Shooters Need To Get Better At Depicting Arabs

Shooters Need To Get Better At Depicting Arabs

Whether it’s the news, television or the movies, Arabs have become synonymously linked with the word “terrorist”. And, thanks to video games, we’ve become the target — literally.

Both my job and my personal experience give me a unique perspective on the situation. I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan and moved to the Beirut, Lebanon about eight years ago. I’ve been playing games for as long as I can remember and competing in tournaments for the last 3-4 years. Now I work for the leading gaming community in the Middle East,

The thing is, we’re not alone as targets: the Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese and Germans all join us, but Arabs have been in the limelight for the last few years.

In the limelight, but not as the heroes. We’ve all played as the US or any other paramilitary force and seen a game’s story try to humanise these characters with catchy nicknames or background histories. Think Ghost or Soap from Modern Warfare 2. This is where the differences begin to take place. Americans will relate to the hero defending his country from the terrorists threatening your freedom. As an Arab, you’re “relating” to the guy who is going to destroy your city… and that’s all.

Let me describe a typical scene. Suddenly, an emotionally detached bearded A.I armed with an AK-47, raggedy clothes and bare feet comes running out of nowhere and stands mindlessly still in the middle of the courtyard, shooting and yelling in “Arabic”. In most modern games like Call of Duty or Battlefield, the Arabic is actually Arabic. On the other hand, some games don’t even try. Check out the this image from Splinter Cell: Conviction.


The street sign on the right is actually written in proper Arabic. The sign on the left, however, is just a bunch of squiggly lines. I can’t understand why only one sign got the proper treatment.

Other games use proper Arabic but space each letter apart like a separate word. Call of Duty correctly uses Arabic in the game’s audio but somehow messes up the written text. Arabic is read from right to left and almost all of the letters connect. For some odd reason, Infinity Ward decided to arrange the letters from left to right which I’m assuming caused the letters to space out.

Developers just don’t seem to go that extra mile for the enemy like they will for the heroes or even the guns in their games. Sure, details like getting the Arabic language right might only actually benefit Arab players. Maybe that’s why it’s not a priority.


We’re never actually properly introduced to the enemy, and so his appearance and overall character portray the stereotypical substitutes. Like in Medal of Honor: Warfighter. The brown and dusty gown, dark skin, thick beard, AK-47 and bare feet all come into play.


Obviously, this isn’t really the case. We’ve got our stoners, jocks, rockers, preppies — just like anywhere else. But we don’t get to see anything but the stereotypes, and perhaps it has to do with the conflict in the Middle East.

A lot of shooters aim for realism using current real world conflicts or inspirations. Medal of Honor and its cooperation with actual navy seal soldiers comes to mind. That’s fine, but a lot of times the “authenticity” is only on one side.

Even so, I notice small things. It’s not uncommon to see the AI in shooters do stupid things like stand in the middle of the fight, fire blindly, refuse to run away from grenades, and not take cover just long enough for the player to deliver justice in the form of a lead bullet — like in the video to the left. It’s strange for me to watch something like this. Granted, crappy AI in first person shooters isn’t anything new. But when we’re talking about terrorists that somehow run the world’s most dangerous organisation who seem oblivious to modern combat strategies, it’s a littler harder to swallow.

And of course, we never ever hear about an Arab’s story in these games, nor their families or background. If we did, that would actually humanise them — and that probably wouldn’t be as fun. The less you can relate to guy at the other end of your rifle, the easier it is to shoot his head clean off.

These dissimilarities — including the poor Arabic I mentioned earlier — add to the disconnect between me and my digital counterpart. And they reinforce stereotypes about Arabs.

How does that personally make me feel? Indifferent, which is unsettling. If I were to theorise, all the negative portrayals in media have just numbed me out. The fact that I’ve grown so accustomed to the typical stereotypes like the beard and brown gown (whether it’s a movie, book, TV show or video game) worries me.


A shop in Lebanon.
I’ve got friends who voice their concern, and refuse to play certain titles like Medal of Honor: Warfighter and Call of Duty because of the stereotypes. I think they feel like we have little or no control of how we are perceived in the real world, that it’s out of our hands. Think about it, though: In fictional worlds in video games, somebody scripts these stereotypes and xenophobic for the pure sake of entertainment. I think that makes it even worse.

