GDC panel says that, in games, "Muslim blood is cheap"

Islam is too often used as a source of trouble and villainy, but diversity could help to redress the balance

"Muslim blood is the cheapest on Earth right now," according to a panel of Muslim developers at GDC, and that is reflected in the content produced by the commercial games industry.

In a sobering session at GDC last week, three game developers assessed the, "current state of Muslim representation in video games." The panel was moderated by Imad Khan, a journalist for The Daily Dot, and featured NZGDA artist Farah Khalaf, Glasgow Caledonian University lecturer Romana Romzan, and Rami Ismail, the co-founder of Vlambeer.

Though the conversation would ultimately explore some ethically complex territory, it started with an appraisal of some of the most prominent Muslim characters from games released in the last several years. From Assassin's Creed's Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad to Salim in Uncharted 3, the panel was careful to identify both the positive and negative aspects of each choice.

"You know what I want to see? I'd like to see, one time, a game where the enemies are Americans. I don't think I've ever seen that"

Rami Ismail

However, one unifying theme was the tendency for Muslim characters to be defined by their faith; for their relationship to Islam to be an essential aspect of their role in the story. An exception to this was Faridah Malik from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a helicopter pilot whose faith was not the controlling influence on who she was and how she acted.

That point was taken up by Romana Romzan, who wearily listed the stereotypes associated with Muslim characters, and particularly female Muslim characters: strict fathers, strict brothers, curtailed freedoms, and so on. In reality, she explained, Muslims are mostly concerned with the exact same issues as anyone else of equivalent age, be that the cute new boy at school or the pressure of a new role in the workplace. With Muslim characters in games, however, these relatable problems tend to be sidelined or pushed into the background.

"Those are the stories that are not being told," she said. "And I wish that more people would tell them, because it shows that people who follow this religion and believe in Islam, we are normal. We face the same issues as everybody else... So why can't those things come to the forefront?"

Rami Ismail's participation in the panel was particularly striking. Imad Khan introduced Vlambeer's co-founder as being, "very well known for being outspoken." That is demonstrably true, but as someone who has seen Ismail speak on many occasions, I can say that the knowing half-smiles that punctuate his more strident commentary were absent. Ismail frequently found himself at the end of a long point, sombre and at a loss for a pithy closing line.

When Khan moved the discussion to Call of Duty's track record with Muslim characters, the crowd let out a collective laugh in expectation of the teardown to come. "It's odd that you all laugh at that, because It's actually worth crying about," he said. "It's actually really sad."

From Modern Warfare's Khaled Al-Asad to Black Ops III's Yousef Salim, Call of Duty's characters have often painted Muslims in a poor light. The panel emphasised that many other AAA franchises do the same, resorting to a familiar crop of ethnic groups from which to draw their villains. Which isn't to say that Muslims, Russians or Koreans could never be the enemy force in a game, only that the way they are represented should display more variety and balance.

According to Romzan, a solution to that issue will come from within the development community. "Diversity in the games industry is the overarching issue," she said. "If we've got greater diversity in the games industry then we can tackle these issues with greater sensitivity as well, and ensure that different groups of people in different sub-sets all have their voices heard and represented within games."

"We face the same issues as everybody else... So why can't those things come to the forefront?"

Romana Romzan

Right now, though, the representation of Muslim characters is so imbalanced the immediate corrective would have to be radical. Ismail explained the point with a hypothetical.

"This is going to sound horrible, but you know what I want to see? 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. Think about that.

"If anybody made a game in which you have to to fight the wrongful American invasion of Iraq - which is a thing that did happen kinda recently - that would never be accepted. In America's Army, one side plays as the Americans and the other side plays as the insurgents, but both teams that are playing see themselves as the Americans. That's basically all of games as a medium. It's always the West vs. the Evil. I think we could say that something was happening if we had a chance to see that the other way around.

"But just the fact that that cannot exist... It really says it all."

Khan mentioned the aborted game Six Days In Fallujah, which Konami shelved after a public outcry. Give the established facts of that battle, in which US forces employed the banned chemical weapon white phosphorous, it was a rare chance for the other side of the conventional narrative to be revealed. Ultimately, though, it was a chance that disappeared.

"That's how valuable America is," Ismail said. "Muslim blood is cheap. We're probably the cheapest blood on earth right now in the media. It's like, 'We have to blow up 130 Muslims, but we got the target.'

"We're probably the cheapest blood on Earth right now, and American [blood] is probably the most expensive."

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Latest comments (14)

James Brightman Editor, North America, GamesIndustry.biz5 years ago
Agreed that if it's going to come from somewhere it's going to come from indies. I would love one of the majors to take a stand and just try it out though.
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Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.biz5 years ago
That was mentioned in the panel. Ismail seemed very encouraged by the indie developers emerging and already established in the Middle East, and the kind of stories they might choose to tell. I wrote an article on the subject last year, if you care to read more:
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Hugo Trepanier Senior Game Designer, Ludia5 years ago
It would be interesting to compare how the German people felt towards the slew of WWII-themed games from a few years back. We were, essentially, shooting the faces of their virtual grandfathers.

As far as Americans being the bad guys in a game, the closest I can think of is the first Homefront, which had a whole section about shooting American civilians on American soil. These were rogue folks who clearly went too deep and ultimately had it coming, but aside from being total assholes they were initially just regular people.
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Show all comments (14)
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
It was the Nazi's propaganda masterpiece to brand Jewish culture in Germany in such a way that it was no longer considered a valid part of Germany. Nazis took what should have been a religious confession in a country with religious freedoms and separated it from the national identity. Post-Nazi Germany pretty much did the same with the Nazis. As a result, being German and shooting Nazis in a game is not a big deal. Exclude & Eradicate, the German way.

