like Homeland or something.
Khan: Continuing on about stereotypes, we have things like Aladdin. You look at the contrast here, we have Aladdin the SNES game from 1994 and then the 2008 Prince of Persia. They both take on stereotypical images, but one does look a lot cooler, I will admit. But in the indie space, in this case—In Dreamfall Chapters, which is an adventure game, they tackle issues of Muslim immigrants entering Europe in their fictional world. The use of Muslim NPCs is something that we’re starting to see in indie games.
And of course we have Ms. Marvel, from the Marvel Comics, Kamala Khan. She’s being written by G. Willow Wilson, a Muslim author. Going back to the same point about Deus Ex, it’s a similar issue that Romana’s working out – because you’re a Muslim in America you’re still expected to look a certain way.
Ramzan: I think it touches upon what Farah said earlier. When you create characters, there’s always going to be someone who’s not happy with how a character is represented. I have two views on this. I like what the character does. It’s the first Muslim character in comics who’s shown in a positive light, and that’s great. A lot of young girls can identify with her. That’s fantastic.
I guess my criticism of it comes, though, that it’s still showing the same kind of ideas that exist out there, that all Muslims are alike. Her parents are quite strict. She has a strict brother. But you also have Muslim families where the men aren’t all strict and they aren’t going to kill you if you decide to go out or lock you in your bedroom if you listen to the wrong music or cut something off if you decide to speak to a boy.
For me it’s a case of, those are the stories that are not being told, and I wish more people would tell them, because it shows that people who believe in Islam—We’re normal, I guess? We face the same issues that everyone else does. Children growing up, you have the same issues. “Oh my God, will so and so like me? What will I do when I grow up? Should I study this or that?” These are things that, surprise surprise, we face when we’re growing up. Why can’t those things come to the forefront?
Khalaf: I was personally pleased with how Kamala is portrayed as a young Muslim woman. I see parts of me in her. As someone who grew up in the middle of both Kiwi culture and Middle Eastern culture, it took me a while to figure out where I fit in. Wondering if I was doing the right thing by rejecting some of the things my parents taught me. I do find it comforting to see that reflected.
Ismail: There’s obviously an amazing pressure to create a Muslim character. I hope we’ve established that “a Muslim character” isn’t a character that you can make. It’s a character that is Muslim. With that comes an amazing pressure, though, when you try to take on a character like that. This is one of the few characters that gets to represent 1.6 billion people in the media. You’re never going to get that right because there aren’t enough characters around her. You can’t show the diversity we have in Islam with one character. You have to have many across different media.
It’s an issue we’ve seen related to gender diversity as well. You make a woman character and now you’re representing half of the world. If that’s the one woman character, she has to represent everyone’s experience. It’s the same dynamic that’s in play here. I appreciate that the character exists and has certain problems and things. It’s good that she exists.
And now there needs to be more to follow. It’d be nice to have a Muslim hero. Two Muslims that exist and are different. Two Muslims that disagree about something that isn’t blowing something up.
Khan: I remember there was a reality TV show, on TLC or something, that was about a Muslim family, but a lot of people got very angry because it would show these people going out and partying and drinking. There was an outcry saying, “This isn’t a proper representation.” You can see that on either side of an issue, no matter what, there’s going to be disagreement.
Ramzan: Right. There will always be disagreement and people get really worked up anyway. But that’s because there aren’t so many stories coming to the forefront. If there were more that existed out there, you’d probably be able to tackle that issue. But because you so often only see one side or the other, people tend to feel that they can’t identify with something. If you have more stories coming out in comics, in films, in games, about more different walks of life, you’d probably see less of the negative backlash we see now.
Khan: It leads into what we were talking about as far as tokenism, the disregard for culture we sometimes see, and a related reformist movement. This is kind of a can of worms. But I feel that you and I—Maybe we have a different opinion on Muslim reformists, people who say that Islam is still evolving like Christianity in a more liberal direction. I personally reject that, because I don’t agree with the notion that the religion is imperfect or needs to be fixed. But there is a growing reformist movement.
Is there, at least among people in the medium—Should we be cognizant of the divide between those who support reform and those who may be a bit more wary of it?
Ismail: This comes back to the idea that things can only be good if they’re Western, if they fit into a Western mindset. It’s upsetting, because as we’ve said earlier—My dad is a teacher. He moved to the Netherlands when he was 23 and started teaching Dutch to other immigrants. He had to learn Dutch and it was really hard, so he decided to help other immigrants out.
At some point the job became superfluous, because Europe got stricter about refugees and he simply didn’t have students anymore. They told him to teach history instead. So he gathered a set of Netherlands history books, and a day later he came back and threw the books on the ground. He said, “Is this what they teach you here?” Western history goes from the Egyptians to the Romans and straight to the Renaissance. Where did all the stuff in the middle go? There was just a thousand years of nothing, and then suddenly the west appeared and everything was brilliant?
The idea that everything should adhere to Western standards, should fit in a world where everything is perfect—If you look at the state of things in the Western world, it’s clearly not perfect. It’s upsetting, the idea that we have to fit into certain expectations of what is right or wrong. Obviously not everything is right here.
So no, I’m absolutely on a side where I feel like every culture should have its own chance to evolve along its own lines. I believe there are problems throughout the Islamic world as well that need to be tackled. There are things that should be talked about and that we should be fighting to change. But to say that it has to become more like the Western world, that’s pretty insulting.
Khan: I wanted to touch on some developments in the Middle East. This game, I don’t know if you’ve seen. Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta is an episodic action-adventure game made by Semaphore, a Saudi Arabian game studio. Sadly the game was awful, panned by critics. If you watch some videos it’s a glitch mess. Another game here, Garshasp the Monster Slayer, which was released in 2011 by an Iranian studio, Dead Mage. Polygon recently did a feature on their podcast about the Iranian game industry and discussed the difficulties of building games in a country like Iran.
Rami, you know a lot about game development in the Middle East. You’ve talked a lot about it. Could you tell us what the game industry is like in that part of the world?
Ismail: In the Middle East specifically, it’s definitely a growing thing. I don’t know if everyone follows the news around the Global Game Jam, but Egypt had the largest, if I’m not mistaken, Global Game Jam site in the world this year, which is massive.
There’s a very big push within the Arab world, the Middle Eastern world, to create media of our own. We’ve sort of gotten upset about the fact that the west is never going to make things that represent us the way we’d like. There’s also a democratization of technology and access to tools. We’re finally in an age where computers sometimes understand Arabic. Which is upsetting to think about, but I was doing a presentation yesterday where I had some slides with Arabic text, and it took me 40 minutes to get it to display right. Copying text from Word to Powerpoint, it just breaks. You have to check whether your text is still right. It only happens with languages like Arabic.
So there’s a push to use this technology in interesting ways that represent us, that address our problems and the things we want. Around the Middle Eastern world, you’ve seen a lot of small, independent efforts to start pushing games, and a lot of enthusiasm and creativity. It’s exciting to see. Obviously for Iran specifically it’s great that the sanctions are finally lifting. It’s an exciting time.
Khan: The Call of Duty series. [Audience laughs nervously]
Ismail: I like that you all laughed at that. Actually it’s worth crying about. The closest thing that’s probably acceptable in this context is laughter, but it’s honestly really sad.
Khan: Here’s the quick list of characters from the Middle East in the Call of Duty series. There’s Khaled Al-Asad from Modern Warfare, the leader of a separatist group in a small oil-rich country who murdered that country’s president live on television. In Modern Warfare 2 we had Imran Zakhaev. Not entirely sure of his origins, other than he’s from the Caucasus and has an Arabic first name.
In Black Ops II, which takes place in the ‘80s, there’s a system involving Mujahideen in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan. It’s kind of surprising from a Call of Duty game, to play alongside the future bad guys, so to speak. And in our last slide we have Black Ops III and Yousef Salim, an Egyptian psychotherapist who illegally experiments on soldiers.
When dealing with historical fiction or contemporary fiction, how can game developers tackle creating enemies based on real peoples without creating some kind of larger harm? It’s not exclusive to the treatment of Arabs by any means. Plenty of war games present Russians or South Americans or any number of other nationalities and ethnic groups as the enemy.
Ramzan: The current flavor of who the enemy is—If you’re Russian or if you’re Muslim – defined by religion, and not necessarily nationality – there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be the bad guy in a game. Diversity in the games industry—This is overarching issue. If we have greater diversity in the games industry, we can tackle issues like these with greater sensitivity as well. We can ensure that different groups of people from different subsets, all their voices are represented and eventually heard in games.
Ismail: That’s basically it. It’s frustrating how many times something very simple goes wrong. We had the little thing with Epic the other day. They had a sign-up form that didn’t work if you had the most common first name in the world, which is Mohammed, and the third-most common last name in Asia. If you tried to sign up for the Paragon beta, you’d land on some sort of watch list. But it was just because these were very common names. They’d put the watch list together poorly.
If you had anyone that knew anything about any place outside of the United States, somebody would have said, “Hey, maybe don’t filter the name Mohammed?” That just didn’t happen. Very often the things that I find extra upsetting are the things that are kind of okay? Like a Call of Duty game where they speak Arabic in a country that doesn’t speak Arabic, or when they write Arabic in the wrong direction. Or you see this in television as well, but representations of prayer and things like that where it doesn’t even—Does anybody know what a Muslim prayer actually looks like? If you’ve seen Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood, that’s not it.
That’s just how it is. “They’re probably standing, maybe kneeling, and there’s a carpet involved? That’s all we know.” But that’s the history people are building on. “I’ve seen that in media, so it’s probably like this.” By the time it’s implemented then it’s too late to fix.
Ramzan: Mal is a friend of ours, a Scottish guy, loveliest guy you could ever meet. Mal is British. That’s the disclaimer. But his family is from Iraq. And so Mal was one of the Scottish guys who was coming out here to GDC. He visited his family in 2013, I think. He went to Iraq. He had his passport and everything, but when he tried to get into the country they denied him entry because of his visit to Iraq.
The good news is that he’s now at GDC. He made it yesterday, so we were quite happy about that. It helped that GDC sent a supportive letter, and I believe the IGDA did. Rami, you did as well. That helped his cause. But just because he visited Iraq three years ago, he experienced all these problems.
I was 100 percent sure they were going to ask me questions. I have a British passport, but I’m a dual national, and I have stamps from Pakistan in my passport. That’s what I was looking at before flying across here. But my interview only took two minutes, so I was delighted. Another friend of ours, Omar, was questioned for five hours, and his last name is a very common surname. He apparently shares a name with someone who’s on a watch list, and he visited the Sudan two or three years ago because that’s where he got married. His wife’s from there. It was a touch and go for him. We were worried that some of the Scottish contingency wouldn’t make it out here, but I’m delighted to see that we’re all here now.
Ismail: This is the lucky version of this kind of problem. The unlucky version is a drone strike. Because media influences this, right? The way media portrays Muslims influences how people think of us. If someone sees an Arab walking across the street—I’ve dealt with this in the train stations in the Netherlands, which is generally an open-minded country, but I was walking around with my backpack and charging my phone from the laptop in backpack. A security guy comes after me and says “WHAT IS THAT?” What is what? Oh.
It’s a thing that happens, because I look like somebody that might have a small device in my hand cabled to a backpack. Somebody thought he’d be a hero, because that’s how it works on TV. You tackle the Arab and make sure he doesn’t make it to the target. How often do you see a Muslim in media that isn’t someone who needs to be stopped? Just think about that a moment. Not too many. That’s where we are.
Khan: Talking about war—Games tend to show one side of a conflict. It’s a power fantasy. You don’t want people playing your game to feel bad about what they’re doing.
Ismail: Unless they’re Muslim.
Khan: We were talking about this recently. What is the value of showing the other side of a conflict? What are the potential dangers?
Ramzan: In most instances, I think you should get to experience both sides of a story. In this instance, I don’t think there’s a value in playing as the terrorist, necessarily, as it’s currently depicted in games. The terrorist happens to be, from what we hear in media today, is Daesh. And their ideology doesn’t fit into what Islam is. We don’t identify with them. They’re the ones who are killing Muslims. So I don’t think there’s any value in playing from that point of view. We know what that point of view. In doing so you reinforce negative stereotypes that already exist.
Interesting experiences come from telling stories about dispersed people, the ones caught up in the conflict, who have no say whatsoever. Take the Syrians who had to flee their homes. Why aren’t we telling stories in games about them? Games are a powerful medium. They can move you like no other medium can. That’s how we should be playing or experience these types of settings. That’s what can give us insight and a better appreciation. We all know what Daesh stands for. We hear it day in and day out.
Khalaf: Also, Muslim violence has become so cheap. The world has become so desensitized to violence in the Muslim world. It’s seen as a normal, everyday thing. It’s no longer valued. That’s how people stop seeing it on a human level.
