It's no secret that Arabs and Muslims are not exactly the darlings of American culture. We've been demonized in the US since at least since the 1970s, when the OPEC oil embargo and the Iran hostage crisis stoked new levels of hostility toward middle easterners in the American public. I experienced this as a child in the 1980s, when movies showed rabid Libyans gunning down Doc Brown in Back to the Future, and my real world saw the Arab community center in my Michigan hometown burned to the ground not once, but twice, by arsonists. Things haven't gotten much better since - from the first Gulf War to the backlash for the attacks on the World Trade Center nine years ago, the dial on the "Muslims are dangerous" rhetoric has long been cranked to 11 in America. All this time, popular culture has played a role in shaping that rhetoric, from "classic" cheeseball action flicks like Chuck Norris's Delta Force to contemporary "torturetainment" like 24. With a few notable exceptions, TV and movies have been telling Americans for years that all Arabs and Muslims are our enemies.
Videogames have, often enough, contributed to this rhetoric, but games also complicate and even undermine such universal hatred. Like TV and Hollywood movies, the purposes of videogames are to make money, and to entertain. But that's not all videogames do - games can also teach us how to think about "other" peoples, how to hate "bad guys," and, once in a rare while, how to take a second, more critical look at the Us vs. Them dichotomy that we've been handed by other parts of our culture.
Tales of the Exotic East
In Orientalism (1978), his landmark study of Western attitudes toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, the late Columbia English professor Edward Said defined "Orientalism" as Western culture's tendency to depict the Middle East through "a series of crude, essentialized caricatures." Some of these caricatures "present [the Islamic world] in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression." Others are more positive, but still treat the Middle East as an exotic land perpetually stuck in the past. Gaming has as many examples of the latter as it does of the former.
The original Prince of Persia, a ground-breaking platformer released in 1989, is the game that made this mold. Its plot revolves around a blonde-ish foreigner who comes to ancient Persia, falls in love with the princess and is swiftly locked up in the Sultan's dungeon by the evil vizier Jafar. He spends the course of the game escaping the dungeon. I can recall how refreshing it was for me as a young geek to sit there controlling the on-screen hero, hanging from ledges, avoiding spiked pits and quaffing potions - doing all the stuff that videogame heroes did - all while being the Prince of Persia! For a young Muslim gamer, it was nothing short of revolutionary. It wasn't until years later that I reflected on the fact that the hero was blonde, while the evil swordsmen wore turbans.