Notes from GX4: Please Stop Making Me Kill Myself – Arab representation in games post 9/11

GaymerX is a gaming convention designed by and for LGBTQ gamers, with the tagline “Everyone games!” It’s officially a fan-facing event, but many of the panels and talks were geared for game devs just as much as gamers. I took notes, and you can click here for my other GX4 notes.

GaymerX speakers: Please contact me (carolyn at if:

  • I included something you said that should not be included, or
  • I quoted you without attributing (when you would prefer attribution), or
  • I made a factual error (I take notes by hand, and I make no pretense of infallibility!)

Please Stop Making Me Kill Myself – Arab representation in games post 9/11

Speaker: Dina Abou Karam

Dina is from Lebanon and has been a gamer all her life. She turned 14 in 2001.

Islamophobia doesn’t really target Muslims, or even Arabs. It affects anyone brown “or tan with a beard”. It is racism disguised as religious hatred.

Before 9/11, Arabs were always portrayed with an aura of mysticism and orientalism, often as “backwards desert dwellers”. Arabs with darker skin were often portrayed as evil (see Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin).

After 9/11, Arabs were universally villains. There was an overall blurring that categorized all Arabs as “Muslims”, even though most Muslims are not Arab and many Arabs are not Muslim.

There are approximately 1 billion Muslims in the world. Islamophobia targets anyone with brown skin, anyone “foreign”, anyone who wears scarves or veils.

Rami Ismail (of the indie studio Vlambeer) has been tracking how often he’s “randomly” checked at airports. The current count is 21% of flights.

Compare: Command and Conquer Red Alert 2 (pre-9/11) to Command and Conquer Generals (post-9/11). Red Alert 2 uses the Soviet Union as villains, but Russians are usually coded as white and less racism is involved. Generals includes a Chinese leader in a suit, but shows the enemy Dr. Thrax as an Arab in some kind of face wrap, leading the Great Liberation Army, which specializes in chemical warfare.

Command and Conquer Generals includes an Angry Mob enemy of civilian attackers from the Great Liberation Army, and killing them is totally acceptable. “In this game of war, civilians are not innocents – but only brown civilians.”

Some stereotypes about Arabs: camels, hummus, living in tents. Some unsubtle Arab codifying: hooded masks, palm trees, mosques in the background. Bedouin tribe markers are often co-opted as Arab markers.

Note: Persians are not Arabs. Prince of Persia is  not an Arab.

There is a near-to-complete absence of Arab role models. The two AAA Arab role models are:

  • Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad (Assassin’s Creed)
  • Faridah Malik (Deus Ex)

In Call of Duty, all Arabs are mindless monsters with fashionable scarves.

Army of Two: this is a game which starts in Afghanistan with two brothers mowing down people. Dina suddenly realized the enemies were speaking Levantine Arabic, her language, and she was completely horrified to realize this was her – the enemy. She tried to hide the disk from her brother.

Resignation: “Guess I’m the terrorist again.”

Alienation: “We’re all one and the same – they just want to kill us all. This is a game to them.”

Being targeted by hatred: “‘You’re a Muslim – I don’t care if you’re actually a Muslim. You’re a Muslim.'”

It’s not safe to show anger, but it’s impossible not to be angry. And alienation and hatred lead to radicalization.

Western developers are the specific problem here.

How to make things better?

  • Hire Arab developers.
  • Diversity consulting when creating Arab characters.
  • Localize in Arabic.
  • Let Arabs be heroes, not just villains!

Why should you make things better?

  • Opportunity to de-alienate a large and growing population
  • Global de-escalation of tensions through play
  • Financial benefits! (Only mobile companies have focused here.)

Falafel Games is localizing Chinese games for the Arab market very effectively.

In Overwatch, they screwed up and then fixed it. Pharah is a great Arab character, but the weird ancient Egyptian ties are not appropriate. Ana is a “beacon of representation” – she speaks Arabic, she wears a stylish hijab, and she has an Egyptian voice actor.

There is value in games that involve visible political commentary as a force for change. There is value in games that provide inclusivity without addressing politics, as refreshing escapism. Not every game has to do everything.

Further reading: see Amr El-Aaeser’s “Heritage in Subtitles: Speaking on Arab-American Identity”.

Some people who write and speak on this topic: Amr El-Aaeser (@siegarettes), Bushra Alfaraj (@arshub_j), Mona Aiyed (@monaaiyed), Maie Aiyed (@maieayed)


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One Comment

  1. Fantastic article, thank you. It’s so easy to get this one right (or at least better) with just a few minutes of thought! (At least in text games, like I write.)

    I’m co-writer on the Tin Man Games mostly-text subscription game “Choices: And The Sun Went Out”, which has two love interests, one of whom is a man with an Egyptian mother – definitely a hero.

    Whenever I’m writing a bit character, I try to ask myself, “Could this be a woman? If not, why not?” and I hope to keep getting better at asking that kind of question for a wider range under-represented groups.

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