Ismail: What I’d like to—This is going to sound horrible, but you know what I want to see? I would like to see, one time, a game where the enemies are Americans. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game where you have to shoot Americans. They’re the good ones, right? Obviously the Americans are the good ones.
If anyone made a game where you had to fight, say, a wrongful American invasion of Iraq, which is a thing that kind of happened recently—That would never be acceptable. It would be wrong. In America’s Army one side plays the Americans and one side plays “insurgents,” but both sides that are playing see themselves as the Americans. That’s basically how our media works in general. It’s always the west versus evil. The fact that the opposite can’t exist—It says a lot.
Khan: Even Six Days in Fallujah, which was a game about Americans in Iraq made alongside soldiers—It wasn’t allowed to come out due to outcry.
Ismail: That’s how valuable American blood is. As Farah says, Muslim blood is cheap. We’re probably the cheapest blood on earth right now in the media. “We have to blow up about 130 Muslims, but we got the target. We don’t know who the other 129 were, but we got him.” And American blood is the most expensive. It says a lot about power structures.
Ramzan: There are drone strikes in Pakistan every day killing lots and lots of people who are not terrorists. The U.N. has looked at the psychological effect of this, and what they’ve found is that the sound, the sound of a drone overhead, has had such a detrimental effect on children—It’s something that they probably aren’t going to recover from. The minute they hear it, they completely break down. How can you deal with something like that?
It’s summed up as collateral damage. As Rami was saying, “We got the one guy. Forget about the 100 or 200 others. We got the one. Job done.”
Ismail: Mission complete. Three stars out of three. That’s Call of Duty. That’s literally what you do in Call of Duty, over and over. Shoot all the Arabs.
Khan: This is a terrible segue way to do, so I’m not even going to do it. The impression we get of the Middle East—Karachi is actually south Asia, but this is a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 map. It’s broken. It’s in tatters. There’s Arabic and Urdu both on the same block.
This is also one of the most popular CS: GO maps, Dust 2. Again, this is a map that’s not only played in the west. Counter-Strike is popular all around the world. And of course kids in a lot of parts of the world, they go to internet cafes because they can’t afford PCs or consoles. They play multiplayer games with their friends. This is the map they play on, a representation of their own country in shambles.
The reality is that the Middle East, the Muslim world, has beautiful architecture, beautiful landscapes. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations had some great examples. It’s historical fiction, but the contribution that the Muslim world has made to architecture—I wanted to ask Farah, if a game does take place in a Muslim-majority country, what would you like to see?
Khalaf: A real representation of what it looks like now. The rich culture that the media isn’t really showing. A lot of people, if you show them an image of Beirut, for example, they’ll be surprised that it looks how it does.
Ramzan: I don’t think it’s that hard. You can go on Instagram and find images of all these cities out there. You don’t necessarily need to travel.
Ismail: The problem is that doesn’t fit people’s expectations. If you want to represent a place, you have to fill in the expectations of people. When you say Beirut, people think of sandy streets and soft stone cottages. That’s not what it looks like. We have shopping malls. [laughter] It’s fantastic. Modern buildings. The Middle East is really good at building malls. And you never see that, because people would play that and say, “Where am I?” It would require suspension of disbelief on the part of Western players. “Oh, I’m in the Middle East and it looks…modern?” It would take some effort to get into that.
Khan: I like your sense of humor.
Ismail: It’s the way I’ve learned to deal with this.
Khan: On the indie side, this is a game that is showing some different areas in the Muslim world. This is The Sun Also Rises from Horse Volume in Savannah, Georgia. It’s currently in development. It’s a different kind of war game, talking about civilians caught in the middle of an Afghan war and deals heavily with the subject of drone strikes. Rami, I think you have some involvement in this game?
Ismail: I’ve tweeted about it. [laughter] But look at that. That’s a prayer. That looks right. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever seen that. It’s nice. Hopefully they don’t mess it up. I’ve seen a lot of media where they get it 30 percent right and still mess it up.
Khan: Another game is Dujanah, which is being made by Jack King Spooner, a story about a girl who lives in a fictional Muslim-majority country. It deals with some difficult issues like the relationship between religion and violence. The developer is working closely with members of their local community to make this game.
One question for everyone. To what extent is it a problem for Western developers to tackle themes that aren’t Western, even with consultation?
