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A how-to guide for Muslim representation

WB Games Montreal senior designer Osama Dorias offers tips for developers not wanting to alienate a significant chunk of their audience

It's no secret that the games industry hasn't always done a tremendous job of depicting certain cultures in its products, depicting them primarily as villains, relegating them to unimportant supporting roles, or leaving them out entirely. One group historically given these treatments in games is Muslims.

Speaking at the Montreal International Game Summit today, WB Games Montreal senior designer Osama Dorias gave a how-to talk to developers with suggestions on how best to represent Muslim characters in their games. Dorias is a Muslim himself, but he made clear at the outset that he wasn't interested in shaming developers who'd messed up with Muslim representation in the past.

"If you give us a platform, you will succeed. Because there's no competition. We're not being represented anywhere, and everyone's eating it up"

"The truth is, I've worked on games that misrepresented Muslims," Dorias said. "Sometimes it's very hard not to follow the flow and to not do as you're told. So there's no shaming involved. I'm not even shaming the powers that be that make these calls. Sometimes they just don't know better."

Dorias pointed to examples of Muslims in a few films which were probably well-intentioned, but still rubbed him the wrong way. In Three Kings, there's a scene where a Muslim woman is shot in the head by a terrorist.

"The truth is, 97% of the victims of terrorism are Muslim," Dorias said. "So it's not a lie. But when you have a movie that only shows Muslims as victims and villains, you're justifying [war]. 'We must go kill Muslims that kill Muslims. And if Muslims die as a result, well, that's what we're there for, right?' Solely portraying Muslims as victims justifies war that makes us victims."

He also pointed to The Siege, about a terrorist attack on New York. The perpetrators are Muslim, but so is one of the CIA characters looking to bring them to justice. The CIA character is shown on-screen drinking and isn't terribly religious, which in and of itself wouldn't be a problem.

"The issue is the association. Everyone who was a terrorist in the movie was ultra-religious, and everyone who's a good person was as Western as possible. The message this sends is that you can be Muslim, but not too Muslim."

Dorias also had examples of good Muslim representations in media, starting with Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan. Created by a pair of Muslim women, G Willow Wilson and Sana Amanat, Ms. Marvel is a young Muslim heroine who balances her super hero do-gooding with her life as a New Jersey high schooler. When it launched in early 2014, Wilson and Amanat only planned out the first three issues, Dorias said, fully expecting Marvel to cancel it before it got any further. The comic became a hit, as well as Marvel's first ongoing series starring a Muslim character.

"If you give us a platform, you will succeed," Dorias said. "Because there's no competition. We're not being represented anywhere, and everyone's eating it up. But don't just make a Muslim character and expect to sell issues, either. The subtlety, the difference, is that these are Muslim creators telling their story. They have a voice. We can tell when it's not us telling our own stories, just like I'm sure you can tell if another writer in another country told an American story with all the stereotypes, or a Canadian one, or a European one. You can tell. It doesn't feel authentic."

That shows the importance of actually talking to Muslims, Dorias said. One of the things he thinks developers worry about is offending their Muslim staff by asking them about details in how the game could represent them. It's more offensive to not ask, he said, and do something that misrepresents them.

Another common failing Dorias sees is what he calls "stacking tokens."

"There's a desire for people to have representation in games, so what they do is they make a Muslim, lesbian, amputee, black [character] and they check off all the boxes. Then the rest of their cast is white people. That's not how it works"

"I know now there's a desire for people to have representation in games," Dorias said. "So what they do is they make a Muslim, lesbian, amputee, black [character] and they check off all the boxes. Then the rest of their cast is white people. That's not how it works. And if you don't have someone who can speak to specifically that character, you're not going to do any of those groups justice. Your character's going to feel flat and unrealistic."

One easy thing developers can insist on is authentic voice-overs. He pointed to the Egyptian sniper Ana Amari in Overwatch, and how Blizzard hired Egyptian actress Ayesha Salim to play the part. Not only does it do the character justice, but it helps her stand out from the rest of the cast in a recognizable way. Dorias also noted that they cast an actress who sounded like she could be the character's age, which in itself stands out in a medium where most characters seem to be in their 20s.

"Add us to your roster," Dorias suggested. "If you have a game that has a lot of different characters, consider having people from Muslim countries. These characters might not even be Muslim, and it doesn't really matter. If you present their religion in the same way you present the religion of the other characters (i.e. - you don't mention them), that's enough."

Dorias doesn't know if Super Street Fighter IV's Turkish oil wrestler Hakan is Muslim, for example, but he said it's still enough to just represent a country that's mostly Muslim. Likewise, he noted a pair of Muslim NPCs in Deus Ex and Tacoma who aren't defined by their religion, but still provide positive examples because they're well-rounded characters for whom their religion is just one part of who they are.

Of course, Muslim characters don't have to be unfailing pillars of virtue to be considered a good representation of the religion, Dorias said. He pointed to Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Azeem in Robin Hood. Azeem was a thief, but he's also a nuanced, honorable character with his own moral code. He might have been an ideal example of how to do things the right way if Freeman had just prayed properly; Dorias noted that Muslim rituals are very precise, so it would behoove developers to study up on them before trying to depict them based on what they remembered seeing in movies or TV.

It's good to reach out to Muslim audiences when considering character customization options too. Dorias points to Pharah in Overwatch, who has an alternate costume where she wears a hijab. Given that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, Dorias cautioned that developers will definitely want to do some research, and ideally even hire a consultant, before doing something like that. Depending on the context of the character, that hijab may be more likely to be a niqab, burqa, chador, or other piece of clothing. That said, Dorias believes all those options are welcome for created characters.

"Many games do this. They all base their game in exactly the same country: 'Arabistan.' Generic, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, warzone rubble place. Somewhere you wouldn't feel bad if a stray bullet hits anyone"

"If people don't like that option, they won't wear it," Dorias said. "Don't identify it as something from a specific culture. Don't say this is an Indonesian headdress unless you're researching that. But otherwise, have fun with it. It's an option. You can have males and females wear it, or anything else. Just put the option there and give people the choice."

Setting is another subject where developers could do better.

"Many games do this," Dorias said. "They all base their game in exactly the same country: 'Arabistan.' Generic, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, warzone rubble place. Somewhere you wouldn't feel bad if a stray bullet hits anyone. It's rubble anyway. People are suffering anyway so it doesn't matter. What this does is it desensitizes people."

When people watch the news and see a war-torn place, they recognize it as the bombed out 'Arabistan' they played in a game, rather than the shocking aftermath of a once-beautiful country, as has been the case with Syria. He again pointed to Overwatch as a game that handled its setting deftly, with the Iraq-set Oasis map showing a lush, beautiful view of the country in the future.

"I was born in Iraq," Dorias said. "I think about this all the time, but I never projected a hopeful future for my country of birth. Ever. I never even considered the possibility. And that someone else would do this in a game set in the future brought me to tears at work. That's how important Muslim representation is, and positive outlooks are.

"So we need you to amplify our voices. Allow us to be heard."

Disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and is paying for our travel and accommodation during the event.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.