Take Medal of Honor: Warfighter for example: a game whose slogan is “We hunt terror.” The game was actually sold in the Middle East — stacked front and centre at retailers on release date. It sold well, even. My guess is that most people have grown numb to the negative portrayals too, or they just don’t care. Despite the controversy, military shooters are always resting on top of the charts in the Middle East.

Normally, some games get banned and don’t make it across the pond. In Dubai for example, the censorship bureau plays every game before it hits the store and decides whether or not it can be sold. They tend to ban games that deal with controversial religious issues, excessive sexually explicit scenes to name a few-especially in games like, say, Saints Row The Third. It was probably the big purple dildo.


Another store in Lebanon.

Despite the efforts, these banned games still make it to the grey market, where release dates are broken and you don’t have to wait as long for your favourite titles — including banned ones. Gamers know exactly where to find banned games, though a downside of the grey market is that pre-order bonus content and DLC’s are tough to come by.

It’s not all bad. In the past year we’ve seen some big steps forward in localisation. For the first time we saw titles dubbed fully in Arabic, like Need For Speed: Most Wanted and Epic Mickey 2. Although I personally still chose to play to play them in English, the mere fact that I can switch it back to Arabic is more than enough. Xbox Live has now officially recognised a few of the countries in the Middle East. Hideo Kojima has visited Dubai and Ubisoft now has an Abu Dhabi branch. It’s progress. All I can hope for is a future with games that shine us in a better light.

I don’t expect our portrayals in certain games to get better anytime soon though. As long as it’s happening in the real world, Arabs can expect similar treatment in shooters. There is always a target, I guess it’s just our turn now.

Hussein is 22 years old. He was born in Detroit, Michigan, and he lives in Beirut, Lebanon. He is currently the eSports and Community Director at


  • as long as the yanks can make a profit of releasing the same shit over and over, this won’t change.
    and if an Arabian developer makes a game(military fps) with the opposite(america evil, Arab good) it would be extremely “controversial”.

  • I would LOVE to see a Call of Duty/Modern Warfare game that has at least part of the game played out from the perspective of an Arabic/Middle Eastern ‘Freedom Fighter’, even if he still turns out to be the “bad guy” in the official canon of the game. Just so we have his perspective! Unfortunately, I don’t see a major developer taking that risk, putting us in the shoes of a brown-skined “terrorist” so we can shoot at the blue-eyed farm-bred apple pie-eating liberating heroes. It’d be tantamount to putting us in an SS uniform so we can gas some Jews, as far as Fox News is concerned. A complete PR disaster.

    We kind of spent some of Black Ops playing the game from the perspective of someone you could consider to be “the bad guy” but he was brainwashed to not know what he was doing and importantly, still a caucasian American dude. Spec Ops explored the perspective of the bad guy, but he was ultimately still an isolated and mad-with-power psychopath.

    • Six Days in Fallujah is stuck in development hell and probably would have made a fair attempt at depicting the locals (although the insurgents would have probably still been the Team America style Durkadurkastan faceless goons). That drummed up enough controversy while still focusing on American soldiers.

      I can’t imagine a game from the Arab perspective getting released in this current media climate when Six Days couldn’t.

      • It’s a shame Six Days got smeared so hard in the press, it seemed promising but now it’s hard to find anything constructive about it.

    • You make a game in the US as an American liberating the shit out of another country, it’s great, it’s patriotic, it instils good ‘ol American values. You make where you’re not an American or you’re defending your land from a foreign aggressor, suddenly, it’s a terrorist training simulator teaching kids to be psychopaths and hate freedom. It’s pretty shitty.

    • Black Ops 2 spoilers:

      There’s a mission in the game where you play as a young Raul Menendez (the main antagonist), going on a rampage to save his sister

  • i always wonder how russians feel when they were basically the bad guys in almost every single action movie made during the cold war. not to mention the amount of games where we are shooting up russians.

    • I’ve watched a lot of action films, usually the “bad guys” are just criminals. In the 80s antagonists were often Latino drug dealers or Arab terrorists.

  • Well think about where the majority of the games are made. Americans aren’t going to make games depicting themselves as the enemy.

  • There is a very good documentary on how Arabs are portrayed in Film (was on ABC some years back) and lets just say since the begining of film it’s not been good. The 80’s was most likely the “darkest” period of Arabs being represented in modern cinema, all those Chuck Norris movies did not help. But with the introduction of “Shoot em ups” it looks like the 80’s mentality of the mindless “Dirty Arab” is back.

