Jan 7, 2019
In this Noclip Podcast Story we talk to indie developer Rami Ismail about the representation of Arabs and Islamic culture in video games and discuss the steps developers can take to buck the stereotypes. Follow Rami on Twitter.
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- [Danny] Hello and welcome to noclip, the podcast about video games and the people who make them. On today's episode we talk about how a quarter of the earth's population became video games' bad guys. Representation is an important part of any media landscape. As a kid growing up in Ireland, I can attest to the power of seeing your culture represented in a piece of global media. I remember the joy of hearing Atlas' Irish accent in BioShock, or that of Shay Patrick Cormac in Assassin's Creed Rogue. The flip side of this, of course, are the stereotypes, the drunken Irish louts and the mercenary terrorists that represented Irish people in films, games and literature throughout my childhood. Thankfully these days those associations are considered lazy writing, but sadly not every group of people are afforded such creative understanding. A few months ago I came across an interesting Twitter thread involving indie developer Rami Ismail. In it he describes how contemporary games still seem to struggle with the basics of writing Arabic, resulting in, at best, a horrific break of immersion as words are written backwards or with letters unconnected, and at worst an insulting disregard for a language spoken by over 400 million people. Rami understands this from both a cultural and developer perspective. As co-founder of Vlambeer, he has worked on numerous successful indie titles including Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box, and Luftrausers. How is it that films and games still manage to get so much wrong when it comes to depicting Arabs, muslims, or Islamic culture? There's a lot to talk about here. How media reflects our stereotypes, how fiction reflects the world as we see it and not really how it is, and even how code itself can contain racial biases. To get to the bottom of it all, I called Rami up on Skype to talk about how Islam and Arabs are portrayed in games, and the steps that developers can make to make games more accurate and to buck troubling stereotypes.
- [Rami] Yeah, so I'm Rami Ismail, I'm a Dutch Egyptian game developer. I spend a lot of my time traveling around the world working with game developers everywhere to advance the games industry in their respective countries, and in doing that I've gotten to learn a lot about the cultural impact of games and the way games reflect on culture and represent culture. And that's always sort of been an interesting story on my life, I grew up as a child of a Dutch mother and an Egyptian father, which are two quite divergent cultures to grow up between. So I've always felt a little bit of a third culture kid. And I started traveling around the world, started meeting other developers and started to learn about this games industry. And it was really only then that I really realized just how much media shapes your view of the world. Because despite being Egyptian, I've kind of internalized that Arabs are the bad guys in a lot of media. And that that is fine, for some reason. And then when I started traveling and I started to look around the world and realizing that, it actually isn't fine that I started seeing just how ubiquitous this is, this idea of like, you know, that our people are the good people and the other people are the bad people. And as soon as I started looking at it through that lens, I obviously was a little shocked because I went back to games that I loved in my childhood and just started looking at the representation of Arabs, games as old as like the arcade title Metal Slug, which is what, 20, 25 years old by now? And just realizing that we've kind of been the bad guys in media all along. And obviously it shifted, there's been a period of times where there's Nazis, periods of time where it's the Russians or the Soviets, other periods of time where it's the South Americans, but it's never, it's never the Western world. And then you start looking around and you start thinking, like, okay, well what do I know about my Egyptian family, what do I know about my Egyptian friends, like how do they feel about it? And it just kinda internalizes, you just kinda get used to this idea of, well, I guess we're the bad guys. It's weird knowing that kids in the Middle East and kids around the world are growing up with this idea of oh, yeah, we're the bad guy, like, we're supposed to shoot us, right, like shoot people that look like my parents.
- [Danny] That's interesting to me, because obviously you grew up in a sort of, in the Netherlands, I'm assuming, especially because it's English speaking, stuff is so prevalent, there's probably a lot more sort of American and British media shown there than perhaps in a lot of other European countries. But you're even saying like relatives of yours that grew up in the Middle East, it's the same thing?
