Anti-Arab stereotypes persist, even in console games

UAE-based video game designers are starting to tell our own stories, says James Tennent.

With the new wave of gaming, the UAE could take hold of the culutral narrative in the industry. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg
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For those of us who still remember the days of copied PlayStation 2 games handed over in flimsy plastic packaging for a few hard-earned dirhams, it feels strange that the culture of video games is only just starting to change. The events of the past year have shown that gaming culture, within its communities and character representation in games, is still sullied by bigotry.

As someone who grew up in the Middle East, it seemed obvious to me that group games were, and often still are, happy to marginalise Arabs. Every other first-person shooter seemed to have you aiming your crosshairs at bearded Arab men and they were always called terrorists. The simplistic war narrative of video games – though challenged recently with games like This War of Mine – is another issue still being resolved.

The wonderful thing about gaming becoming larger as a medium and bringing with it a wider audience (mainly thanks to the exponential growth of mobile games), is that we’ll get more stories. Just like you don’t want to watch the same movie over and over (as much as they try to make us) the US-male-centric narratives, that we had no choice but to play, have become tedious.

Thankfully, studios across the Gulf are starting to make games aimed at the region’s own audience and challenge the stereotypes that are otherwise out there.

In Qatar, Girnaas studio has found fair success with its game Giddam, a side-scrolling run and jump iOS and Android game with a host of kandura-wearing and abaya-sporting characters. That might not sound revolutionary but, simply put, I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a man in a game in any form of Arabic dress who wasn’t pointing a gun at me.

In New York, at the end of April, Prince Fahad bin Faisal Al Saud of Saudi Arabia took to the stage at the Games for Change Festival to talk about his childhood experience with games and ask: “Why was I misrepresented like this so often? Is someone doing this on purpose, generally presenting me as some supersized, bearded, brown-skinned terrorist?”

He then went on to talk about the role he planned for himself and the kingdom in challenging Arabs’ portrayal.

His studio, Na3m, with offices in Amman and Copenhagen, has released the camel-racing game Run Camel Run in both English and Arabic, as well as several other titles.

The change is coming and the UAE is in the perfect position to take the lead. In 2012, renowned game studio Ubisoft chose Abu Dhabi as the base for its regional operations.

Ubisoft Abu Dhabi has shown its might too. Its mobile game CSI: Hidden Crimes has been downloaded 25 million times in 120 different countries. With the infrastructure already here – not just gaming studios but a wide range of talented media companies and marketing agencies – the UAE could lead the way in telling new stories about the Arab world through gaming.

The Middle East is a region rich with culture and history, one that’s often been used by others to tell stories that fit other agendas. With the new wave of gaming, the UAE could take hold of the cultural narrative and show the gaming communities what it really means to live as someone in the Gulf and how wrong the general stereotypes can so often be.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai studios can start to tell the real stories of the region, be those ancient, beautiful mythologies, true historical narratives or real-life modern day stories.

Not only is it a great idea to get more involved in an industry that is worth billions upon billions of dollars internationally every year, encouraging the sector here will give the country the chance to take our story out of the hands of those who don’t understand it. It will give the region the chance to change the narrative into one we can all get behind – one that really represents what the country and region is.

James Tennent is a freelance writer in London

On Twitter: @duckytennent