    Yes, unfortunately there will be no change soon as these games can’t seem to use the Russians (although the way Russia is going, it maybe their turn again) or the Chinese. Remember that 80’s film Red Dawn? The remake was going to have Chinese invaders but they changed it to Unified Korea lest we offend our trading partners.

    The Germans, well they get all their “bad guy” glory from WW2 Shooters so placing them as global terrorists is not as fitting, unless they are seen with fashionable polonecks and the latest tech.
    The thing is Cinema/entertainment/games reperesent what is in the “publics eye” at the time, so with war in Afganistan and other Middle Eastern conflicts, Arabs are targeted as “the bad guy”

    It would be nice to see evil Corporations, Media Mogals or Oil Barrons represented as the bad guy in shooters, but we are way off from seeing that. Altough Bond did a decent job in the “World is not enough” and “Tomorrow Never Dies”.

    • There was a novel a few years back called Jennifer Government which was apparently optioned for a movie adaptation that we’re still waiting to see happen. It depicted a future where everything is controlled by global conglomerates and even the Police and Government were privatised. Corporations made the law.

      The main villains? Executives at Nike who undertook an extreme marketing campaign to give their latest shoes “street cred” by shooting a bunch of teenagers in line to buy them.

      The book itself is not particularly great, but the ideas were interesting and it’s still worth a read. It might be up your alley.

    • You may be thinking of “Reel Bad Arabs”. It’s a documentary showing the history of Hollywood in their portrayal of Arab characters. Interesting stuff. The Arab character is just a convenience, as most people already view them negatively, hence making the writer’s work easier. Unfortunately, it means this convenience then reinforces an already very incorrect stereotype.

  • It’s not just videogames, it’s everything since Sept 11. Since Sept 11, the Middle Easterner has become the ‘new Russian’.

    As for “…but a lot of times the “authenticity” is only on one side.” That’s an American thing in general. I have a lot of games where the American gear is accurate and attention is paid to detail, but the quality of the OpFor stuff varies wildly. Case in point, look up any shooter in the IMFD database, and you’ll see that ‘AK’ most of the time is modelled from the Chinese Type 56 AK clone. Jeez, even in C&C Kane’s Revenge, EALA pronounced Ayers Rock, ‘Iyers’. No one calls it that anymore, it’s Uluru. It reverted to it’s original name a long time ago. American game companies don’t spend that level of attention to that kind of detail usually because the market they’re selling to, won’t care too much if it ‘looks the part’. I can understand they do things based on cost and time, but if it were something I were connected to, I’d be annoyed or feel patronised/stereotyped too. And remember, this doesn’t only affect Arabs, although Middle Easterners in general, have been taking it pretty hard since 2001 since they’ve become the ‘new bad guy’. But nothing will change until US developers start paying attention to detail to non-US centric elements of the game.

    Great article though.

    • Firstly, the cold war ended 10 years before 9/11.

      Secondly, Middle Eastern terrorists have been antagonists in American films for at least 30 years.

      Thirdly, if you look at the main 2 shooter franchises (Call of Duty and Battlefield) both have Russians as their primary “bad guys”.

      • Jesus… there’s always gotta be someone who reads something at face value. Alright, seems you may not remember much history since the end of the Cold War. Let me refresh you. After the end (around 1993, if you’re talking about the actual transition and re-establishment of Russia and the CIS states, not the second the wall fell), Western cinema, used to using the Soviet Union as a general villain, was undergoing a vast social and cultural change due in part to the ‘peace dividend’ that resulted from the fall of the Soviet Union. No longer was it plausible to for movie to have your defector to the Soviets, spying for the Sovs, and so on. The bogey man of the past 50 years was gone, almost overnight, along with the Cold War tension of M.A.D. Around the same time (a little before in point of fact), we had the first Gulf War with Saddam being the main protagonist. Consequently, we saw the rise of the ‘Madman Dictator’/tyrant theme in games (you can see this reflected in the Strike series of games for example) and this was pretty common up until the late 90s. There wasn’t much in the way of reflection on the Cold War at this point just yet.

