Assassin’s Creed is a long-running action-adventure game franchise, developed primarily in Montreal by French publisher Ubisoft. Since its initial outing in 2007, the series has gone on to spawn more than 20 mainline installments and spinoffs, earning praise for its gameplay, scale, and historical accuracy (notwithstanding the sci-fi elements and fictional Assassin/Templar war, anyway). Assassin’s Creed: Mirage, the 13th game of the mainline series, is scheduled for release this October and will take place in 9th century Baghdad.
I remember, back when this game was first announced, making snotty jokes to the effect of “I wonder if they’ll include Jewish NPCs with yellow badges here”. Many within earshot were quick to note the palpable bitterness – an acerbity and knowing cynicism brought on by years of prior disappointment.
I already knew, given Ubisoft’s previous track record (and that of the entertainment industry as a whole), that indigenous MENA minorities were most likely going to be screwed over.
To wit, Mirage isn’t the first mainline Assassin’s Creed to boast a Middle Eastern setting. The very first game in the series was set in the Levant during the Crusader wars – against the now iconic backdrop of European and Arab colonial powers vying for control over a land that ultimately belonged to neither of them.
To my recollection (admittedly, it’s been several years), there was not a single Jewish or Samaritan character to be found in the entire game, and scarcely any mention was made of the Arab conquest of the region, nor its pre-Arab history. Few traces of the land’s indigenous peoples or language could be found anywhere, despite the fact that Jews were still a majority in Jerusalem (one of the game’s main cities) at this time.
For all players know, given what is presented in the game, Arabs are the land’s indigenous people and have lived there since time immemorial. No meaningful indication is given that they arrived to the Levant through colonialism and that their relationship to the land is every bit as colonial as that of the game’s Crusader villains. Instead, we’re given the impression that Samaritans are extinct (they’re not) and Jews have no actual history in the land before 1948. Whether this was intentional on Ubisoft’s part, it’s impossible for me to say. But intentions are neither here nor there. What matters is the impact of the game’s narrative itself.
And the impact, overall, is a deleterious one that feeds into the toxic “Arabized natives” narrative aimed at legitimizing the colonial status quo and keeping indigenous peoples disenfranchised.
Fast forward to today, and we see very little indication that Mirage will be done any differently. If the game’s IMDB page is anything to go by, no indigenous MENA minority actors have been cast in the game, which is not a good sign.
Neither Jews nor any of Iraq’s indigenous peoples (architectural relics notwithstanding) have prominently featured in any of the game’s trailers. All we’ve seen thus far is an Arab protagonist with a magical bird named “Enkidu”, a clever but none too subtle attempt at arrogating the land’s indigenous culture to Iraq’s Arab majority. One could make the excuse that the land was majority Arab at this time (similar excuses were made for the original AC game), but they were ultimately just that: excuses.
If Ubisoft and the gaming industry as a whole are serious about diverse representation, they cannot leave out indigenous MENA minorities, nor airbrush us out of our own region. It also requires being honest (or as honest as one can be within the context of this series’ lore) about the region’s history and power dynamics. One of my foremost worries when it comes to Jewish representation, is that they will check that box by making a Holocaust game – with most if not all of the Jewish characters being portrayed by white actors (as they did to Karl Marx in Syndicate, although Karl Marx was widely known to have been brown-skinned) – with gentile savior narrative and a “universalist” message instructing us Jews “not to hate gentiles” and “don’t think your suffering is special”.
But, ultimately, I am fretting over a game that isn’t even out yet. I could be proven wrong. I hope I am.
Given Ubisoft’s track record, however, I don’t think I will be.