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Historian and games consultant Glaire Anderson highlights the importance of DEI and how Ubisoft's open-world game was elevated by insightful research.

Alessandro Fillari, Contributor

March 22, 2024

7 Min Read
Speaker Glaire Anderson at the GDC podium
via GDC

At GDC 2024,  Glaire Anderson, historian, games consultant, and founder of the Digital Lab for Islamic Visual Culture & Collections, hosted a panel examining the current state of representation of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) cultures in gaming. Highlighting her work as a history consultant on Assassin's Creed Mirage and its recreation of ancient Baghdad, she explained how much has changed in recent years with current Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives from gaming companies.

Citing her experiences working with developers, the panel explained the importance of DEI and why consulting companies like Sweet Baby Inc. are so valuable, and according to Anderson, why consulting with experts on games for cultural and historical authenticity can make every game better.

Leaving "Arabistan" behind and finding authenticity

"My mission is to bridge the gap between academia and the industry, to make Islamic art, architecture, and civilization accessible to all through games and entertainment," said Anderson about the Digital Lab for Islamic Visual Culture & Collections. "To carry out that mission, I help developers make authentic, inclusive, and engaging games."

The title of Anderson's panel, Leaving 'Arabistan': A Collaborative Approach to Representing Muslims and the MENA, is about a term coined by game developer Osama Dorias during a GDC 2018 talk where he examined how games often mishandled representation of Middle Eastern cultures. Dorias stated that games, particularly shooters, tend to depict Middle Eastern settings as war-torn and victimized spaces that are aesthetic hodgepodges of different areas of the region.

Anderson cited his 2018 talk as a reminder of the importance of authenticity in games and for DEI initiatives, especially considering that games have a history of featuring MENA characters as enemies or harmful stereotypes. This narrowed focus, which isn't often grounded in reality, can be detrimental, especially considering that a sizable portion of the gaming audience comes from the Middle East and South Asian countries.

In many ways, Dorias' 2018 talk served as a precursor to the modern historical and diversity pushes in recent years, leading to Anderson becoming a consultant for Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series—which she credits her son with introducing her to.

"So a catalyst for my collaboration with Ubisoft comes from my professional engagement with games in the past, but it also comes from a personal side to my work, thanks to my son," she said. "Seeing how Assassin's Creed sparked my son's interest in engagement with history over more than a decade was a major inspiration for my founding the digital lab and returning to my games engine research in 2021."

"I decided to contact the world design director at Ubisoft directly in October 2021 to offer support if needed for the connections they were making to Islamic societies in Valhalla. I knew I could help them with the visual evidence for these connections, and I also wanted to let them know that I could offer support more broadly if they were going to do more with the connection to Muslims and Islamic civilization."

How Assassin's Creed Mirage led to a different approach to DEI

During the panel, Anderson focused on her work with Ubisoft for the Assassin's Creed series, which has leaned further into the educational aspects of its historical settings with recent entries. Throughout its run, the series has received attention from the academic community for its level of detail in each setting, so much so that some educators have used the game as reference for classes focusing on particular eras of history—all made easier with the series' Discovery Mode and Historical Codex.

However, Mirage presented a different challenge. That's chiefly because the setting it takes place in has lost many of its historical locales and data to time. However, according to Anderson, this fact is why it was important for developers to consult historical experts on the history and culture of a "lost" era to get as close to accurate as possible, which in turn allows the developers to recreate as close to the past as they can. It also inspires them to go further with their vision of the game.

"The developers of Mirage faced what I would call an extreme challenge in the world building for Mirage, [in] that there is nothing left from Baghdad in the ninth century," said Anderson. "We have no archaeology, no standing monuments from that period, so this was a very difficult problem to overcome for the development. That's where I brought my expertise to medieval Islamic art and architecture and, more generally, to the period's architecture. All to help them and to provide as much information as possible to inspire the creative team and support the level of historical detail that is such a hallmark of this franchise."

"The art director on AC Mirage mentioned that some of the aspects where our team made the most impact for them were depicting crowded life in palace areas and the depictions of gardens and streets," she continued. "Moreover, I think one of the benefits was that it was potentially a more creative process for the developers because it was rooted in and based on specific and authentic sources of inspiration. So, to give just one example, I connected the development teams within the Iraqi Cultural Heritage Group to the Safina projects, which study and preserve Iraq's boats and maritime heritage. And their work inspired the artists to create this detail in the game environment that reinterprets those traditional Iraqi rounds and adds a unique and authentic detail to the environment."

"So if we turn to the public engagement, or the public-facing value of creating new game worlds for players to immerse themselves in the results of this process, I think this leads to greater engagement, on the one hand from players who identify as Muslims or with the Middle East, for whom the game is a success because it has added meaning and significance from a personal perspective."

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Assassin's Creed Mirage's Historical Codex feature, which allowed players to learn the history and culture of ancient Baghdad was widely praised, and it was even featured in a museum installation at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) in Paris.

DEI is always a net win

Towards the end of her talk, Anderson broke down some key reasons why DEI initiations benefit developers and the larger audience. One key thing for developers and publishers to consider, according to Anderson, is that hiring DEI experts and historians to work on the game for research leads to much faster and more accurate insights for the games, which then gives the developers a stronger foundation to work off of—something that turned out to be a major boon for Assassin’s Creed Mirage.

Another key benefit is that having a game accurately portray different cultures, in this panel's case, about MENA communities will lead to audiences connecting with the game. Having the audience see themselves in games can be especially powerful, and lead to a greater connection and appreciation for the media they consume. Towards the end of the panel, Anderson shared a message from a student who had written to her about her work in DEI and historical consulting for games.

"I want to point out a quote from a student in Canada who reached out to me; he wrote to thank me for our recent work and the successes we had and said, "It's nice to see my people and culture be a bit more than target practice for first-person shooters." This moved me, and I think, for me, this is one of the reasons why this kind of work is so important," said Anderson. "I'm from the Philippines, and I grew up in the Deep South in the US, and I know what it's like to grow up not seeing representation of your cultural heritage in the entertainment you consume."
"To think about what my Muslim friends and colleagues and students have had to go through seeing how they are presented as terrorists over and over again, and the lack of proper representation. It's unthinkable to me that in 2024, we're still dealing with these issues. But this is why this is so meaningful to me, and this process also leads to greater sense of engagement for all the media."

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About the Author(s)

Alessandro Fillari

Contributor

Alessandro Fillari is a writer/editor who has covered the games, tech, and entertainment industries for more than 12 years. He is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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