        Then we have Sept 11, and 18 months later, the Invasion of Iraq during America’s world tour of freedom. Suddenly Islam and the Middle East were thrust into the spotlight in a much more significant way than they had previously (even in the past 30– ME protagonists have actually existed long before then too, look it up). As happens with the flag is being waved and nationalism is being encouraged, a ‘bad guy’ emerges. It was the terrorist now, a term with a suddenly new gravitas. Before it was the Red under the bed, alongside the ever present, serial killer, madman, criminal, etc, but the terrorist was the flavour of the era, because Sept 11 was so fresh in everyone’s minds (partly because we were constantly reminded of it). Terrorism was no longer just bad, it was now PURE EVIL and associated with the Middle East, partly because of the horrific attacks on Sept 11 perpetrators being Saudi nationals, partly from troops fighting the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, from the targeted killings, filmed beheadings and kidnappings of Westerners in the Middle East– and most importantly, because of Bin Laden. He was the epitome of evil during this period, he was Saudi, he was apparently a fundamentalist, and was constantly taunting the US. Consequently, this theme was relatively common in the gaming world in cartoonishly stereotypical appearances in C&C Generals for example, your many war sims like Full Spectrum Warrior, Battlefield 2 (No Russians there…) and others.

        It only really in the last 5 or 6 years where this theme has been rolled back, or themes have branched out again to other areas. The rise in the Cold War theme has been rekindled with some great titles, yes and this had led to Russia becoming a common theme, much to their protestations, as from their point of view, it seems to be a revived Cold War theme coupled with a little cultural bullying, especially when you consider Russia really hasn’t done anything to provoke the US. China was viewed in a similar vein too, until it was discovered that, A. they were quite pissy about seeing this done to them, and B. developers were potentially shooting themselves in the foot by upsetting a potentially huge and ever expanding market. So, while we’ve moved away from the ME, there still hasn’t been many positive portrayals of Middle Easterners, but with Iraq out of the picture (somewhat) and while instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan is still relatively high, you won’t see it ‘normalised’ anytime just yet.

        I do find it interesting that you mention the CoD and Battlefield series’, considering the Russians have been both playable as part of the Allies in the earlier games, completely absent in BF2, and only now becoming the antagonists in the last couple of years, primarily in the Modern Warfare series, specifically MW2, they were nationalists in the first one and the Federal forces were allies, as well as the Bad Company series. For a long time, for most of the series really, the ‘bad guy’ have been the WWII era Germans. CoD’s a terrible example since the antagonists have included Russians and Russian nationalists, but also North Vietnamese, Germans, Chinese (kinda), Americans, Brazilian gangs, African gangs, Italians the Japanese, private armies and both series have used unnamed Middle Easterners as primary antagonists in CoD MW and Battlefield 2, respectively. Russians are now more common as ‘bad guys’ in big name releases, but Middle Easterners have been taking that hit for most of the past 10 years.

        So, you know, BAM.

        Now it’s time to get back to doing some actual work…

  • This article is really just aimed at Call of Duty, Which if you haven’t noticed basically depicts a parallel world anyway.

    • All videogames represent some kind of alternate take on events, reality, etc in some fashion or another. But it’s not a plausible excuse when you use particular racial or ethnic stereotypes. For some reason you can get away with it to degrees in movies and literature, but never games. Ever.

  • Honestly, you need to look at the market, the current conditions and the fact that there are a lot of conflicts involving arabs being plastered over the news.

    US embassy members killed? How? Suicide bombers/militia assault. Why? Islamic activists being offended by something.
    September 11. Many US citizens killed. How? Terrorists stealing planes. Why? America hate (Once again related to Islam?)

    This is a stereotype that’s evolved from news over the last decade+
    Yeah, it may not be correct, but this is what the public see. It’s not the French busting into embassies killing dudes over the ecomonic climate; it’s usually militants armed with soviet weaponry killing dudes because they’re offended by something. Since we’re in 2013 now, killing someone because you’re offended is deemed wrong, and extreme. Hey! We’re making a game with bad guys who are extreme. connect the dots.

    Add to this the majority of target sales coming from the EU and US (who may be deemed ‘victims’ of these attacks) and it’s a pretty obvious choice really. Few people will get offended in the target market because of recent events, and the people who will overseas are likely going to pirate the game anyway (I’m looking at you SE Asia)

    If we want this to stop, people will have to either get bored of watching arab nations fighting on TV, or we need to be invaded by a different nation/aliens. Otherwise, perhaps a time machine?

