Playing the CyberSultan: Videogames and the Islamic Empire

Playing the CyberSultan: Videogames and the Islamic Empire

I have been thinking a lot about representation of the early Islamic empires lately, and this has led me down a series of interesting rabbit holes that have distracted me from my research, but have enriched what I am doing. I have been looking at both boardgames and video games.

We all know that representations of Islam and the Middle East in the movies tend to be woefully prejudiced. Think of the opening song about the Middle East in Disney’s Aladdin: “It’s barbaric, but hey! It’s home!?” We might expect the audience for boardgames to be a little more educated (more on this in a future blog)… but videogames are certainly full of old-school orientalism. There is some scholarship on this out there, like the work of Vit Sisler.

Even the most nuanced of videogame depictions of the early Islamic world seem to fall into old 19th century stereotypes. So, for example, a review of the 2012 Sword of Islam expansion of Crusader Kings II was given the breathless title, “Play a Game as a Medieval Islamic Ruler. For Once.” The reviewer lauds the game for its progressive move beyond depicting Muslims as the just the bad guys for Europeans to beat up. So, there clearly is some appetite among strategy gamers to have realistic representations of medieval Muslims.

Text box from Sword of Islam expansion for Crusader Kings II

And I have to say, the level of detail in this game is truly impressive, as is clear from its detailed wiki. Muslims are not presented as homogenous, but include Sunnis, Shia and Kharijis – each of which has its own subdivisions, but with some deeply weird mistakes and idiosyncrasies: “Sunni Islam has two playable heresies, Yazidism and Zikrism.” Yazidism is very definitely not a sub-sect of Sunnism, or indeed a sect of Islam at all. Presumably this kind of mistake issues from the fact that the game designers think hierarchically, and every minor religion has to be neatly categorized as a subsection of a larger entity. This might make sense in designing an intelligible system, but it is a shame that once introducing  small and interesting groups with distinctive creeds, they are flattened and denigrated as “heresies”: divergences from a larger “orthodoxy”. This is, indeed, a rather medieval way of looking at the world.

But on the plus side, we get to see some obscure historical actors entering the limelight, including the Marinids and Wattasids in North Africa. This detailed research, notwithstanding, interviews here, and here with the leader of the Sword of Islam project, Henrik Fåhraeus, shows him parroting some truly hair-raising orientalist tropes, including that old bogey, Oriental despotism. As Fåhraeus puts it, “You’re this despot, you don’t have to worry about pleasing your vassals in the same way.”

Muslim dynasties have an advantage in the game from polygamy which makes producing heirs easier. The designers introduced a Khaldūnian mechanic called “decadence”! As Fåhraeus explains it. “There are many examples from history where a tribe or clan from the fringes of the realm suddenly rose up to seize power from what they viewed as a weak ruling dynasty of decadent city dwellers.” Well, maybe so, but conquest from the peripheries is not a Middle Eastern exception. Am I being pedantic? As  Fåhraeus notes, “In general, gameplay always comes before historicity for us…We took inspiration from historical processes and differences.” OK, that is reasonable, but does it need such a regressive conceptual framework? The problem is that this kind of language entrenches the vision of the East as following intrinsically different historical rules from European actors, familiar to academics in Max Weber’s conception of progress as driven by Protestant values; or Bernard Lewis’s leading question as to “what went wrong?” in the Middle East.

The game also reproduces the standard narrative that, although all of the actors rely on religious sources of legitimacy, Muslims have somehow historically been more religious (read “fanatical” in the old parlance), an idea that really does not stand in a medieval world of crusades and excommunications.

Saladin, Civ VI

Saladin, from Civilization VI

As Fåhraeus puts in, “Muslims will also tend to have more Piety to spend.”

This idea that Muslims are intrinsically more religious, is also something I note in a newer videogame my son has recently introduced me to: the sixth edition of Civilization. Vit Sisler praises the Civilization games: “The ingame description of many features of Islamic civilization is unique for its correctness and sensitivity,” but even so, soon after setting myself up, I immediately spot something a bit off. In Civilization VI, you can play Saladin, who (although he was probably a Kurd) for some reason rules the “Arabian Empire.” When you opt to play Saladin, you are told, “The marriage of science and religion is a delicate balancing act, but one that you have mastered, Saladin.” So, Saladin certainly was a Muslim ruler, and resorted to Islam both out of sincerity and instrumentally to underscore his legitimacy… but not more so than any medieval European ruler. Remember the Crusades? Divine Right of Kings? Heck, look at Donald Trump misquoting bits of the bible to get the Christian vote.

But here, perhaps historians are to blame. After all, we still tend to call it “Islamic history”, rather than the history of a region, or a dynasty, as is standard in every other subfield of history. One thing that is clear from working on our EmCo project is that the Caliphate (or the early Islamic empire, if you will) was founded to a crucial degree upon the assent and participation of non-Muslims and non-Arabs.

One thing that fascinated me about Crusader Kings II is the fact that there are people out there who have built their own expansions which can deepen the game’s level of historical detail. One fan-built expansion introduces you to a whole bunch more “heresies” including Mandeans, Nestorians and Ahle-Haqq. It is full of historical errors, but again, it is great that some amateur game-lover is doing the research and putting this all together. Where did they find all these? Is this the effect of two decades of Wikipedia on popular culture?

Fan-built “Christian immersion” add-on for Crusader Kings II

In fact, full disclosure, I myself came across this fan-built expansion when I was googling around to find instances of excommunication in preparation for our Leiden workshop on “Acts of Excommunication” to see if there was any scholarship out there on excommunicatory institutions in communities I was less aware of – like the Mandeans – and one of the first hits was this. What I take from this (and no doubt this is all obvious to the more serious gamers out there) is that there is a real thirst out there to engage with history, including an impressive level of amateur wonkery to dig up knowledge about the religions and dynasties of the Middle East. Certainly, we should applaud the drive to move beyond homogenizing Muslims as all the same. But beyond some of the inevitable bizarre mistakes, we still have a big problem of conveying some of the big lessons of the past century of research on Middle Eastern history: Muslims were never intrinsically given to decadence; nor any more religiously fanatical than Europeans. They are just people like the people in the rest of the world. It is high time that the history of the Middle East was normalized as part of the history of the world. Games are an important area for representing history to the public, not only because of their increasing position within our culture, but also because in games you get to inhabit another person’s subjectivity. This could be a powerful vehicle for encouraging more nuanced ways of thinking about the past, about culture, history and connectivity. It is perhaps not surprising that video game designers are still reproducing older scholarly models. Clearly there will always be a lag between research and public attitudes. But given the impact and reach of games it begs the question: what can historians do about this? Is there a place for historians to get involved more directly with the kind of models which are employed in games and media? If historians of early Islam were to design game mechanics for ruling an early Islamic empire, what would it look like?