Video games are one of the biggest platforms where players can consume narrative-centric elements, which many consider interactive movies, in a way. Unfortunately, like in movies, Middle Easterners were mostly represented as villains and terrorists; that said, things in recent years have seen steps in the right direction.
Some studios, such as Activision, Ubisoft, and others, introduced characters from the MENA region who were heroes in their own stories, offering something unique and branching away from negative stereotypes.
The first character on our list, Altaïr Ibn La-Ahad, appeared in the first-ever Assassin’s Creed game, which was released in 2006. Players controlled the assassin hailing from Syria, who fought the templars in the Levant region during the third crusade, taking out dangerous people from both belligerents.
What made Alatïr unique was his interesting character arc, changing throughout the game from an arrogant young man to an influencing leader. Beloved by many in the franchise, his character played a significant role in subsequent entries, especially the early ones.
The Call of Duty franchise isn’t the type that would give a good portrayal of Arabs, fictional or otherwise, mostly depicting them as countries terrorizing the west with some kind of bomb. That changed, in a way, in 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which introduced the character Farah Ahmed Karim from the fictional Middle Eastern country of Urzikstan.
Her story showed that most people in the region don’t like oppression and are willing to fight against terrorist organizations, which in the game were called “Al Qatalah” a group akin to ISIS in real life.
We play as her and learn about her story and struggles, how she’s from a war-torn country fighting to a ruthless invader that did nothing but cause destruction and pain. We also witness her as a true badass, transforming into a leader of a group of fighters willing to stand up against any threat.
Layla & Bayek
Two characters from the Assassin’s Creed: Origins game, Layla and Bayek, took the game in a new and fresh direction. Layla was the players’ window into the present and the game showed players how she decided to leave the evil Abstergo Industries after finding out who they were, in order to know more about her past.
An Egyptian, she traveled to Siwa to learn more about her origins, leading her to find the mummified remains of Bayek, which also put her on the assassin’s order’s radar, adding her to their roster.
The character appeared in several entries in the franchise, including Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla, helping the order battle the templars and finding important artifacts.
Bayek, on the other hand, was the player’s link to the past, as a medjay (military bodyguards to the pharaohs) in ancient Egypt, he goes on an adventure to uncover a conspiracy against the country involving Cleopatra, Julius Ceasar, and others in major roles of power.
Hailing from Saudi Arabia, Shaheen appeared for the first time in Tekken 7 as a one-on-one combat expert who gained his skills from his time in the military. Shaheen in the game is a character looking into the murder of one of his friends who died in mysterious circumstances, only to discover that his murderer is a demon-man hybrid.
The character’s design was achieved with great care, as the game’s producer, Katsuhiro Harada, shared early concept art photos of the character, to ensure the character’s appearance wasn’t offensive. This step earned the respect of fans, who shared feedback to make Shaheen look representable of the region and country he’s from.
In Battlefield 1, the game introduced a new system that told different stories from all over the world during World War 1, hence the title; among them was a group of stories from the Middle East and Kingdom of Hejaz where the Arab tribes fought against the Ottoman Empire for independence.
Zara was the main character in that scenario, where players took control of the Lawrence of Arabia’s right-hand woman, who, through gorilla tactics and ambushes, was able to strike a paralyzing blow to the Ottomans. The game showed how the people from the region were trying to win their independence and fight off the occupiers by creating a united front.
Ana & Pharah
Overwatch is full of different characters from all over the world, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find a couple of Middle Eastern characters in the game; enter Ana and her daughter Pharah.
Ana is an Egyptian sniper in the Overwatch team tasked with protecting the world from threats. Players see the character as one of videogames’ coolest mothers, not just for being a badass and capable female character but also for her softer side as a protector to her friends and daughter.
Pharah is one of the earliest characters introduced in the game; as an Egyptian warrior following in her mother’s footsteps, she enrolled in the military and rose through the ranks earning the loyalty of the soldiers under her. Wearing a unique-looking set of armor that adopts designs from ancient Egyptian mythology, she is a formidable opponent on the game’s battlefield.
Rashid Street Fighter V
Similar to Tekken’s Shaheen, Street Fighter V introduced a Middle Eastern character named Rashid, which followed the same inspiration. Many consider the character coming from the United Arab Emirates due to the color of his white Ghutra/Keffiyeh and his affinity for anything technology.
The character was a collaboration between Capcom, Sony, and Pluto Games, who wanted to create a new character to rival Street Fighter’s main character Ryu, and offer a flair of their own, and thus Rashid was created.