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Religion and technology: video games in the Arab world and beyond - Interview with Vit Sisler




Video games are at the core of a renewed focus of interest and have given birth to what are now known as game studies. Games have to be considered as a fully legitimate field of study for both anthropologists and political scientists, as they are shaping worldviews, social networks and identities and they engage phenomenona of cultural domination/resistance. They eventually crystallise new forms of collective mobilisation and action and have to be considered as cultural artefacts. Vit Sisler, a researcher in game studies, tells us more about the religious and other challenges that games are posing in the Middle East and Muslim world.

Vit Sisler is a Fulbright visiting scholar at the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University, Chicago. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Information Science at Charles University in Prague, where he is finishing his thesis on 'Islam and Islamic Law in Cyberspace'. His research deals with the problematic of contemporary Islamic law, the relation between Islam and digital media, and the topic of educational and political video games. Vit Sisler is a founder and the editor-in-chief of Digital Islam, a compound research project on Islam, the Middle East and digital media.

Religioscope - How did you develop your interest in this neglected part of the media? How did you connect your interest to an area study approach focused on the Middle East?

Vit Sisler - I grew up into the 1980s, which means I belong to the first 'video game generation'. Games were an important part of my childhood and teenage years. Since only some of us had the privilege of owning a computer - mostly 8-bit Ataris or ZX Spectrums - we used to gather at a friend's house and play together. In Communist Czechoslovakia, software copyright was a rather non-existent concept, so we used to copy and exchange games freely. Playing games was therefore an important social activity, and most of us also tried to design and program our own games later on, with varying success.

Later, I left computers and games for a decade and focused on legal, Middle Eastern and Arabic studies. During my studies in Damascus, I happened to be staying in the suq Saruja area, where the main computer and video game market is. Friends had tipped me off about a Syrian political game called Under Ash, which was supposed to retell a story of the first Intifada from the Palestinian perspective. I wanted to buy this game, so I asked every day on my way to the university whether it was on the market. The vendor always told me that it was expected to arrive soon, probably the next day. After about two weeks, when this ritual became almost a habit for us, a programmer of Under Ash was waiting for me in the shop, curious (and maybe suspicious) as to why I kept asking for the game.

Through him I met Radwan Kasmiya, a manager of Afkar Media, the company that produced Under Ash and other Arab video games. It was after interviewing him that my interest in social, political and religious aspects of video games and other neglected media really started to develop. I borrowed the term 'neglected media' from Reichmuth and Werning, who use it to describe media that are economically and socially relevant, but lack cultural prestige and scientific coverage. Apart from video games, these include video clips, popular music, comic strips and others.

Religioscope - What is the relevance of the games for a sociologist or an anthropologist?

Vit Sisler - Video games are popular mainstream media and constitute an important social activity for a substantial part of the youth worldwide. In some areas - for example, in the United States - games penetrate broad segments of society, regardless of age, occupation or gender. Therefore there is a crucial need to understand the games' real impact on people's minds and behavior, how they influence our comprehension of the world, and how they differ from other forms of media.

Essentially, video games are interactive. The player is as much a consumer as he/she is a performer. As such, the gaming experience varies significantly from one player to another. For a sociologist or anthropologist, it could be of interest how games are consumed and utilised by different gamers and in different social contexts. At the same time, games are cultural artefacts, and we can presume that game production varies in different cultures. So, we should ask how the narrative, imagery and game play of games produced in Japan, the United States or the Middle East vary. And, more importantly, what, if any, structural similarities can we find in all these games?

Religioscope - You affirm that games have a potential to shape Muslim identities. Could you develop this idea?

Vit Sisler - Video games provide youngsters with a convenient source of cultural symbols, myths and rituals as they produce their identities. They enable a risk-free and socially acceptable way of engaging in a virtual body play. Moreover, unlike other audiovisual media, games involve the player through immersion and engagement. When you play a game, you tend to identify yourself not only with its main character, but with the whole system - with its rules and underlying logic. For an anthropologist or sociologist, this could be particularly interesting in the case of strategy games, where you can represent a whole nation throughout thousands years of history. Then a key question of how and from which perspective the virtual history is told arises, because the identities of whole nations and cultures are reformulated by the game.