Ismail: They should, but they should give their subject the respect it deserves. I’m okay with people making games about things that aren’t their own lives. That’s not a problem. Please make games about Muslims. But if you’re going to make a game about Muslims, make a game about Muslims as they exist, and not how you’ve seen them on TV. Make things that are true and genuine, or out of curiosity, exploring thoughts you might have or problems you might face.
Coming to terms with certain ideas or concepts, that’s fine. If people make a game about how they’re scared of Islam, and it’s genuinely well-researched, I would love to see that. I’d be fascinated by that, as long as it’s not simply pointing and clicking and shooting.
Khalaf: With those kinds of games, the slightest incorrect detail can ruin its authenticity.
Ismail: We don’t have a lot to connect to. If we finally do have something to connect to, it can break easily.
Ramzan: It’s not an issue that people are making games. We definitely need somebody to make these games. But the thing is, from what I’ve read about Dujanah—If you’re speaking to local Muslims, I believe he’s from Scotland. I live in Scotland and have grown up there, spent a lot of time there. I can’t speak to the experiences of a Muslim girl in Morocco who might have been affected by the themes in the game. I’d never attempt to do that, because I can’t get to that headspace.
It has to be tackled with sensitivity, because there’s not a lot of material that exists out there currently. I think he’s doing a fantastic job in that at least he’s going out there and he’s got a protagonist who’s a woman. More games need that. And he’s tackling a difficult topic. I’ll be interested to see how that game translates once he’s released it. I’m excited to see what he does.
Khan: This is Saudi Girls Revolution, being made by Prince Fahad Al Saud and Na3m Entertainment. He wants to present the world a different world of Saudi Arabia and inspire change through creativity. I know you’ve talked a lot about this, Rami. What can you tell us about this?
Ismail: It’s actually a fascinating story. Saudi Arabia is obviously a unique country in many ways within the Muslim world. It’s very strict. What’s interesting about the game is, one, it’s made by a Saudi prince, and two, the main character is a Mad Max-esque band of women motor heroes who drive across a post-apocalyptic Saudi Arabia. A woman driving on her own in Saudi Arabia is not a thing that happens. This prince is just saying, “Hey, let’s make a game where that happens and inspire change through these narratives that don’t exist now.” I think that’s a very interesting approach to tackling things like that.
We’re talking about how culture reflects reality, but very often reality ends up reflecting culture as well. This is a potentially pretty powerful weapon for effecting change.
Khan: I wanted to quickly touch on character creation and how skin color—Rami and I have trouble creating characters who look like us. You might have white or black, but there’s a certain type of brown that isn’t Hispanic, that has this yellow undertone—
Ismail: I’m 90 percent defined by my beard and I still can’t manage to make myself in most character creators.
Khan: So how is the industry faring overall? There are good signs early on. We don’t have some of the same problems as the film industry, where movies like American Sniper win awards. But ultimately, what do you think the industry should do?
Ramzan: The industry just needs creative diversity. It comes down to that over and over again. It’s been a constant theme and it’ll continue to be a constant theme until things change. Unless we have diversity, we’re not going to be making interesting games that tell interesting stories and provide interesting experiences. We won’t be able to get all these different people and their stories being told. Diversity is the biggest issue. Once we can solve that problem, we’ll start to see games that provide new experiences.
Khalaf: I agree. I love how everyone is pushing in that direction.
Ismail: Diversity, obviously, is the number one—If you’re going to make a game about a country, get somebody from that country. If you’re going to feature a language, have someone who can read it. If you’re going to feature a religion, have somebody who understands it. This all sounds really simple, but why do so many people get it wrong?
Also, just for fun, try to figure out where those missing 1200 years went in your history books. Read up on it. It’s pretty cool. A lot of stuff happened in the world.
Don’t feel afraid to reach out to someone who you think might help. I’m happy to answer some questions. But please don’t treat your local Muslim as the Muslim specialist. You can ask. But don’t do that. And if you do, reimburse them? Make sure they see some compensation for their work and effort.
These are all very simple things. Be a human. Reach out to humans. Don’t just re-create stereotypes. Learn about the stuff you’re following. It all sounds so simple, but for some reason it seems like people in the industry do things in the hardest way possible. “I’m going to make a game about Iran, but I won’t talk to anybody from Iran or anybody who understands the language.” I don’t know. The simple things, the obvious things, do those. Get that right.