Islamophobia appears in various forms but some games go beyond straightforward stereotyping.
In early April of this year, Destructive Creations, developer of the mass murder simulator, Hatred, released a game called IS Defense, a game where players defend European shorelines from an invading Islamic state militia. The game mocked the cultural heritage of Muslims through sacrilegious images of their Prophet, which created a lot of controversy and though it received wide condemnation, it wasn’t banned.
As tensions between the Middle-East and the West increases, this region has become the next target of ‘othering’ within modern warfare games. Invasions of Western cultural imperialism within gaming have become intolerable.
Consider the case of 2010’s Medal of Honor, which included real Taliban leaders, and was banned from sale on American soil for that reason. This type of entertainment has reached levels of worldwide dominance, capturing the global marketplace. As a result, these imperialistic notions have become part of popular consciousness.
The Middle East is a favorite virtual setting for mainstream Western developers. A 2013 poll shows that 21.2 per cent of the industries bestselling video games included first person shooting simulators like, Black Ops III and Call of Duty: World of Warfare, all of which take place in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dr Muniba Saleem – a professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan – explains in her study “effects of stereotypes within Violent Contexts on Attitude, Perceptions and Affects” that the use of Middle Eastern stereotypes within these games place emphasis on American loyalty and bravery.
U.S. merchandises such as shooter games render the opponent as the enemy and American soldiers as heroes, said Muniba Saleem, the study’s lead author. Games often romanticize the American soldier protagonists. Warfare games often portray the Middle Easterner as the antagonist, terrorist, and interloper.
“Arabs are depicted as suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies and angry mobs wielding AK-47’s,” said the assistant professor in the U-M Department of Communications Studies.
Dr Saleem explains in her findings, that Western games frequently depict schematized, stereotypical Arab/Muslims within Middle-Eastern settings. Her study of 224 participants reveals that violent warfare video games increase anti-Middle-eastern attitudes.
Her findings show that games discretely promote these ongoing conflicts between the Middle-East and the West. Promoting racial Islamophobia to adolescents through gaming devices leads to explicit judgement of Arabs and Muslims. Implementing negative cultural stereotypes upon cultural groups often leads to alienation. Interactive games have become a problematic manipulation tool that stages “propaganda events,” she explained.
Nina Huntemann, a lecturer of Communication and Journalism at Suffolk University in Bolton and co-author of ‘The Politics of Play in Video Games’ repeated Dr. Saleem’s views on ‘propaganda’ by claiming that American war-themed games are used to shape attitudes about conflict.
According to Islam.ru, a Islamic information portal, Huntemann said that the purpose of propaganda games “is to persuade the public by telling stories that seemingly have universal appeal and where the sides of “good” and “bad” are unquestionable.” One way to achieve is to tell the story of one heroic character.
In a session at a Games Developer Convention earlier this year, three panelists talked about the representation of the Middle-East in video games. Speaking at the the convention, Rami Ismail, the co-founder of Vlambeer, a Dutch independent game developing studio, said that Islam is too often a source of trouble and evil in video games like IS Defense and triple-A-games like Call of Duty.
In an article published by ventureBeat, Ismail said, “I’d 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 the Americans.” The award winning indie developer said, a more balanced perspective is needed to show both sides of the conflict.
That same point was taken up by Romana Ramzan, another member of the panel. “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?”
While the prevalent image of the Middle-East as the enemy is problematic, Dr. Darren Mundy, the author of ‘Cultural Heritage and its Representation of Video Games,’ said that the medium is not entirely at fault for its portrayal of groups. The University of Hull professor explained that video games generally exploit typical cliches and general themes from Western movies.
“I think that games, like most media, generally tend to speak to current social narratives and, of course, in Western culture a lot of that has focused on the Middle-East, just as Russians were the boogeymen of the mid 20th century.” He added, “games do not exist in a different context to movies and other media, therefore they should not be treated as separate items. What applies to applies to moves should apply to video games.
Games such as Homefront and indie games like IS Defense look to use problematic national real world relationships in order to design and develop conflict. The reality is that we live in a time where the rise of ISIS and other entities create an ‘evil’ which the game developers look to use in their contexts.”
Dr. Mundy mentioned that diversity is the overarching problem. He stressed the need for better cross-cultural development teams and game rating companies to help address the problem of Islamophobia in the video game industry.
“Our research essentially argues that we should seek for our games design and development companies to become increasingly culture aware so that where decisions are made these are made consciously, rather than out of ignorance, or from a lack of knowledge.