Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Better Representing Muslims: A Few Ideas

Robert Rath | 13 Jun 2013 16:00
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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.

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