Years and years ago, more than half my life at this point, I spent a year living in the Middle East. I was looking at the world through the eyes of a child uprooted from everything he knew and understood, dropped into a country not only foreign but completely alien. I didn’t understand the first thing about Islam, I didn’t even really understand Christianity or how it had affected the development of the Western world, and now I was placed inside a country that didn’t even have what few markers I could place.
I was ignorant and I was scared. I wanted to hide away, stay locked up in our little island of Britishness: a flat in a tower block stocked almost entirely with western expats. It was very loosely something I recognised from home, a hazy image of it at least, and it gave me some comfort. But then the word came that I would have to attend school, something I had not even considered, and the fear rose again.
English school was bad enough for me, and awkward and introverted child with bad teeth and glasses that would have made Harry Potter utter a derisory snort, and I understood the constraints of that world. I had intrinsically picked up on the “way the world works” as I had grown older, I knew my place and the social language required for what limited interactions I undertook with the outside world, and none of that had particularly helped me fit in. How could I hope to fit in in a world that was so different, so alien when I couldn’t even do that in a world I comprehended? The answer was that I couldn’t.
I was a child and I was ignorant. When that year ended and I moved back to the UK I was relieved. I was home, back in my world, the real world, the civilised world. I was an idiot.
It is only with hindsight that I realise how idiotic I was during that time. Perhaps it was the situation that brought me to Kuwait, perhaps it was my age, or perhaps I merely lacked the cognitive capability to properly understand my situation. In any case, looking back on that time in my life as I do now reveals just how stupid a child can be.
I thought that the Middle East was alien, different and somewhat backwards because of their strange clothes and customs and the abundance of sand. Trivial differences. In fact, I was so immured in the childish sanctuary of sulk that I overlooked the similarities between the Middle East and “my world”. Beneath the superficial differences lay the same type of soul, clad in different clothing but still fundamentally the same.
I understand that this may sound like an apology for the thoughts of a long departed child, and that’s because it is. As well as this, however, it is also an excuse: I was a child, young and stupid and ignorant. While my thoughts were wrong, they were not born of malice but of a lack of understanding. Children learn and develop and grow, we understand this, and as you learn and understand your beliefs shift. Mine did. A child, though still accountable for his thoughts, should be allowed some leeway so that he may learn.
An adult, however, should be given much less, and it is at this point that this article finally connects with the world of video games. I have noticed, in most media that deal in fiction, that the Middle East has now become a popular destination for your resident superspy or maverick soldier. This is understandable. The area has become increasingly more important since the end of the Cold War, and fiction will always strive to reflect contemporary dominant conflicts. That I understand and accept.
What I do not understand, however, is the insistence that, in such a multi-cultural society, each race must be pigeon-holed into a set of easily identifiable characteristics. Not only is it lazy writing but it also encourages the same childish ignorance that I experienced all those years ago. Think for a moment: name for me any non-villainous Arab in a video game. It’s harder than you think.
Whenever they appear in a video game, Arabs are either terrorists or arrogant, oil-rich masterminds. Usually both. In the rare cases where this is not so, something is done to “Westernise” these men (for they are always men). Consider Altair in Assassin’s Creed. Ostensibly an Arab, his anachronistic American accent strips away this identity. What other friendly Arabs there are in the game tend to despise or distrust Altair, albeit for good reason, or are so insignificant that their allegiances barely matter.
Even the most famous example, the Prince of Persia, is not true to his roots. Depending on the game he’s either a sardonic Brit, brooding emo or slimy Yank. Not once is he identifiable as a Persian in any way other than his name. Steps are taken to ensure that he is more easily seen as Western than Persian, jarring in that the villain in almost every game is easily portrayed as “Arab”.
To be fair on some games, they haven’t quite caught up with this. Strategy games are the main offenders in this regard: if they haven’t managed to use the Middle East then that is probably because they are still hung up on the Russians. That said, these tend to be the most justifiable in their use of stereotypes in any case, the zoomed-out overview of the conflict not providing much in the way of opportunity for character development, and the opposing forces can be distinguished from the population at large.
Transport war into the first person perspective, however, and this distinction is gone once again. We’re back to generic Arab terrorists being evil because that’s what they do. The middle block of Splinter Cell games do this with astounding clarity, as does Modern Warfare. Alpha Protocol has the perfect example however: the main Arabic character is an open terrorist leader, oil tycoon and, given the chance, a hugely pragmatic and disloyal turncoat. As a character he goes from vile and evil to snivelling and conciliatory, then back again. He’s nothing but a grab bag of every negative personality trait they could find.
What this is, then, is both a judgement on the media in general, but primarily on video games in this case. Perpetuating this myth that a character must be Westernised to be acceptable does nothing but draw on the same childish ignorance that fuelled my fear when I was young. This one-dimensional characterisation of an entire broad and diverse area is pathetic. There is no reason for this other than sheer laziness, ignorance and unjust fear.
This is not to say that one cannot use a character from the Middle East as a villain, that would be absurd. What I do say, however, is that characters should be true to themselves. If you are using an English character in a certain role, make him English. If you are using a character from Iraq, make him Iraqi. Don’t muck about with the character by bolting on various other ethnicities for no reason other than to appease the stereotypes forged from ignorance.
Maybe this is a two-fold argument. Perhaps I’m being overly apologetic and over-sensitive, calling things out on aspects of their characters that are actually justified, or at least not nearly as bad as I have made them out to be. However, even if that is the case, the writing used for these characters is still lazy and uninspired, clichéd and stereotypical. That an entire nationality can be the villain du jour, regardless of how they are actually portrayed, should be enough to show that something is wrong in the collective consciousness.
The Arab world is no more or less sinister than the West. We know this, logically, rationally and instinctively. The idea of a nation comprised entirely of evil characters is a fictional fallacy, that is not how humanity works. A nation led by an evil man may appear to be evil, but there will always be good people within it, just as the opposite is true. Their geographical location to your own nation shouldn’t factor into this realisation.
We should, as adults, have moved beyond racial classification by now. We should understand that it is a person, not a race, that is evil, and we should not feel the need to alter the ethnicity of a character to help hammer this home. Be true to the character, not the stereotype. It’s not progressing as a species, it’s where we should already be.