  • I think games will start to use more subtle and more conflicted villains as stories improve. David Cage made some interesting points about how stories in games currently are distinctly immature and in my opinion part of this immaturity is a single-note villain blandly portraying a stereotype. Some of the best villains in gaming have always been sympathetic – Sephiroth is an excellent example of a hero gone mad and living long enough to be a world-destroying villain, Kessler from the first Infamous (SPOILER ALERTS!) simply wanted to make Cole strong enough to defeat The Beast, The Beast from the second Infamous shows how he’s just trying to save lives, Haytham in AC3, Big Boss, Liquid Snake and there are more out there as well… Given the relative success of Spec-Ops The Line there is an appetite for better stories but it’ll take the big (and lazy) studios a few years to catch on so it’ll get worse before it gets better. It’s also just a product of the times we live in.

    More systemic than shooters only portraying negative stereotypes though is the whitewashing of characters like the Prince of Persia or the casual (but mostly inadvertent) racism of various games (Barrett from FF7 for example)

  • Just wondering how accurate were the arabic in battlefield 2. I thought the Chinese was really well done in that one. Would love more games like battlefield 2 where the “good side” is who ever you perceive to be and no evil side

  • personally, it makes no difference to me who i ‘shoot’ in a game. i certainly don’t require a stereotype to feel better about my decisions ingame.

    that’s not to say that these ‘stereotypes’ need some serious adjustment. some are quite amusing and im sure quite offensive to some gamers. (i lol hard at the aussie accents some developers throw in there)

    i would also like to play a shooter where i am the ‘bad guy’. barring games like GTA, there just isnt enough out there to balance the sheets

  • Shooting virtual terrorists is fun. The majority of terrorists these days are arabs. Ergo, shooting virtual arabs is fun.

  • Uncharted 3 had some of the best portrayals of Arabs, they depicted a clearly foreign environment yet the player was not left threatened with hostility from the locals.

  • Of course Arabs arent going to be the good guys in FPS. Now if it was a First Person Rockthrower game , another story.

  • you can bet your ass if there was a big game that depicted Americans as the terrorists and the other nations as the heroes, world war three would break loose and games would get banned left right and center.

    i hate how media portrays a few people from a people group as representing the WHOLE people group. good on ya western culture, good on ya.
    (for arguments sake, i am Caucasian)

  • Im conflicted. I can understand the authors point, but a part of me just cant let go of the fact that some of these countries can legally put to death members of my family for being homosexual. Im not particularly proud of it, but I dont think Ill ever view Middle Eastern society as anything other than barbaric.
    Many of them likely view me as a God hating heathen, so it all evens out in the end.

  • So if you really wanted to depict them as you actually see them in some locations you just need to modify the story slightly.

    Start out your game as an attack on a country where all the Arab’s are united for the cause. The mid point of the game is exterminating the existing populace. The end point is where you set the cat amongst the pigeons by forcing the player to attempt to control the now Arab populace made up of the various, mostly religious, sects who have since turned on each other.

    More blood would be spilled during the end point than at any other time in such a game.

  • I think what you will find though is that developers aren’t trying to depict Arabic people, rather people that are part of terrorist groups. It’s a fact that many of the terrorist groups are muslims and do dress like this. It would be less realistic for them to depict them any differently in case they hurt someones feelings.

    I’m gay and I’ve seen gay men prance around on cinema and in video games, do I take offense? No. Why? Because I’m not like that, it’s not depicting me, it’s depicting someone that has the same sexuality as me but a totally different persona. Sure, people might think that is what all gays are like, but people are also very stupid.

    If we were overly sensitive to every race then we probably would never be able to have any pearl harbour movies/films or Nazi-era films.

    I agree with what you said about actually have the eye for detail to at least correctly write your language and speak it, as well as localising it.

    Unfortunately though, in the current war in the middle-east, terrorists that do dress like this are the enemy, and if a war game wishes to discuss this narrative with an American soldier, then you can expect to see the stereotypes you’re talking about.

  • I’ve always wanted to play a game which showed both sides of a war. Play for a level or two as a Western soldier, then see how your actions have affected someone on the other side of the conflict and how it motivates them. Afghanistan would be perfect, given all the wrongful deaths by drone strikes, helicopter attacks and shelling.

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