Youth as a social group is of growing importance in the contemporary Middle East. So, I consider it important to ask which games youngsters play there and how the identities of the main characters in these games are constructed, because this in a sense constitutes the representation of the player's virtual self. When talking about Muslim or Arab identity construction in video games, it is important to study the Middle Eastern games and the heroes and role models they provide to the players. But, since most of games on the Middle Eastern market are of foreign origin, usually American or European, it is equally legitimate to ask how Arab and Muslim characters are constructed in Western games.

To give you an example, in Communist Czechoslovakia we were in a way in a similar situation, since most of the games we used to play were produced in the West. I remember in particular one strategy game, NATO Commander, in which a player, after being sworn in as NATO's new commander, has to fight and defeat the Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. Both the technical details and the unit's deployment were based on reality. Given the geographical situation, the very first mission in the game was to bomb and destroy Prague - my home city at that time. Right up till now I can clearly remember the strange feeling I had when playing this game. It was a good game and I wanted to finish it, but at the same time I felt somehow uneasy about it. When interviewing Radwan Kasmiya and other Middle Eastern producers, I realised that they share more or less the same experiences and they feel strongly misrepresented by Western video games. So, in many cases the question of identity was in a sense the primary motivation for these designers to engage in producing games presenting their point of view and featuring their heroes.

Religioscope - Could you introduce us to a short typology of the different sort of American and European games presently engaging Arabic/Islamic themes?

Vit Sisler - Generally speaking, these games exhibit very similar stereotyping and schematisations to those that are already known from other media. They flatten out the diverse ethnic and religious identities of the Islamic world and reconstruct them into a few schematised characters. The two dominant modes of representation can be labeled 'digital orientalism' and a conflictual framework based on current political and military affairs.

The term 'digital orientalism' applies mainly to adventure and role-playing games exploiting orientalist imagery, topics and narratives, such as Prince of Persia, The Magic of Scheherazade, or Arabian Nights. These games typically feature characters like Bedouins, caliphs, djinns and belly dancers; navigate players through bazaars, harems and the desert; and the story often contains plots like saving kidnapped woman or assassinating an evil vizier. The 'Orient' is construed as an exotic and ahistorical entity.

‘Full Spectrum Warrior’ (THQ, Inc. 2004)


On the other hand, a more prominent mode of Arab and Muslim representation can be found in strategy and action games, namely first-person shooters, based on real or fictitious Middle Eastern conflicts, like Delta Force, Full Spectrum Warrior or Kuma/War. These games typically allow the player to control American or Coalition forces only and the enemy is represented by visual signifiers referring to Arabs or Muslims, like head cover, loose clothes and dark skin color. Most of these games exhibit strong cultural bias when schematising Arabs and Muslims as enemies in the narrative framework of fundamentalism and international terrorism.

There a few exceptions to this stereotypical framework, like Sid Meier's Civilization series or some historical games, like the Age of Empires, which allow the player to chose from various nations or cultures and generally represent them all in a balanced way. But these represent something of a departure from the rule in mainstream production.

Religioscope - Could you summarise for us the Sid Meyer's Civilization series and explain its evolution. Why has this type of game not been able to generalise itself to a substantive level?

Vit Sisler - Sid Meier designed his first Civilization in 1991, and dozens of games have been published under this label up to the present. Generally, in those games the player has to choose one from a selection of several civilisations and represents it throughout thousands years of virtual history. He/she encounters other civilisations through the game and engages in trade, diplomatic negotiations or wars with them. The game is equipped with an encyclopedia that contains substantial amounts of information about different civilizations and their histories, leaders and units. Civilization clearly has its limits in the way that it schematises history into mathematical models and functionalises religion and science into competitive advantages, but it constitutes a serious attempt to transcend negative stereotypical representations of other cultures. Sid Meier has actually designed other similar games, like the Colonization series, which retells the discovery of the New World and includes the histories of native civilisations, but on a larger scale his approach remains rather isolated.