- Yeah, no, when you think about it, Hollywood and the games industry, they are Western media. And in many ways they represent a Western view of what is right and wrong, what is morally acceptable, what is morally unacceptable, who is good and who is evil. And a lot of that media still makes it across, like the movies that people watch in the Arab world, they're not different movies. Yes there's obviously Arab cinema, but that doesn't exclude Western cinema from being played there, like they watch the same Avengers movies. And yes, sometimes there's modification, sometimes certain ideas about what is acceptable in a cinema, make changes to a movie. When I was a kid I would watch movies in Arab cinema and miss plot points because those plot points happened during, what's the polite way of saying it, like a romantic scene in a movie that contained too much nudity for Arab audiences in those days. Like the movies were edited for content, but in essence, they were the same movies, and nobody really cut out Arabs being blown up in a movie. That was acceptable. The same double standard we have in the West, violence is okay and sexuality is very much not. That same standard exists in the Arab world. So they're not that dissimilar, and they're consuming a lot of the same media, which means that they're also accepting a lot of the same messaging, and that's, you know, a little concerning.
- [Danny] The sort of pastiche of the Arab terrorist which persisted in the 90s, is it fair to say that that sort of, turned a little bit more evil, or had a more, I don't know, like, spiteful edge to it in a post 9/11 sort of media landscape?
- [Rami] Yeah, absolutely, and I think it's also just a more common trope now. I mean, every era has, every part of the Western era has its prevalent enemy culture, right, and for a while after 9/11 that was considered the extremist muslims. Which, you know, muslims are all over the world, they're one of the largest demographics on the planet. They live as far as Indonesia all the way down to central Africa. There's muslim countries everywhere, but really instead of doing muslim extremists, a lot of people just default it to Arab. And they're not very good at that, either. Like, if you look in movies, if you look in games, if you look in media at large, what is Arab is often conflated and mixed up. A lot of times Persian cultures that don't speak Arabic get represented, they use elements from those cultures to represent Arabs even though they are not necessarily Arabs. Not all muslims are Arabs, not all Arabs are muslim. But for ease of stereotyping they get represented that way, similar to how, and I've started, me and friends have started to call this Arabistan, this sort of like fictional Arab country in which everybody lives in a little desert village that is dusty, with small stone houses, and everybody, all the women are very thickly veiled, and all the guys are in the back of Jeeps with AK 47s with like beards and turbans, like that country does not exist. There is no place like that, and like, you will see a television series that will say like, Beirut, and show that, while Beirut in reality is like this huge metropolitan city that if you would take a photo of an average street you wouldn't be able to tell it apart from London, or any other major city. But that's not what people are selling. What they're selling, what these series are selling, is confirmation of a stereotype. People think that that's what the Arab world looks like, so if you do a scene in Beirut and it looks like a city, people won't believe it. So in a way, it's keeping itself, it's self-perpetuating.
- [Danny] This speaks to something that happens probably to every foreign culture when they're viewed in the media, but there's something about this specific sort of laziness, I feel like, when it comes to the Middle East in particular, considering probably especially that it is such a melting pot of different types of culture and ethnicity and everything else, and that that happened. Like I remember, I could imagine getting frustrated about people now knowing where Ireland is, right, like American's don't know where Ireland is, but that's not really that big a deal. Or the Aurora Borealis was in Street Fighter 3 when they were in England, and I remember thinking, what the fuck's that about, that's ridiculous. But why is there such, like, painting with a broad brush is sort of something that happens a lot, but it does seem like the brush is much broader when it comes to the Middle East. Why do you think that is, do you think it's because people know that the audience is kind of not clued in, or that they think that a Western audience doesn't really care, and they don't really care about the audience that might actually be from that place?
