The protagonist of Inkle Studio’s science-fiction adventure game Heaven’s Vault is an archaeologist by the name of Aliya Elasra who was born on the planet of Elboreth in a faraway nebula. Her name is Arabic, she wears a headscarf, and her planet looks a lot like the old quarter of an Arab Middle Eastern city. But Aliya is not Muslim and neither Islam nor any other earthly religion features in the game.
One of the central characters in Infinity Ward’s first-person shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is Farah Ahmed Karim, the commander of a liberation force battling the Russian occupation of her homeland. