‚Serious Gaming‘ or ‚Ludic Culture‘? – Preaching Islam to Videogame Generation
by Erik Munder
At the Summer School ‚How Virtual is Reality?‚ in Bremen 2010, Vit Sisler lectured on Islam respectively Muslims in video games in general; Islamic educational video games and video clips from the Arab world, Iran and the United States. His aim -as articulated in his abstract- was to show how private companies try to claim those new markets of Muslim youth while promoting (their idea of) Islamic moral and ethical values in video games and edutainment software. Another aspect of his lecture was the significance of video games and such as an important but still under-examined aspect of cultural life, not only in the Middle East. For this purpose he calls on Walter J. Ong’s concept of >secondary orality<, Ian Bogost’s >persuasive games> and also >neglected media< coined by Philipp Reichmuth and Stephan Werning.
Ong’s idea of >secondary orality< is about the parallels between primary oral cultures and secondary oral cultures like our own. Secondary oral cultures are actually primary literate cultures which became more and more oral and aural again by means of new electronic communication media. The fundamental empathetic and participatory nature of orality itself shapes “new” forms of communities which show great resemblance to communities of primary oral cultures in their social interactions.
Bogost’s >persuasive games< on the other hand, is not only a concept which he articulated in his book Persuasive Games. The Expressive Power of Videogames but also a successful company by now which puts the concept to work. The idea of >persuasive games< is that games can and do shape people’s opinions.
Reichmuth and Werning’s >neglected media< pertains to media that has a strong impact on public and economic interest but is not (yet) of cultural or scientific importance. In addition to video games, other examples are comics, video clips or applications for smartphones (apps) etc.
Vit’s lecture was structured into a short introduction of himself and his interest in this particular field, the seven levels of his presentation in which he explained the different aspects of his research and one bonus level where he introduced http://www.digitalislam.eu, a very informative website and research project on Islam, digital media and the Middle East which he co-founded and nurtures as the editor-in-chief.
In his introduction, he showed us some screenshots of a game named ‚NATO Commander‘ from 1984 which he played as an adolescent in Communist Czechoslovakia. The game was produced in the West and given the political circumstances at that time, the first mission was -of course- to bomb and destroy Prague, his hometown back then. The Muslim youth in the Middle East is in a similar situation nowadays. Most of the games they play there were produced in the West for a western public. They play those games because the games are fun and available but many of them show anti-Islamic biases, stereotypes and schematisations. Considering the fact that video games are a very widespread leisure activity all over the planet -becoming more and more regardless of age, cultural origin, gender and social class- and have a strong influence on identity construction and opinion shaping, this field of research is overdue.
Level 1 of his presentation was about the methodology he uses. Here, the above mentioned concepts of >neglected media< and >persuasive games< were introduced next to the three game studies methodological zones which are audiovisual signifiers, narrative structures and Gameplay (game rules). In addition to that he showed and explained a ‚Petri Net Model‘ for Computer Games Analysis which illustrates the different stages of the game and the player’s options of action at each stage. He started a group exercise to map such a ‚Petri Net Model‘ for an ATM and the options given if you use it. At first, the task description was a little bit confusing so it took some time until every group figured out what to do exactly, but eventually it was a success. For me, trying that ‚Petri Net Model‘ myself was very interesting but not that important and I think the time spent on that could have been used better to extend other parts of the presentation. I think Vit’s idea was to have an active part for the audience which is, of course, a good one and everybody was already a bit weary at the end of the wakeful summer school so the circumstances were suboptimal.
Level 2 was titled ‚Representation‘ and about how Muslims or Arabs are represented in video games made in the West. Vit showed some screenshots of games e.g. ‚Prince Of Persia‚ (1989), ‚Harem Adventure‚ (2003), ‚Battle In Sadr City‚ (2005) and ‚Assault On Iran‚ (2005). By means of these screenshots and some game-magazine descriptions about the different units in ‚Command & Conquer: Generals‚ (2005), he pointed out how strong the stereotypical generalizations in most of the video games produced in the West, really are. He used the term >digital orientalism< to describe the tendency in those games of constructing schematized oriental (all-cultures-in-one) characters in marked contrast to the ethnic and cultural diversity, the Islamic World in fact has to offer. The narrative and mission-structure of these games is often repetitive, racist and sexist (like save kidnapped women, kill evil viziers, etc.) There are, of course, exceptional cases like ‚Civilization IV‚ (2005) which show an attempt of the producers to represent different cultures in a more balanced way, but these exceptions are few and the mainstream looks different.
In Level 3 titled ‚Self-representation‘ Vit quoted the Central Internet Bureau of Hezbollah about the problematic representation of the Islamic World in western video games [url unreachable – http://www.specialforce.net/english/indexeng.htm%5D. He also gave some screenshot-examples of two games produced in the Middle East as alternative drafts to western games: Special Force (2003) [no url available] and Special Operation (2007) [https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Special_Operation_85:_Hostage_Rescue]. Unfortunately, these games mostly just reverse the western stereotyped schematizations.
The fast growing sector ‚Edutainment‘ was introduced in level 4 of Vit’s lecture. He presented 3 different programs in which the creators tried to combine studying the qur’an and learning about being a godly muslim on the one hand and playing games on the other. ‚Al-Muslim as-saghir‘ and ‚Al-Mughamirun‘ are for kids while ‚Abu Isa’s A New Dawn‚ is a 3D space shooter which rewards the player with a random name of god.
A full-fledged game, subject of level 5, is a game, in this Islamic context, that does not just copy games produced in the West, replacing the stereotyped anti-Islamic content with an also stereotyped pro-Islamic one. Full-fledged means that these games are commercially produced by a game developer just like their western counterparts. The example here was ‚Quraish‚ (2005) which is a real-time strategy game “about the origin of Islam”. The developers goal was to counter the negative image of Islam in the media and show its peaceful truth to the world. I am not sure if a game of war in which you have to build armies and attack and defeat the opposing forces of Islam at that time is the right way to do that, but its not my decision.
Level 6 was about immersive worlds like Second Life and the Islam-themed places there. Vit showed some screenshots and a Petri Net Model of the virtual ritual possibilities for an avatar in Second Life.
Our concluding discussion was level 7 of the presentation and, sadly, I can only remember my own question about how the reception of the game ‚Assassins Creed‚ (2008) was, in the Middle East. Vit told me that it was a success in the Middle East compared with other western games and that even the parents wanted to see the game to have a look at the famous mosques and other buildings.
All in all, it was a very interesting lecture and I will definitely track Vit’s upcoming work on http://www.digitalislam.eu, you should too by the way. =0)