This can be a result of several factors. Firstly, the game industry is surprisingly conservative. Producing a game is a costly enterprise, and developers are not really willing to take much of a risk. Several successful games have laid-down patterns that reproduce themselves for ages - for example Doom defined the first-person shooter genre as early as 1993, Dune 2 did the same for real-time strategy genre in 1992, and so on. Each genre implies its own rules of game play, which extend to its representational politics. Secondly, games are produced with their consumers in mind and tend to reflect their expectations and tastes. So, the prevalent notion of the Middle East and Islam as it appears in popular culture and people's imagery is extended into video games. Finally, the economic factor could play a role. Western video games have not been marketed to Middle Eastern countries because of a lack of copyright enforcement there. In Damascus or Cairo you can buy whichever game you want, but it is mostly a copy. So, the producers were generally not concerned with Arab and Muslim audiences' perceptions of their games. Actually, though, it seems that this is going to change - several games have appeared that are directly targeted to Middle Eastern markets, like Arabian Lords, which has been designed in a joint venture between US and Jordanian companies and pays attention to the mode of representation of Islamic society, or Assassin's Creed, which is set in the medieval cities of Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre and whose hero deliberately comes from a mixed Muslim-Christian family. So, although the dominant pattern of representation remains racially biased, more culturally sensitive products are starting to appear on the market.

Religioscope - There is this ongoing problem of perceptions of Islamic otherness. This is well known and extensively analysed in the mainstream media, the press and TV, but is less known in the underworld of what, with others, you call the neglected media, such as video games. Could you sketch for us the specificity of the neglected media in terms on conveying images of the other in general?

Vit Sisler - As I have said already, video games basically exploit the same cultural schematisations as other forms of media. But, since there is no or limited academic interest and media critique of these games, the stereotypes and clichés are more overt and prevalent in video games. Also, the technological limitations of the medium have to be taken into account. In a typical video game, designers have spent a great deal of time and energy on modeling the main character, the hero, but non-player characters are often rendered by using a limited number of templates and images only. In this sense, video games intrinsically promote schematisation per se.

Another - probably the most important - aspect is that video games do not merely represent reality, but they reconstruct it via computer-enabled simulation. Thus, the key question is how the rules governing particular simulations are designed, and how they control and limit the behavior of both the player and the non-player characters in the game's reality. For example, in the abovementioned first-person shooter games, the player can interact with his/her environment in various ways - drive vehicles, manipulate objects - but the only interaction possible with the Arab/Muslim characters is to fight them. Moreover, these characters' behavior is governed by artificial intelligence, which follows rules set by the designers - so in many games they fight in an undisciplined way, laugh mockingly after they kill someone or wave AK-47s above their heads. In short, they exemplify 'unlawful combatants' whose activities are considered to be criminal acts. Thus, the misrepresentation is embedded even on the level of a simulation and the rules of the game itself could convey an ideological message to the player. This form of persuasion is unique to video games.

Religioscope - More specifically, could we say that there is a 9/11 effect on games engaging Arabic-Islamic themes, and if there is, how would you define it? Do we see a 'warification' process of the games after 9/11 or a radicalisation of the stereotypes?

Vit Sisler - Sure, we can see a militarisation of the entertainment industry as a whole after 9/11 and a growth of what Lenoir and Lowood have labeled the 'military entertainment complex'. In fact, this close cooperation between the US Army and game-producing companies had begun much earlier. Early computer games were used as military simulations, and later, game-like technology was adopted for training purposes. Similarly, many simulations originally designed for the US Army found their way onto the mainstream game market, e.g. Close Combat: First to Fight, a game originally designed to teach squad leaders how to make tactical decisions in urban battlefield conditions. Illuminatingly, the urban battlefield is set in Beirut. Many other games have been developed in close cooperation with the US Army, like Kuma/War, which for a small fee allows players monthly to re-play real missions from Iraq or Afghanistan and is based on the memories of US soldiers who returned from combat zones. Full Spectrum Warrior uses the engine of a military training simulator and is set in the fictitious country of Zekistan, where the player has to 'eliminate the terrorist support network', and so on.

The most eminent feature of these games is their focus on the technology of war. They are literally overloaded with detailed technical information about weaponry, army vehicles and tactics. At the same time, they advertise their photorealistic graphics, precise physical models and challenging, intelligent enemies. Nevertheless, they fail to provide background for the conflict or any deeper understanding of its outcome. The Middle Eastern cities modeled by these games are anonymous, hostile and bombed frontier zones of perpetual conflict, inhabited solely by insurgents and terrorists. Civilian casualties, collateral damage and destroyed civil infrastructure are missing or obscured, as well as the reasons for the conflict. The technological 'realisticness' of such games obscures their profound lack of realism.

