With the emergence of video games into mainstream entertainment in the past few decades has also come cultural baggage. Though books and movies have been long since critiqued for portraying minority ethnic groups in a negative light, video games, in their interactive nature, have the ability to do so to an ever greater degree.
Prince of Persia is a video game franchise that started as an American made computer game for the Apple II. The 1989 version then went on to inspire a plethora of sequels throughout the 2000s. The game is based in ancient Iran and opens with our hero (the character the user controls) unjustly imprisoned in a palace dungeon. The player is then informed the Grand Vizier is planning to take the throne and marry the princess, who has one hour to agree to the marriage or be killed. The player has the obligatory role of saving the princess and restoring order to the faltering kingdom.
In the same way many books and movies do, Prince of Persia decides to construct its plot around a mysterious foreign culture. It interestingly assigns Iran as the specific country for the story to take place, somewhere where it won’t be too difficult to convince the audience that such corruption can occur. Even the princess of such a country is left powerless to the domineering male character of the Grand Vizier. She must be saved, and she must be saved immediately.
In Lila Abu-Lughod’s 2002 article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” she discusses the ways in Arab women are victimized in Western cultures. She argues that instead of acting rashly based on pity for a culture one knows little about we instead try to develop a more serious appreciation for differences among women around the world. Although the dominant discourse in the United States is that these women are victims of abuse and strict local law, it’s important to first understand the cultural context. The hijab, an often-sighted symbol of oppression in the Muslim and Arab worlds, is often times far from mandatory. The hijab, for many Arab women, becomes the opposite: a statement of fashion and individuality. In the same way that women of the West see Arab garb as oppressive, many Arabs see the ways in which Western media exploits the bodies of young women and think that Western women are equally victimized. Although the victimization is happening on a different end of the spectrum (and often not conceived of poorly by those purportedly “victimized”) they are both examples of an aspect of culture being interpreted in distinctly foreign ways.
The cover of the 1989 game (seen above) portrays the Grand Vizier in a headdress grabbing the princess by the wrist. This image also furthers the stereotype of the Arab woman as a victim of Arab men. Although save-the-princess plots are fairly standard when it comes to video games, it’s very surprising the frequency in which the plot is framed within an Arab world context.
It’s also interesting to note that the player only has sixty minutes to save his damsel in distress, further pushing the urgency of the situation. If people don’t act now to liberate Arab women, corruption will run rampant and societies’ economic development will stagnate. From here the exceptionalist United States, with its superior moral code, will be pressed even harder to intervene and find a solution. Is this the discourse we want to present to the young generation? By “othering” Iran as exotic and separate from the US the producers push this thought process on players. Yes, the producers are simply trying to create a fantasy world in which players can get lost from reality, but it's unreasonable to deny the power they hold with the decisions they make as to setting, plot, and casting. Though it doesn’t seem completely logical to blame video game producers for employing these strategies, it’s necessary that it is widely recognized how in the real world the situation is different.
By Grayson Smith
Sisler, Vit. "Digital Arabs: Representation in Video Games." Digital Islam. Oct. 2006. Web. 01 Dec. 2010. <http://www.digitalislam.eu/article.do?articleId=1704>.