The fuss over Dante's Inferno: driven by culture or profit?

Electronic Arts, an American-based video game developer, made the unprecedented decision not to release its latest title, Dante's Inferno, in the Middle East. Entertainment giant bans its own game, proclaimed the headline of a story in The National last week. The official rational provided by Electronic Arts for this act of self-censorship was that they had decided not to release the game in the Middle East after an evaluation process based on "consumer tastes, preferences, platform mix and other factors". This rather vague explanation rang particularly hollow to me, having read the 14th century epic poem, on which the game is based.

Dante's Inferno is one part of The Divine Comedy by the Florentine Dante Aligheri. It is considered one of medieval Europe's pre-eminent literary works. So how could a medieval poem inspire enough blood, guts, sex and violence to earn its derivative game a pre-emptive ban by its own creators? Grand Theft Auto IV didn't even achieve that accolade. The poem offers lots of opportunity for gruesome eschatological violence. What better backdrop for carnage, mayhem and darkness than the medieval mind's depiction of eternal damnation and hellfire?

In the original poem Dante is given a guided tour of the nine levels of hell, encountering on route a multitude of sinners hideously transformed in ways that bespeak the nature of their earthly transgressions. For example, those whose sin was "fortune telling" are depicted as creatures having their heads twisted 180 degrees, requiring them to walk backwards in order to see where they are going - a fitting punishment for those who tried to see the future. Dante encounters other personifications of vice including lust, gluttony, miserliness, and wrath to name just a few of the deadly sins featured in the various levels of hell.

However, the real controversy for any game based on this poem starts when we reach the 8th level of hell, the infamous Canto 28 of the poem. Here Dante houses what he describes as the fraudulent, including among others the hypocrites, thieves and schismatics. It is within this level of hell that Dante chooses to place the Prophet Muhammed and Ali ibn Abi Talib, Islam's fourth Khalifa, and the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. This obviously presents a problem for the game's developers. Even the slightest hint that any of the characters depicted in the game are revered Islamic personages could potentially lead to far reaching protests.

In Dante's day, Islam was an obvious enemy and Muslims were the infidel to be reviled and injured with impunity for a largely Roman Catholic Europe. To add injury to insult Dante may have even borrowed his ideas for The Divine Comedy from Islamic sources, without giving credit of course. There are several prominent scholars who argue strongly that Dante's divine comedy is heavily influenced by an Islamic text known as Kitab Al Miraj (the book of ascension), which was translated into Latin and Spanish a century before Dante's work. This book is based upon the Prophet Muhammed's descriptions of his miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and his ascension to heaven. Having also read the source materials for Kitab Al Miraj, I concur with those suggesting that Dante borrowed his ideas and then relegated his source to the 8th level of hell.

So why choose to base a video game on Dante's Divine Comedy? Basing a game on a medieval work known to contain inflammatory remarks and depictions of revered Islamic personages is at the very least insensitive. But is the decision to keep the game out of the Middle East an after-the-fact attempt at corridor cultural sensitivity or a pre-emptive apology? Neither of those make sense given that the game will be widely available elsewhere in the world, where I'm sure consumer preferences are not so radically dissimilar to those of people residing in the Middle East.

Perhaps Electronic Arts is just trying to leverage the controversy, and the self imposed ban is part of an extensive and Machiavellian marketing campaign. By all accounts the game would have been banned in the region anyway based on its violent and sexual content. An unprecedented self imposed ban would have stirred up additional attention. It has. If the web chatter from the gaming community is to be believed, the game is at best mediocre. Hype born of controversy is a not so subtle way to recoup costs.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology in the department of health sciences at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

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