- [Rami] Yeah, I think it's mostly the second thing. There's no, for a lot of Western media, there's no particular appeal in appealing to Arab audiences. Even though the Middle East is one of the fastest developing regions in the world, and it's not a poor region, it's a relatively rich region as well. Only recently have people started to look at the region as like an actual place of people. And it's sad that this has to be an economical function rather than like a moral function that people would just get it right, because if you make a movie that includes a certain culture you should represent it well. But being Dutch, like, I know the Netherlands gets represented as speaking German in movies very frequently, like, that's just a thing, right? Scenes that are supposed to be in Amsterdam are shot in like, Berlin. And in the Netherlands that's common, but the thing is, that's not, it's not a misrepresentation of who the people are as a people, it's just the wrong place. They're still represented as positive, friendly, kind of European, you know, kind of quaint people. Which, fair enough for the Netherlands, I can see how that works, but for Arabs, who are often stereotyped as aggressives, as angry, as evil, as plotting and scheming. As a game developer, I love the medium of video games. But if I have to name you like five Arab protagonist characters, or not even active protagonist, not a player character, not like a main protagonist, but even a fellow protagonist or a secondary character, I could maybe name you two? Just off the top of my head. And I've researched this, obviously, right, there's just not a lot of characters like that. I remember playing Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, and there was a scene in that where you're in Cairo, like future Cairo, and there's a rebellion that is fighting alongside you, and I was just, I was so excited that these Egyptians, these fellow countrymen of mine, were fighting on the good side. I was elated, I was so happy that this was a scene in the game and then obviously they betray you later on, because no Arab can be trustworthy in a video game, apparently. And it just broke my heart. It's one of those moments where you're like, even that moment of like, oh, these people are fine, they're also fighting for good. It just wasn't a thing, like that, they had to betray you for that character to make sense to the writers or to the developers or the creators. And it's incredibly sad when you think of that in that that is the message that's being perpetuated, while at the same time a lot of movies, TV series, games, don't even take the time to get the language right. Or to take the environment right. To place cities in the right countries, or to even make them somewhat believable. There's just an incredible laziness to which Arabs are used as antagonists that is somewhat similar to how a lot of old movies used Nazis as antagonists. And honestly, when it comes to Nazis, you know, fair enough. The Nazi Reich did horrible things, and their ideology as a group, which was not a huge group, but as a group, was evil. And I think we all agree about that, and there's no real discussion about it. But you can't really say that about Arabs. The difference between a Lebanese person who is, the Lebanese tend to be very Western, very progressive, very Western-focused, and very modern in that regard. And somebody in Saudi Arabia which is more strict, more Islamic, more muslim-focused, they're both Arabs. But there's no consistent evil Arabs there, like, they're not Nazis.
- [Danny] So do you think that media sort of, as the years progressed and Nazis became less and less relevant that there was a sort of a Nazi-shaped hole left in, I guess, tropes, and then essentially Middle Eastern people just kinda filled it?
- [Rami] Well yeah, that and the soviets, right? Like it was the Russians or the Arabs, and then eventually the Russians weren't that scary anymore because they haven't really caused war for a long time. So for a while they tried the Chinese, but China controls a lot of media nowadays as well, so that doesn't really fly either. So the Arabs are left, the Arabs don't have a lot of influence on the world stage, there have been incidents and wars in the region, often not caused by the people there, but wars that happened to them, but regardless, war. There is absolutely an extremist part of the Arab world or the muslim world. And yes, there has been terrorism in the region, absolutely, but when you think about it, most of the victims of that type of terrorism have been people that live there. They live under terrorist groups or in terrorist territory, and the people most affected are the local people there. And they're also Arab. Sometimes also muslim. So when you think about it, the media needs a bogey man. It needs an evil that we can all agree on is evil, and the thing is, for Arabs, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's the most visceral thing that can represent evil to a lot of people, and part of that is self-perpetuating. Part of that started with 9/11, but then as things went, as things changed, it never corrected to being a truthful representation of the world. And instead we're still watching TV series in which Beirut is a sandy village full with people with AK 47s.
- [Danny] When you think about the games that sort of stand out from this awful stereotype, the games that sort of maybe didn't get everything right, but did something right, what are some examples that you have? What comes to mind for me as somebody who, I've barely been to the Middle East, I've only ever been to various cities in the Emirates, which is its own culture as well. But to me, the only one that sort of struck any sort of a chord seems to be the first Assassin's Creed game, although that was largely in sort of Christian, Israeli areas. But what are the ones, is that a good example, or is that an example that through my Western eyes looks accurate, but actually through more accurate eyes is not?
