Beyond Comparison: Reframing Analysis of Video Games Produced in the Middle East

Article excerpt

Abstract

Over the past decade, multiple video games have been produced in the Middle East. Some are the product of political groups (Special Forces) or individual creators (The Stone Throwers) while others are produced by game development companies like Afkar Media (UnderAsh, UnderSeige). The few academic articles on the subject (Galloway, 2004; Machin & Suleiman, 2006; Sisler, 2006) focus on these games primarily in comparison to games produced in the United States. This paper seeks to shift that focus. By first analyzing how this dichotomy is constructed in both popular and academic discourses and then using interviews with Arab gamers and game designers, I look at how we might rethink the study of representation in video games by localizing our focus on game design, content and play.

Keywords: Video games, Middle East, Arab, cultural production, reception

Introduction

In the years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the beginning of simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the representation (both in and out group) of Arabs in video games and elsewhere have been written of with a palpable urgency. Often this results in a conflation of religious, national, and ancestral identities (in many articles the Middle East equals Arab which in turn is often equated with Islam). Articles, popular or academic, tend to look critically at the representations in games produced both within and outside the Middle East. In terms of the former, critiques are positioned in relation to a fear that games produced within the Middle East are essentially "terrorist simulators" (Harnden, 2004; Marks, 2006; Wakin, 2003). Articles addressing the latter are concerned with rising prejudice towards Arabs and Muslims, similar to Shaheen's (2001) and Semmerling's (2006) analysis of Arab representation in film.

While the study of digital games is a growing and varied academic field, only cursory interest has been paid to the small but growing Arab gaming sector. Over the past decade, multiple video games have been produced in the Middle East. Some are the product of political groups (Special Forces) or individual creators (The Stone Throwers). Others games are produced by game development companies like Afkar Media (UnderAsh, UnderSeige). The few academic articles on the subject (Galloway, 2004; Machin & Suleiman, 2006; Sisler, 2006) focus on the games primarily in comparison to games produced in the United States. This focus makes sense as media coverage of these games primarily situates them as reactions to the images of Arabs in Anglo-produced video games and as peripheral to mainstream video games. These popular and academic accounts situate these games as interesting only in their relation to American/European video games. This paper seeks to shift that focus. By first analyzing how this dichotomy is constructed in both popular and academic discourses and then using interviews with Arab gamers and game designers, I look at how we might rethink the study of representation in video games by localizing our focus on game design, content and play.

Video Games in the Middle East

In 2001 a Syrian medical student created the game The Stone Throwers, which allowed players to take on the role of a Palestinian fighting against Israeli police during the Second Intifada (Galloway, 2004; Halter, 2006; Vargas, 2006). At the time, the game, still freely downloadable[i], appears to have only made news in the Middle Eastern press. A year later however, Afkar Media made international news when it released UnderAsh, a game which puts players in the role of Ahmed, a young Palestinian fighting against Israelis during the First Intifada (Agence France Presse, 2002). Afkar Media has since released a sequel called UnderSiege (with two more in production) as well an adventure game titled Victory Castle about the myths of Palmyra (Radwan Kasmiya, Personal communication, March 20, 2007). …