Religioscope - Strangely, Arab game producers seem to confirm rather than challenge the dominant meta-narrative of video games. How would you explain that?

Vit Sisler - Certainly, some Arab video games, like Hezbollah's Special Force, Children of Jerusalem or the Jordanian Jenin: Battle of Heroes, utilise the schematising and conflictual framework of Western action games, simply reversing it and replacing the Arab Muslim fighter with the American or Israeli soldier. The enemies, usually Americans or Israelis, are functionalised and reframed in the same way that Muslims or Arabs are in US games. This pattern is actually not limited to the Arab world - the recent Iranian video game Resistance is set in 2015 and puts a player into the role of Hezbollah commandos sent to Israel to find and destroy unknown weapons of mass destruction.

Special Force 2 (W3DTEK, 2007)


In most cases, these games are clear reaction to previous Western games, a fact you can confirm from interviews with the producers, their websites or the games' booklets. So, Hezbollah mentions Delta Force and the Iranian company Tebyan refers to Assault on Iran as games they want to counter. Sometimes, it is not only the game play and framework that they copy, but the narrative itself - so the Iranian nuclear programme that has to be destroyed in Assault on Iran translates into an Israeli weapons of mass destruction programme in Resistance. More significantly, Middle Eastern producers usually adopt Western video game genres and refashion them. In many cases they use the original game engine, i.e. the core software component of a game. Although on the symbolic level these games are Arab, Iranian or Islamic, on the structural level they remain the same as their Western predecessors. The inherent patterns of schematisation that I have discussed above are reproduced in these Middle Eastern games, and their producers follow the dictate of the genre and simply reverse the polarities of games they have appropriated.

But it has to be emphasised that many Middle Eastern producers refuse this conflictual meta-narrative and try to design games in a very different way. We can find games based on popular culture, on Arab or Iranian mythology and history, or on family-oriented educational activities. I would argue that in the emerging Middle Eastern game production the military games appropriating conflictual rhetoric are starting to be outnumbered by other, more versatile patterns.

Religioscope - Nevertheless, at least some games, on both sides, are used as tools of propaganda and sometimes of recruitment. Is it possible to describe tendencies in this political instrumentalisation of the games?

Vit Sisler - First of all, it would be inappropriate to think about games as essentially entertainment media. Games have been used as persuasive means since they first become popular. Advertising companies use them for product placement, political parties for election campaigns, and activists for social criticism. The abovementioned examples in fact do not constitute a radical new tendency in the political instrumentalisation of games. In fact, what is happening is an intensification of the process of close cooperation between governments and the entertainment industry in general. Thus, we have the Army Games Project, within which a first-person shooter game, America's Army, was developed and distributed freely to help the US Army's recruitment campaign; the Iranian National Institute of Computer Games, which supports games designed in accordance with Islamic and Iranian values; and the Central Internet Bureau of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which produces a series of games about the struggle with Israel. The underlying logic of these efforts emphasises the attention authorities pay to the power of video games. For them, games are the new semiotic language of today's youth and they strive to reach them through this medium.

Religioscope - In contrast to the pessimistic view that the neglected media are merely amplifying cultural stereotypes, you have a more dialogical perspective. What are the reasons behind this?

Vit Sisler - Despite the somewhat bleak picture outlined above, during my research I have encountered many game designers who are aware of the persisting misrepresentations that exist and try to transcend them. Some of these attempts can be found in the category of so-called 'serious games', which basically means games with an agenda, which often have an educational subtext.

'Global Conflicts: Palestine' (Serious Games, 2007)


For example, the Danish serious game Global Conflicts: Palestine puts the player in the role of a journalist who has just arrived to Palestine and whose task is to write an unbiased article about the unfolding events. He/she gains information by talking to a Palestinian imam, an Israeli soldier, a Palestinian mother of a martyr or an Israeli teenager, who are all modeled on real characters. By talking to people from both sides of the conflict, the player gets different views and evaluations. Similarly, the US strategy game PeaceMaker allows the player to act as Israeli prime minister or Palestinian president. The player's task in these posts is to establish a peaceful and stable solution to the conflict. Both of these games pay attention to the issue of representation and try to provide players with relevant background information.