- [Rami] Well I mean obviously Altair, who was the main character of Assassin's Creed, like I remember playing that game and just realizing that my Arab was useful here. Understanding Arab made a difference because Al Mualim, which is one of the main characters in the game, just means the wise one. Like Altair means the flying one, and Altair Ibn-La'Ahad which was the full name of the main character in that game means Altair the son of no one. I understand these things before the game would explain them and it was a phenomenal feeling, it was great. Just realizing that this part of my culture, even though it wasn't Egyptian, per se, but part of the Lavantian region, that this was taken seriously, was incredible. Also Assassin's Creed Origins, the most recent version of the game, is technically about Ancient Egypt, but like most Assassin's Creed games, there is a contemporary element to the games, and in this case it takes place in Egypt with an Egyptian main character. And she is a phenomenal character, westernized, but a modern, westernized but clearly of Arab heritage person. There's a moment where she curses in the game and she does it in Egyptian, and like in the right accent, with the right tone, with the right Egyptian, like, words, and it feels very, it felt very nice, it felt like a little wink to the people that are Egyptian or Arab that would recognize that. Deus Ex Human Revolution had a female Arab character in the game, and she wasn't the protagonist, but she was a trustworthy, reliable person. Call of Duty Infinite Warfare had a Lebanese soldier that she, as well, was a dependable, trustworthy person that plays a major role in the story. Overwatch has two Arab characters that are actually really good, Pharah and Ana, and both of them are fully realized Egyptian characters, as well. But the amount of times you actually take control of a fully Arab kind of contemporary person, I don't think I could name you any, at the moment.
- [Danny] Where do you think the impetus is to getting this stuff right? Is it a mixture of more Arab people being involved in development, or is it the fear that Rami Ismail will get on Twitter and start giving out to people, or is it the developing audience within that marketplace, or is it just that games generally are being held to a higher cultural standard than they were 15 years ago, what do you think?
- [Rami] I think it's a little bit of all of it. I don't think my Twitter is that big of a deal in the whole but, obviously people giving attention to an issue or pointing out that something is an issue makes people look at it and reconsider just how sloppily this is handled. And when I say sloppily, that's not an exaggeration. Again, in many games, Arabic is a beautiful script written from right to left, it's cursive, so all the letters are connected. The amount of games in which, or even movies, movies like Captain America Civil War, or games like Battlefield, these giant titles, often just get Arabic wrong. It's not written properly, it's the right words written backwards with no letters connected. Something that any Arab, if any Arab had looked at these scenes or these moments in these media expressions, they would've immediately said, well that's wrong, we should fix it. But that doesn't happen because the representation of these people, the attendance of these people in the creative process is just very low at the moment, we're not represented well because we're not. We don't have access to these creative processes very often, and that's changing. In the last few years there's been an increasing amount of Arabs that have joined the games industry or that have gotten in positions of more influence in the games industry. At the same time, the market in the Middle East is growing. Where a decade ago, two decades ago, a lot of games that you would buy in the region, because of the economical differences between the West and Egypt, would be pirated copies. You would go to a store, you would buy a pirated version of FIFA 2001, and it would come pre-installed with a crack that would allow you to play this pirated copy on the disk. But now that the economy is sort of shifting and the world is globalizing, a lot of Arab countries also just buy legal games. The digital revolution obviously helped a lot there. So people have way broader access to games now than ever before, and it also means that the market there has grown. And then finally, like you said, I think games are being held to higher cultural standards, too, I think as the medium is maturing and as games are becoming a broader and broader part of the global conversation, of the global awareness, of the global consciousness, not just the creators feel an increased responsibility to represent the world well or even their fictional worlds well, to not take shortcuts when they can avoid it and to not take harmful shortcuts under any circumstance. At the same time, the audiences are more critical of the media they consume, and they're not as happy to just be like yeah, of course, Arabs are the bad guys, clearly. Evil that is just evil is less and less accepted in our media, and if there is somebody evil we like to have a justification, like why is our protagonist fighting this person, what brought this person to be that. You see that in big blockbuster movies like Avengers Infinity War in which the antagonist is basically the main character in the movie. But you also see it in some of the stereotypes in other places where even if you are an Arab that doesn't make you evil, there's a separate thing, a separate like, inciting incident that puts the character on a certain trajectory. That makes me hopeful, because that's honestly a way more true version of the world. People aren't evil because they are of a certain race or heritage, or country, or ideology, they do bad things because they believe that is the best course of action for them or their family or their life, or their people. That holds true for honestly most things in the world. People are not evil because they're Arab. They might be evil despite being Arab. Most Arabs I know are, pretty much all Arabs I know, honestly, are tremendous, welcoming, warm, hospitable people that you meet them and they will invite you for dinner the same day.
