We're all familiar with the stereotypes that are sickeningly repeated ad nauseum in video games. Who here hasn't heard jokes about Italian's stomping turtles to death? Or snide remarks about Italians battling giant apes atop construction sites? Honestly, which one of us hasn't looked at a bushy-mustached Italian like Stalin and said "Ugh, I'm sure he's on mushrooms right now"? We all have. And the video game industry holds a lot of accountability for peddling those common, age-old stereotypes.
Of course, back in World War I, Japan and Italy were on opposite sides of the war so I know some of these cultural differences are deeply entrenched going all the way back to Marco Polo's first attack against Japanese shores. At the same time cultural sensitivity is at an all time high and the world-community is growing ever more tightly knit thanks to improvements in communication and the exchange of information. With that in mind, we've seen steps taken to be more inclusive and more sensitive towards other cultures, races and creeds in video game design.
Like this guy.
This is the new Saudi Arabian character -- Shaheen -- who has been added to the 7th iteration of Tekken.
Yes, seventh iteration.
Generally, popular video games are worse than Rocky movies (though not as bad as Friday the 13th movies) when it comes to sequels. Now, this might be surprising, but the middle east is a rather sensitive issue with a lot of folks -- and Shaheen has stirred discussion in several circles about stereotypes and portrayals of various races, cultures and the like in video games. So... how well do games typically tackle this? Is Shaheen a good addition? A bad one? An atypical one? That requires some more information and history.
See, Tekken is part of what is typically the freaking bastion of nationalistic characters in video games: fighting games. For those who didn't grow-up battling in the bloody trenches of the arcade fighting game scene, fighting games can broadly be described as video games in which you choose from a collection of heavily muscled men, incredibly androgynous metrosexuals and generously endowed women hailing from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and punch your foe in the face in fierce one-on-one competition. It's like UFC if UFC's roster included not only Brock Lesnar but also Scarlett Johansson and Ziggy Stardust. Which is a Pay-Per-View UFC card I'd happily pay for. Hint hint, Dana White. The game most folks are probably familiar with is Street Fighter.
Boasting a roster of characters hailing from places like the USA, Japan, Soviet-era Russia, India, and numerous other locations around the world, Street Fighter II was actually remarkably fair with its portrayal of other cultures. Even Zangief, the Russian fighter in the game, was portrayed as a competent, patriotic and even jovial character. Now, keep in mind, this game came out in 1991 when the Soviet Union was still very much a thing and not usually portrayed positively. Zangief, however, was shown to be a champion of his people, hero of the working class and a proud Patriot. Sure, he didn't get along with uber-American Air Force Major Guile (Flat-top vs Mohawk is a tale as old as time!), but that's just par for the course. In fact, all the characters of the game shared a few major traits: they were all shown as being competent fighters, none of them portrayed any common negative stereotypes of their given culture and all of them were designed to appeal to would-be players on a visceral "cool" level while holding obvious visual cues related to their culture.
Now, in the age of beheadings and YouTube, this might seem insensitive for a Saudi character to possess, but the sword is a symbol on the Saudi Arabian flag. It makes perfect sense. And let's be honest here, this is a fighting game. Violence is expected and necessary. In fact, it helps tick off that box about being a competent participant.
That brings up another aspect of Shaheen's character. He's been shown to be a non-violent man by nature despite taking part in a game based around people punching each other's faces in. Now, while that might appear contradictory, it's reasonable for someone to have to fight without enjoying it. It's also an important inversion of the negative stereotype of the violent Middle Easterner. That ticks another box. In actuality, it totally flips that stereotype which suggests the designers were aware of this and attempted to totally subvert it.
At the end of the day, we also have to look at where it feels like the character is coming from. With Shaheen, we seem to have someone that was added to the game specifically to include a particular culture. An attempt to be inclusive. That's what people are always asking for, right? And according to our check boxes, the design approach for Shaheen looks to have been a very positive one that attempted to make him broadly appealing to players of all ages, races and cultures while maintaining clearly visible identifiers that point to his own background as a character.
Next time we'll discuss just how major it was to have Poison included in the newest iteration of Street Fighter IV (yes, the 4th version of the game in turn has multiple versions)... and why it was kind of a milestone.
Hint: She has a dick.