Overwatch Highlighted in GDC Talk on Muslim Representation

Osama Dorias, Game Designer at Warner Brothers Montreal, took to the GDC 2018 stage to offer a how-to guide on Muslim representation in video games, using Overwatch as one of the positive video game examples. The talk was broken into three core sections: why positive Muslim representation is important, debunking misconceptions, and actionable advice.

Here is the GDC 2018 video.

Dorias set the context for his conversation by addressing the recent spike in Islamophobia, having stated that, “in the last two years the rate of Islamophobia related crimes has doubled.” He also took the time to discuss how media has shaped a lot of our views on Muslim people, from expectations of looks to associated regions. The takeaway? Muslims are diverse, just like everyone else.

Dorias urged developers to give Muslims a platform, amplify their voices, not to stack tokens, and to insist on authentic voice actors. He advised teams to include characters from Muslim-majority countries in their roster. They don’t have to “definitely be Muslim,” the same way we’re often not aware that a character is Christian or believes in any religion at all. “If you don’t point out the religion of any other character, then do the same for the Muslims,” reminded Dorias.

There aren’t many examples of positive Muslim representation in video games, said Dorias, so he often drew on other media. Kamala Khan from the Ms. Marvel comic book, was noted. However, Overwatch was one shining example that actually brought Dorias to tears.

Overwatch‘s Ana is voiced by Aysha Selim, who is Egyptian. Dorias reflected on this and stated, “I was told by some Egyptian friends that if you were Egyptian you’d know exactly what part of Egypt she’s from. It’s that authentic and on top of that… she’s actually about the right age of the character that she’s playing.”

Alternate skins and character customization are another way to provide positive Muslim representation in a game. Dorias took this time to point out Pharah, who has a skin that features a hijab.  “It’s an option so if people don’t want to wear it they don’t have to, but if people do it [could] mean a lot to them.”

As far as locations, Dorias showed a screenshot from a video game of a location he called “Arabistan,” a generic war torn middle eastern country that’s often used as the setting for FPS games and third-person shooters. “We see this and think Iraq, even though [Iraq] does not look like this. Even the war torn [parts] don’t look like this.”

Alternatively, Dorias shows us Oasis: an Overwatch map that depicts future Iraq as an idyllic, lush landscape. It brought Dorias to tears when he first saw it and it did the same thing on stage:

The reason this was meaningful is because I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and talking about this, and writing about this. And [I’m from Iraq but] never once did I project a bright future for my own country. And to see someone else do it… [soft crying]

There are many different ways to represent a group and not every person in said group is going to have the same opinion, as Dorias emphasized at the start of his talk. However, there are plenty of things to keep in mind and tools at developers’ disposal to create meaningful representation for Muslim people. Hopefully, more developers will move people in such a positive way.