- [Danny] This reminds me a little bit of when I was talking to CD Projekt about how so many of the games that were coming from, I guess across the Iron Curtain, at that stage and then later once they'd joined, or once the wall had fallen down, that there was a big sort of culture of localization happening there along with that pirate scene. Is there any sense of that at all in the Middle East that like, some of these big blockbuster games are getting some kind of localization treatment?
- Yeah, no, it makes a huge difference. Until recently, the three games that were ever translated in to Arab were FIFA Pro Evolution Soccer, and for some reason, WALL-E. I have no reason why WALL-E, but WALL-E had Arab localization. But more recently, a lot more games have had Arab localization, and it's frequently not Arab voice acting, that's still pretty rare, but a lot of games at least have Arab menus, they have menus that are displayed properly from the right to the left instead of the left to the right, like they invert their UI. The Division had that, I think Horizon Zero Dawn had Arabic. A lot of blockbusters are starting to take the market seriously which means that in return, the markets are taking these games as products made for them instead of things you just download from the internet illegally because it's not for you anyway. And that's honestly, it marks a huge shift. It's an important moment, I think, that a lot of these major platforms and a lot of these creators are realizing that there are people out there that are interested in their media. All they need is just to feel like they are respected even the tiniest bit, and they're, instead of being, instead of the bullet point on the game that refers to Arabs being, well now if you blow up the car, the Arab guy that's next to it will fly away with more spectacular rag dolls. Like, instead of that, saying hey, we see you as a people, we see you as a person, and we think you deserve the same level of respect and attention, the localization, the culturalization, that all of these other cultures have. And that, you know, it just means, even though nobody will consciously be able to put into words that difference, it is huge, it is night and day.
- [Danny] As somebody who understands games production, what are the ways in which this sort of gets solved? Is it just a case of having more Arab people on staff, is it a case of, I don't know. Is this something that just takes time or is there some more immediate way that like, 'cause we have a lot of developers that listen to our stuff as well. Is there any best cases or any stuff that can help fix this issue?
- [Rami] Obviously if you're gonna represent Arabic culture, you have to think very careful about what Arabic culture means. Because Egyptian culture is extraordinarily different from the culture in, say, Saudi Arabia, which is different from the culture in Lebanon which is different from the culture in Syria which is different from the, like, every one of these countries is its own culture, the same way you wouldn't get away with representing California as, say, Montana, or you wouldn't get away with representing London as Dublin. They are different cultures. Even though they have a lot in common, they sometimes speak the same language, they might have accents. Thinking of Arabs as one thing is already a problem, the same way thinking of Arabic as one language is incorrect. The easiest way to get that right is obviously if you're doing something in the Arabic world, have Arabs look at it, have Arabs confirm it, and don't just have them confirm it at the start, but have them confirm it at every stage through the process. The main reason for that is that computers are actually terrible at Arabic, they're devices made to deal with the English language. Which is written from left to right as individual characters while Arabic is written right to left as a cursive script, so the letters have to be connected. Computers were never built to do that. No computer was ever built to deal with a cursive script or a script that is connected. So the way Arabic works in computers is technically kind of a hack, and until 2017 even Word, Excel and PowerPoint didn't properly support Arabic, that is a relatively recent addition to the Office suite of programs is proper Arabic support. Which means that, until 2017, if you copy/pasted an Arabic sentence from Word to PowerPoint, it would break.
- [Danny] That seems incredible in 2017 for that to be an issue.