It is easy to look back at the Nazis and call them out for what they were. Modern warlords and war criminals have learned their lessons from the Nazis. You also need some good PR outside of you native country and you should not piss off the entire world at once. It also helps when your religion has a massive internal power struggle that the west does not want to get involved in too much. In terms of ideology, the west is centralized and sticks to diplomacy. The potential Brexit is not a reason to order airstrikes on the homes of expats. The Kurds have a different tale to tell on the same topic.

That is the long way of saying that anything Call of Duty does to Muslims in games is child's play compared to what Muslims are doing to each other right now.
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Have you noticed that in The Division every enemy looks like they are coming from 50 cent concert?
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There is a Vietnamese FPS game for PC, "7554" (developed by Emobi Games), which features Vietnam's struggle against the French colonial army. In the game, you play as one of a squad of four Viet Minh soldiers, from 1946 through victory in the siege of Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954 (= 7554). Youtube clip of the trailer here:
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Ha I'm surprised no one mentioned Fugitive Hunter on the PlayStation 2, but it's so old that it's easily forgotten. Er, I'll let you all Google it if you like.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 5 years ago
I read a fantastic study years and years ago, about the nationality of the bad guys in movies and how it affected sales.

American war movies sold very well in Japan, for example, and when the viewers were interviewed, they didn't see Americans beating Japanese - they saw good guys beating bad guys, because that was the way the story was pitched. The same in Germany. They didn't need the heroes to be of their own nationality to be engaged.

Yet American studios continue to lean on the myth - American audiences won't be able to cope, they say, if their nation is not the good guys. Moreso, that they will not be engaged if their nation is not front and centre every moment. There need to be flashy cutscenes of famous American landmarks and street life, a few strippers or cheerleaders wearing the flag, and a rant at some point from the main character about "America: Land of Freedom/Opportunity".

Meanwhile, American audiences went out in droves to see Harry Potter films set in England about a bunch of English children facing problems that were metaphors for the state of modern England. And watched, fascinated, films about the formation of China and the popular fiction of the Jianghu.

Now you could look at this and say "So why can't Muslims just see good guys vs bad guys in recent games?" Well, there's two things there.

Firstly, in the case of war movies, the war there was OVER. Westerners weren't still bombing Dresden or Osaka, a nice little bit of time had passed that allowed the audience to become mostly people too young to have actually been there. There is still active conflict between the West and the predominantly Muslim Middle-East. And pretty much any individual with brown skin in our home countries faces increased risk on the streets and in their houses of worship, whether they're actually Muslim or just "look enough like a Muslim" (as many Hindus and Sikhs can tell you) as hate groups continue to target them.

Secondly, it's the good guys vs bad guys thing. Because in most cases, Muslims are portrayed in games, as the article says, with their religion front and centre. The effect is not one of fighting this or that regime, it's one of fighting Islam itself - a religion that has many, many peaceful practitioners.

So there are plenty of reasons to mix up portrayals in the gaming arena, not stick to one ongoing, flood-filled "Muslims are bad" message. And sales might not be as at risk from that as you might think.
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John Bye Lead Designer, Freejam5 years ago
"I'd like to see, one time, a game where the enemies are Americans"
Spec Ops: The Line. You spend most of the game shooting (apparently) rogue American soldiers in a ruined Middle Eastern city, although you're playing as an American too.

That's very much the exception that proves the rule though, and although it got good reviews it didn't sell very well.
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Shehzaan Abdulla Translator/QA 5 years ago
John, I don't think that really works as an exception because traitors are essentially soldiers disowned by the nation. There's no real sense of 'vs Americans' to it. If anything they are almost 'anti(non)-American' by definition.

How about a game where you play as a load of brown dudes shooting up white Americans in war-torn American cities? We don't need a nuanced, humanised depiction of the Americans either. They can just be the unequivocal bad guys who yell 'yeehaw!' as they descend upon you in ravaging waves whilst waving star-spangled banners.

*shrugs* I don't foresee how anyone could have a problem with that. It's all in good fun. And for the incredibly oblivious, hypocritical or easily offended. Yes, this post is sarcasm.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shehzaan Abdulla on 22nd March 2016 1:50pm

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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 5 years ago
Without wanting to hijack this, just as a related sidenote:
Also cheap in games: men's blood. (not just in games though; "women & children" is a commonly used casualty category in news reporting. Men are kinda assumed to either collectively have caused the trouble in the first place and thus deserve whatever happens to them, or to be able to defend themselves and their demise thus less noteworthy by virtue of their gender).
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany5 years ago
We had a few games in which the enemy is a totalitarian western government in a distopian future (Mirror's edge, for example) The thing is that in current days, when you want to make a game based in real background (Let's put Battlefield, for example) most of the instability happens to take place in those regions. If we were to still have nazis in Germany, the bad guys would still be the people here.

Another thing is when the religion itself is portrayed as the source of that evil shown in the game, something I'm not sure to which extend is actually shown in games but I understand why is a source of concern for most of Muslim player and developers (And the words of some politicians out there are not precisely helping, sadly) since what the game shows and what the player understands is not always the same, not to mention the possible collective message that can generate from it.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up5 years ago
Religion isn't a visual thing as far as I was aware, and there are plenty muslims in america and beyond. Is killzone or the WW games easy german blood? If so then that encapsulates an entire nation and many different religions. Also, does grand theft auto represent the values of most americans? No. They should make the game they want to see, and let the market decide. Really as simple as that. I dont think a bad american or bad americans in a game will phase anyone.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee5 years ago
One reason I want to see an increase in diversity so we're not just seeing one world perspective of nations or peoples. Africa and the Middle-East are more interesting than safaris and war.
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