“I’ve worked on games that misrepresented Muslims, and I had no choice in the matter. I tried to make them better; sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I did not.”
With those words, game designer Osama Dorias took the stage at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco today to talk about why positive representation of Muslims in games is important, and share practical steps devs can take to improve the portrayal of Islam in their work.
His goal with that statement was to make it clear that his message is not an attack or a reprimand: instead, Dorias wants fellow devs to think hard about their assumptions, and work to represent Islam and Muslim communities as they are -- not as they’re sometimes portrayed. Games are creative works with vast reach, and they have great power to help or harm communities.
“Muslims have a public image problem. And it’s sometimes dangerous to be Muslim,” he said, alluding to the modern political landscape. “So we need help addressing the public image problem.”
However, he points out that despite the recent surge in anti-Muslim sentiment, representation is not a new problem -- instead, Dorias encourages fellow devs to look at the way negative portrayals of Muslims is often cyclic. In the ‘90s film Three Kings, for example, a “bad” Muslim viciously shoots a “good” Muslim in the head at point-blank range, creating a victim for the three (American) heroes to avenge.
"A Muslim can look like anyone"
“Solely portraying us as victims justifies the wars that make us victims,” said Dorias.
To debunk common assumptions, Dorias did his best with the time he had: he pointed out that fewer than 15 percent of Muslims are Arab, though you'd never guess it from looking at games. The biggest Muslim country is actully Indonesia, “a peaceful country that doesn’t get involved in anything,” and the second biggest is India, where Muslims are actually the minority.
He then asked devs in the audience to picture what a Muslim looks like, waited a moment, and then asked again: now what does a Christian look like? What does an atheist look like?
“A Muslim can look like anyone,” said Dorias. “And the more Muslims you meet, the more this is a no-brainer.”
To give devs some examples of positive representations, Dorias pointed to video game characters like Deus Ex: Human Revolution's bad-ass pilot Faridah Malik, or comic book superhero Kamala Khan, as a very respectful and authentic portrayal in pop culture.
“[Kamala Khan] comics speak to me, even though I’m not Pakistani, I’m not a woman, and I’m not a teenager,” said Dorias. “Why is that? It’s because her story is authentic.”
And if you’re not sure whether or not some aspect of your game is an authentic portrayal of Muslim culture, Dorias says don’t be afraid to come and (politely) ask someone at your studio.
“If you ask us an offensive question, you may offend us once but you’ll never offend us with that question again” he said. “If you don’t ask us and put that offense in your video game, you’ll offend us forever.”
(And if you don't know many -- or any -- Muslims, maybe do something about that!)
And if you can, get a consultant with expertise on the matter. Dorias says checking in with friends and colleagues is good, but contracting an expert is better. He also encourages fellow game makers to insist on authentic voice acting, saying that it really does make a huge difference -- even if it doesn't sound like it to you.
To illustrate his point, Dorias highlighted Egyptian voice actress Aysha Selim's portrayal of Overwatch's Egyptian sniper Ana Amari. It's authentic casting, which is something of a rarity in big-budget game development.
“I was told by some Egyptians that if you are Egyptian, you can tell exactly which part of Egypt she’s from,” says Dorias. “She’s even about the same age as her character. So when Ana speaks, you will never mistake her for another character. Isn’t that awesome?"
And if, like Overwatch, you work on a game with a big a roster of characters, Dorias has a simple request: “please include us.”
“This is amazing because it normalizes us,” said Dorias. “We are normal, so we need your help pushing that to other people so that they can see we’re normal as well. We have other interests, other aspects of our personality, than just being Muslim.”
He also asks that devs who make games with character customization take the time to include things like hijabs and khimars. And if you're going to include Islamic symbols or Muslim rituals (prayers, etc) in your game, Dorias says you should either make sure it's authentic or just cut it entirely.
“Our rituals are precise; my friends from First Nations have the exact same comment” said Dorias. “If you’re not going to do the research or hire a consultant, then just don’t include the ritual.”
Also, Dorias speaks out against “Arabistan” -- that sandy-brown war-torn foreign country that appears in countless games under various names. He encourages fellow devs to go beyond that cliched stereotype and be more imaginative in their choice of setting, pointing to Overwatch's bright, beautiful portrayl of Iraq in its Oasis map as a great example.
“I’m from Iraq; never once did I project a bright future for my country,” said Dorias, choking up for a moment. “To see someone else do it...I hope you realize how meaningful this is.”
Someone then ran onstage to give him a quick hug, and after a moment he continued. “This is very meaningful, and I hope it touches others in a positive way.”
“Things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go,” concluded Dorias. “Muslims...all we want is to be included in this conversation.”