- [Rami] Yeah, this was like a big update, Arabic support in Office. But that is still true for a lot of software, that Arabic breaks, and one of the pieces of software is a commonly used creative tool, Photoshop. Which still does not support Arabic properly. So in a game production or a movie production, often what will happen is they will have English text, they will ask for it to be translated, the translation company will send back the translated file, and then the artists or the creatives that work with it copy paste from that file to their programs or software or whatever they're using, and then it breaks, but they don't notice, because they don't understand the language. So they don't notice that the text is broken or inverted, or that the letters are no longer connected, because as far as they're aware, copy paste always works. So having Arabs involved in every step of this process, and not just Arabs, preferably Arabs from the region you're representing, is a huge difference. Then the second thing is like, obviously the Arab region is full of mythology and history and culture, music, art, stuff like that, and it's very easy to base a fictional culture on that. If you do that, it might be worthwhile trying to think of anything more interesting than it is a place with sand in which everything is terrible. Overwatch did a really beautiful map of, I forgot which country it was, I think Iraq, and in that map it's displayed as this beautiful city full of like green and glass tall towers, and this positive view of the future. And you know, just that, just the representation as something else than a forgotten part of the world would mean a lot. So when people think of creating a space, a fictional or realistic space in the Arab world, make sure they involve Arabs. Try to think of anything but, this is where the terrorists live. And try to think of it as like a place that has aspirations, hopes, that is trying to, given a lot of the messed up history there, whether it's messed up from colonialism or messed up from invasions, or messed up from war or messed up from corruption or political problems, whatever the reason is, a lot of these territories have issues that they're desperately trying to fix, they have a youth that is so hopeful for the future, that wants things to be better, that is willing to, you know, go on the streets and protest, to cause revolutions, to try and make the world better. Back them up. Give them something to believe in, give them a future to believe in, and make them feel heard, make them feel valuable. If anything, isn't that what games and media should be about? Showing us a mirror of the world that sometimes shows us what is bad, but also sometimes shows us what is good. Like there's an entire people out there that the only mirror they've ever had shows them as terrorists, and that's incredibly sad to me.
- [Danny] Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the noclip podcast. If you don't already, you can follow Rami on Twitter @tha_rami, that's T-H-A underscore R-A-M-I. Thanks so much to him for taking the time to talk to us, I believe he took the call from a hallway of a games convention in, I wanna say it was Croatia. It was a few months ago now, so I can't quite remember. I'd also like to wish you a happy new year, and tell you that we're actually going to be changing the format of this podcast quite a bit in 2019. As you can probably tell from this episode, I'm stripping out some of the more time-intensive editing techniques that I used in previous episodes to basically try and get more of these out there. In fact, instead of this being a sort of edited, curated type of show, we're gonna do it more conversational. More like a lot of podcasts out there, but instead of it being a collection of people who talk every week, we're gonna talk to a new person within this sort of massive global sphere of games every episode. So that might be a developer, it might be somebody who works in the press, it might be somebody who is actually not involved in games but has a completely other interesting facet of their life and also plays games. As it turns out, we have a sort of a massive document full of people who are super interested and down to do this, and if I just did these recorded, edited interviews like this, I'd never get around to doing them. So what we're gonna do is essentially make this a more conversational type of podcast, and then every once in a while do these curated, highly edited episodes sort of like special stories every once in a while. The next one of those you're going to hear will be an interview with Jeff Gerstmann I conducted about the 10 year anniversary of Giant Bomb, and his history of working in the games press. But aside from that, the rest of the podcast you're gonna hear on this feed are going to be less edited and more frequent. The plan is to make this a weekly show at some stage in 2019, but we're gonna sort of ramp up to it a little bit slowly. If that sounds like a good idea to you, or a terrible one, let me know. I'm @dannyodwyer on Twitter. As ever, thank you to our incredible patrons for supporting our work. You can support our documentaries, this podcast, and more, by joining up on patreon.com/noclip. You also get access to this podcast early via a special RSS feed, not to mention all the other goodies we give out on the Patreon every week. Thank you so much for supporting our show, I'm very excited to take it into new and interesting places in 2019. Talk to you soon.