'Zelda,' 'Overwatch' and the failure to represent Middle Eastern and South Asian identities in games
Earlier this year, after a Kansas man shot two Indian immigrants, he headed to an Applebee's and told his bartender he had killed two Iranian men.
Since 9/11, Sikhs have been increasingly the target of hate crimes because they're often mistaken for Muslim. In 2015, 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats atually voted in a poll to bomb Agrabah — the fictional city from Aladdin.
It would be easy to point to the xenophobic scare tactics of Fox News, the alt-right and our current president as the cause for this confusion, but that's just a part of the equation. Popular culture also holds a significant role in shaping how we perceive the rest of the world. There's an entire TV Tropes entry on it, and video games play a big part as well — usually for the worse.
Video games often blur the lines between Middle Eastern and South Asian countries until characters are nothing but vague brown stereotypes. It's a real issue, not just because it does a disservice to the complex people and stories from this part of the world, but because it reinforces a simplistic understanding of their cultures, which can create real-life problems.
Representation in video games is, slowly, improving, but the industry still seems to have a particularly tough time with Middle Eastern and South Asian countries. Even Overwatch, which features one of the most diverse roster lineups in gaming history, struggles when it comes to Symmetra, an Indian hero who, oddly, never speaks what should be her native language.
But Overwatch is far from the worst offender, so let's break down the issue with a few more examples.
Zelda's Gerudo are basically basically a mix of different brown cultures and stereotypes
Perhaps the most recent example of this type of orientalism — a term coined by Edward Said to describe how art and media portray non-Western cultures as exotic, or as an "other" — can be found in the latest entry of the Legend of Zelda series.
Released in March 2017, Breath of the Wild continues Nintendo's long and questionable portrayal of the fictional Gerudo people, a race of warrior women that lives in the desert and first appeared in Ocarina of Time back in 1998.
One of the main story objectives in Breath of the Wild is to get into Gerudo Town, the all-female community that serves as the main hub for the Gerudo women.
To enter the village, you need to dress up as a woman and walk through the front gate. A lot of insightful pieces have been written about the fact that the resolution of the quest is to dress up as a woman and enter the city under cover — but nothing has really been said about the orientalism at play during this entire plot segment.
The Gerudo draw from variety of orientalist tropes. They're a secretive people with the only foreign language in the game, they wield scimitars (a sword from the Middle East) and they live in a forbidden desert town.
As if that weren't enough, the main dungeon for this section of the game is a giant mechanical camel. (Get it? Because camels live in the Middle East.)
The mysticism of the Gerudo didn't start with Breath of the Wild, either. It's been there since their introduction in Ocarina of Time. In Ocarina, many Gerudo are actually thieves, falling back on yet another stereotype: that MESA people are mysterious and conniving.
Maybe the most surprising element in all of this is the original Gerudo symbol from Ocarina of Time: a crescent with a star that looks almost identical to the symbol for Islam. It just seems a little too much of a coincidence to have not been influenced by the Islamic symbol — which is prevalent on various national flags in Asia.
This symbol was thankfully changed for Majora's Mask — the game that followed Ocarina of Time — to the gecko-looking symbol used today.
Sonic and the Secret Rings
This ambiguous portrayal of MESA people is not specific to one game or even a common theme across the board. You can see various levels of orientalist mentalities in popular series spanning pretty much every genre of gaming — from Prince of Persia to Assassin's Creed to Sonic. Yup, even Sonic.
In the opening sequence of Sonic and the Secret Rings, we see Sonic in a desert next to a piece of Islam-inspired architecture.
The connection between "secret" and Islamic structures isn't a coincidence. In fact, this is a common theme or style best known as "Arabian Nights."
It's a callback to One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights in English — a famous collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories. Most of these stories came from the Islamic Golden Age, which began around the mid-seventh century and ended in the 13th century.
You probably know the most famous character from these stories: Aladdin. The Disney hero is, surprisingly, the first recorded layer of orientalism slathered on One Thousand and One Nights: Aladdin wasn't in the original Arabian Nights at all. A white French translator actually added him hundreds of years later — and set his story in China.
These representations have real-life consequences. Just look at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
The biggest and most infamous offender when it comes to muddying the MESA region's cultural differences is likely Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Specifically, Karachi, one of the maps in this game. Karachi is the most populous city in Pakistan.
However, in its design, Call of Duty got one major thing wrong about Pakistan — the language they speak and write in. The entirety of the Karachi map has text in Arabic, even though the language used in Pakistan is Urdu.
Silicon Valley and The Big Sick actor Kumail Nanjiani said it best in a stand-up bit on the subject:
This game took three years to make. If you look at it, the graphics are perfect. You can see individual hairs on people's heads. When they run, they sweat. When they run, their shoelaces bounce. All they had to do was Google: Pakistan language.
Nanjiani makes an important point here: This isn't about ignorance or even laziness, it's about priorities. The developers of Call of Duty made two things clear: First, that representing their battlefields accurately wasn't important; and second, they could assume the country's language simply because of its Muslim faith.
Why representation in video games matters
All of these mistakes and strange, ambiguous representations might seem like they're limited to fictional media, but unfortunately that's not the case. This misrepresentation causes people to believe they understand a region they do not. As we've seen, the results can be dangerous and even deadly.
When we talk about representation in games, we're often referring to the percentages of women or people of color in a game or at a company. These benchmarks are easy to read — but they often lose the point of representation in media, which is to depict real, complex people and stories.
Many Westerners simply don't know the differences between these real (and fictional) countries and cultures. Much of the instability in the region is the result of nuanced differences of religion and nationalism — as well as American involvement. If we have any chance at resolving domestic issues of bigotry or broader international issues, it's imperative that people know the basic facts about the people who live there.
Video games are as good a place as any to start.