Turkey's 'counter-strike' against Islamophobia in video games

Dozens of video games released during the past two decades have depicted Muslims as villains.

Photo by: Screengrab via Youtube
Photo by: Screengrab via Youtube

Muslim characters in Call of Duty game series are portrayed as the bad guys.

Updated Nov 11, 2016

In January 2008, a video game titled ‘Muslim Massacre’ was released as a free download on the internet. The objective of the game was to “wipe out the Muslim race” and was played through the perspective of an “American hero”.

The game created a storm and though it received wide condemnation, it wasn’t banned. But 'Muslim Massacre' wasn't the first instance of a video game depicting Muslims as villains. Many others have been developed, especially after the 1991 Gulf War, and have largely gone unnoticed.

But a new initiative by Turkey aims to put the spotlight on a trend in the gaming industry which trivialises the destruction of Islam's holiest sites and depicts Muslims as villains.

"What you see in these games is no worse than anti-semitism," Deputy Sports and Youth Minister Abdurrahim Boynukalin told TRT World. His ministry is overseeing the initiative which lists games promoting Islamophobia on a dedicated website launched earlier this month.

Popular video games such as Call of Duty and Counter-Strike, released globally, have regularly portrayed Muslim characters as villains.

Use of Arabic words, Islamic phrases likes 'Allah o Akbar' and cities in Muslim countries are associated with the ‘bad guys’.

Initially, the Games Islamophobia website carried names of only 12 games such as 'Muslim Massacre' and 'Minaret Attack.' The latter allows players to blow up parts of mosques.

"In just a few days we have received 320 complaints about 25 other games. People are taking interest and that's what we wanted achieve. We want to create awareness."

The issue was also raised at the Organisation of Islamic Countries conference in Istanbul in October and will also be discussed at several other international forums.

The Turkish government's move is specifically aimed at spreading the word about Islamophobic content and receiving public feedback, Boynukalin said.

"We have no plans to ban these games. In a way we are just trying to counter the propaganda." 

Representation of Muslim characters as sword wielding, nomadic tribesmen who are generally painted as evil and aggressive is nothing new. The earliest computer games used such images.

Stereotypes and violent behaviour

The games can still be played in Turkey, a substantial market for developers with 22 million gamers.

But this attempt has drawn criticism from users on forums such as Reddit.

Some people see it as a political move.

"This is in not an attack on freedom of speech," Boynukalin counters.

"We have every right to create awareness about something we see as insulting beliefs of so many people."

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), "studies of children exposed to violent media have shown that they may become numb to violence, imitate the violence, and show more aggressive behavior". 

The AACAP says some of the most popular games "promote racial and gender stereotypes".

Islamophobia appears in various forms in the digital world and the gaming industry is dominated by western developers such as Capcom, Activision and Valve Corporation.

"Muslim blood is cheap. We are probably the cheapest blood on earth right now in the media," Rami Ismail, the developer behind the game Nuclear Throne, said at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) earlier this year.

But some games, like the ones pointed out by the Turkish government, go beyond simple stereotyping of the image of Muslims. 

For instance, in Resident Evil 4 there is a scenario which shows a book resembling the Quran lying on the floor. In Devil May Cry 3, the door of Kaaba, the holiest site for Muslims, is portrayed as entrance to a demonic fortress.

What's most common is to find characters with Muslim names as the aggressors, sporting long beards and turbans – a stereotypical outlook of how Muslim men are perceived by many around the world. 

Developers often insert their view of a situation in reality games, completely distorting the facts like in this part of Call of Duty that shows Arabic written on signboards in an Urdu-speaking Pakistani city.

This perception goes back to what developers based in the US and Europe thought of the Arabs in the 1980s.

Prince of Persia, one of the earliest computer games, features objects generally associated with Muslims such as turbans, camels and the protagonist trying to escape a brutal Caliph.

While video games are meant to be fun and fictional, some games completely distort facts.

Waqas Siddiqui, an avid gamer from Pakistan, says he has noted recurring Islamophobic themes in popular games

"And this is not something new. Remember the 1987 movie Robocop? There was a scene in it when a boy is playing a game in which Pakistan is nuked."

Siddiqui says, some games such as Call of Duty, are “hilarious” in the depiction of Pakistan and its largest city, Karachi.

"So it shows US marines fighting in Karachi. But there is Arabic written on the walls. The developers should have known we speak Urdu. (the TV series Homeland also made the same mistake)

"Secondly, Karachi is a thriving metropolis and you won’t find any bombed out buildings like they show in the game."

Game developers say participation of Muslims in the gaming industry can help address the problem of Islamophobia.

"Diversity in the games industry is the overarching issue," Dr. Romana Ramzan, a lecturer in game design at Glasgow Caledonian University, said at the GDC.

"If we've got greater diversity in the game industry then we can tackle these issues with greater sensitivity as well."

Author: Saad Hasan