In a disturbing but probably inevitable case of "two can play at that game," Hezbollah developed a similarly simple-minded shooter called Special Force in 2003 in which the Muslim hero avenges his martyred comrades by blowing away Israeli soldiers. The graphics are not spectacular, but the message is unmistakable: a two-dimensional, blow-'em-away approach to entertainment can cut both ways.
Islam for Non-Idiots
Distinct in some sense from both the mythologizing Arabian Nights-inspired games of yore and the "blow 'em away" games that are more popular nowadays is a very small handful of titles that attempt to depict something more complex than either sympathetic cartoonish nostalgia or negative killfests. This category is the least populated, but the games that fall into it are titans.
Sid Meier's Civilization series has featured Saladin and other Middle Eastern historical figures as playable leaders, thus putting the usually-vilified Muslim character on a level playing field with Western characters. Even more impressively, Civ games have made a point of providing gamers with a historical/cultural context that's sorely missing from other games. The Civilopedia from Civ III, for instance, displays a sophisticated understanding of Islamic culture that's worlds away from America's Army: "Jihad is the only type of war legitimized by Islam, yet the word itself is still misunderstood by Westerners. 'Holy War' is the often-used misleading translation of Jihad, which in fact is meant to consist of an individual's or a communal 'struggle' against evil, within one's self, and in order to protect Islam, but never as a tool for conversion." It's true that not every player will bother to look this up, but it's worth noting that deeper exploration of the game entails improving understanding of Muslim culture, rather than killing more Muslims.
And then there's Assassin's Creed.
The tangled plot of the first Assassin's Creed game is a labyrinth of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy. The game opens with the explanatory note "This work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs." It shows. Assassin's Creed is quite possibly the most sophisticated and complex depiction of the Crusades that Western popular culture has yet produced. Muslims and Christians alike are shown to have fanatics, thinkers, madmen, thieves, and honorable warriors among their ranks. By analogical extension, it's also one of the most nuanced depictions of contemporary Western and Islamic relations in American culture. From the perspective of this Muslim Arab gamer, Assassin's Creed is a work of genius. And I swear it's not just because, as a guy named Saladin, I get an ego-boost every time Altair passes by the rabble-rousing street preacher who says "We must be strong, my brothers! Strong like Saladin!"
Both Civ III and Assassin's Creed also locate their Eastern protagonists in the past. But they offer a more nuanced view of the past by calling into question the whole simplistic good/evil divide. More provocatively, they potentially put the player in the surprising position of a Muslim hero facing off against Western enemies.
The relatively short history of videogame depictions of Muslim characters so far closely mirrors the rest of American popular culture, but that doesn't mean that games must continue to follow suit. Intriguing possibilities for a more honest portrayal of Middle Easterners are already presenting themselves. Games like Assassin's Creed and Civilization have paved the way for diverse depictions of Muslim heroes. More controversially, the Medal of Honor franchise - in a move that has infuriated armchair patriots but has met with mixed reactions from actual soldiers - will soon complicate simplistic hero/villain dichotomies by offering the option to play as the Taliban during multiplayer matches. I don't know that such moves will forever solve the dilemma of the Middle East's depiction in gaming. But I do know that I'm not the only Muslim geek out there hoping to spend more of my gaming hours jumping off buildings in medieval Jerusalem and fewer of them blowing away guys who look like my Dad.
Saladin Ahmed's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula and Campbell awards. His Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy novel "Throne of the Crescent Moon" is forthcoming from DAW books.