But we can also find promising examples among mainstream video games, both Western and Middle Eastern. Besides the abovementioned Arabian Lords or Assassin's Creed, we can find, for example, many Iranian games that are trying to subvert Western stereotypes about Iran without utilising the conflictual framework at all. Beside the Quest of Persia series, which guides the player through different stages of modern Iranian history, there are a number of games currently in development in Tehran that are based on ancient Iranian mythology, like the Age of Pahlevanans or Soshiant. These games aim both to provide domestic players with Iranian heroes and foreign players with an insight into the richness of Iranian culture and history. Similar games have been recently produced in Egypt and Syria, presenting Arab and Muslim characters as positive heroes and using domestic historiography and local popular culture as the frames of reference. Even games with an educational subtext are starting to appear, like the Syrian Quraish, which re-tells the beginning of Islam and the history of early Arab conquests from the perspective of pagan Bedouins, Muslim Arabs, Zoroastrian Persians and Christian Byzantinians. Arguably, these games try not only to challenge the stereotypes endorsed by mainstream Western games, but, albeit in different ways, to subvert the schematising framework itself.

Religioscope - You have described briefly the so-called 'serious games' that are based on conflict resolution and peace promotion. Could you speak to us about their experiences: were they able to rise in the game realm, who were their publics, and what were the reactions to these games?

Vit Sisler - The only two serious games released so far that are concerned with the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are Global Conflicts: Palestine and PeaceMaker. Both of them received a generally positive welcome and have been prominently featured in game magazines and elsewhere. Their authors continue with similar projects - Serious Games, who made Global Conflicts, released another educational game on Latin America, and Impact Games, the authors of PeaceMaker, started a new project called Play the News, which comments on breaking news events using short interactive games. Generally, the serious game scene is growing, with more educational and instructive games under development.

Nevertheless, serious games and mainstream games mostly constitute separate realms. The budgets of most mainstream games are far greater than those of educational projects. Moreover, the uses of serious games and mainstream games could vary significantly, as could their target audience. So, an increase in serious games concerned with conflict resolution and peace promotion does not necessarily have an impact on mainstream game production. Some possible space for change could be on the border zone between these two realms, in fullly fledged and technologically up-to-date games that combine serious content with challenging and exciting game play, but this is not an easy thing to achieve.

Religioscope - Could video games be used as a tool for promoting ideas of tolerance and mutual understanding? What would be the best strategies to promote a culture of peace and a more balanced vision of the Arabic/Islamic world?

Vit Sisler - Video games can convey any message, like any other medium. The question is how to utilise the distinguishing features of games to promote such ideas. I see the strongest potential of video games in their ability to immerse and engage the player in complicated and multifaceted issues. You can simulate a comprehensive problematic and situate the player into it so that he/she can actively explore it. The player can learn by doing - by performing actions and evaluating their consequences. The key issue is, of course, how to design the simulation, how to shape its rules and how to contextualise simulated events in real-world scenarios in order to prevent the unavoidable schematisations that could obscure the message. The key concept of any game is re-playability, so you can utilise more narratives and re-tell the story from more perspectives to give the player a chance to create the bigger picture for him-/herself. In this sense, I really appreciate the game Global Conflicts: Palestine, because instead of simply presenting a 'reality', it engages the player in its construction, thus presenting a meta-commentary on the instantiation of an event and its media re-creation.

On the other hand, games can be utilised in more straightforward way, as an effective critical commentary on existing social or political practices. Such games mostly come in a simple flash form - which means that they are programmed in flash and can be played directly from the browser - and typically provide a short gaming experience that capitalises on the discrepancy between the expected and the given, between the entertainment associated with the media and the seriousness of the issue depicted. If they are successful, these games spread rapidly through Internet social networks in a way similar to viral advertising campaigns. Their main potential is in penetrating broad segments of society and inciting discussion. This is exactly the case of September 12th, which criticises the way in which the War on Terror is led; Raid Gaza!, which opposes the Israeli justifications for the recent Gaza invasion; or War on the North, which on the other hand expresses Israeli frustrations with the media coverage of the July 2006 war on Lebanon. In a way, these flash games are opposed to the complex educational games mentioned above, since they rely precisely on the schematisations that educational games strive to avoid, but the motivation of their authors is similar - to change people's minds on a subject that they perceive is being misrepresented.




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