Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Blade of the Eagle, Eagle of my Heart: Part II

In my last entry, I talked about video games, art, and Assassin's Creed. Today I am going to focus more on Assassin's Creed than on ideas about art. Instead, I am going to think a bit more about what Assassin's Creed might be doing to the perceptions people have about Arabs and Muslims.

What we see, especially in Western media, is a demonisation of a whole religion and race that started before but especially since September 11, 2001. A whole people, which includes several subgroups, are put under the umbrella of being a "security threat". This demonisation has spread to races like the peoples of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and beyond. All of them have been labelled as terrorists; dangerous to the wellbeing of Europe and the United States in particular. What does it then mean to have a game set in a time of Islamic prosperity and have a protagonist, who you control, that has ties to Muslims and Arab people?

It means that either the races and religions portrayed in Assassin's Creed are either going to be sympathised with or demonised to an even greater extent. While experiencing the game as I know it, and paying attention to things like speech and design, I have come to the conclusion that this game bridges a gap between religions and races. It does include watered-down versions of stereotypes, but in the end I do not feel that Muslims, Arabs, or other races and religions are specifically preferred. This is generally a good thing within the game. But what does Assassin's Creed to do the Arab/Muslim community, who are a minority in video games?

This is extremely important. To have a game that actually shows a minority as actual people with noble (and not so noble) aims is a way of saying that yes, this minority group is definitely capable of being seen and thought of in the same way as any other group of people. Aren't we able to understand Altaïr, the half-Muslim and half-Christian hero? Don't we feel a little warmth, at times, towards our Al-Mualim or the other assassins that we meet?

One of the most positive things about the game for people of Islamic or Arab heritage is when the game actually takes place. The time period that was chosen is one that many Muslims or Arabs recognise as a time of knowledge and prosperity. Then, Islam did not have the same meaning as it does now. Rarely are the scientific, literary, and other academic accomplishments of the Islamic medieval period exposed nowadays, and it is a pity. It is a nice reminder to those who know, and a nice eye-opener for those who don't, that there was a time when the Islamic world was at the forefront of the scholarly world. It brings a little pride to my heart, I must say.

The more controversial side to Assassin's Creed probably comes from our Altaïr, the hero.

Altaïr (or Desmond Miles) is treated as any other protagonist would be - what we see of him is that he is  physically attractive, he wears a cool outfit, and he is totally badass when it comes to fighting. He is strong, mysterious, and dark - things that are desirable to the young video game audiences of today. He is similar to the Prince of Persia but in a different time and place, with similar agility, foreign looks and nimble fighting style. He is reminiscent of other video game heroes with their strength and goodness of heart no matter what "side" they are on. And you, the person playing the game, is on the side of the assassin's guild, on the side of other darker-skinned, ethnically non-Europeans.

Of course, any issues that lie with Altaïr is not cosmetic. At least he isn't totally white - he looks the part, and although his accent is indeed American there is not much to argue about on that front (Some things will not change. If it was not an American accent spoken in that specific clipped manner, it'd be a British accent of some variant.). What we need to think about is Islamic or Arab culture. How does it manifest in our Altaïr?

Well, I am sorry to say that it manifests under the persona of a "noble assassin"; the guy who makes an effort to only kill those who deserve to be killed, but the one who is at the same time exceedingly deadly and feared. If you really think about it, isn't Altaïr the guy who you don't want at the airport? Isn't he still the guy who would get arrested in a second by security? Well, he is. I think that is kind of the point. He is exactly what security fears. We see the guy who looks and acts like he could kill a busload of people but instead we are actually pretending to be him and are given reasons for our actions.

But Altaïr does not crash a plane into tall buildings. Instead, he sneaks around, slitting the throats of wrongdoers. You see, you aren't a terrorist - you're a good terrorist! And you aren't a suicide bomber, but you'd be glad to do that leap of faith off a tall building because you do not fear death! Don't all Arabs or even half-Muslims now wish to be martyrs? You must have been brought up to deal with all of this pressure and fear. Isn't that just romanticising that which many Westerners are afraid of, so that maybe they can find some solace in this one noble man?

I worried and wondered about that for a long time. I mean, really, the only sort of Muslim protagonist who is engaged in a war of religion and power and well, he's a killer! But a good killer and that makes him a hero. That doesn't exactly ease my soul and make me feel safe and strong for the depiction of Muslims (or even half-Muslims) in the media. But then, I realised something - this might be as good as it is going to get. Desmond Miles and Altaïr may be the only guys of any Muslim heritage that make it into a good video game without becoming horribly twisted and satirised versions of a whole religion. In my point of view, this isn't so bad after all.

It is easy to be defensive and analytical about any characters of Muslim heritage in media because we are treated like garbage 90% of the time. We are either exoticised to such a great extent that it is unrecognisable, or we are pure evil. The women are beautiful and usually played by white women with tans. The Arab men are usually played by any race but Arab. When they are written about, either by novelists or screenwriters, they are bombers and terrorists, but rarely are they just normal people. Muslims can apparently never be normal people with ordinary lives.

Desmond Miles and Altaïr are not regular men who just happen to have ties to Islam, especially since they are heroes of a video game, but they might be the closest we Muslims (or Arabs) are going to get for now. We might as well be happy...right?

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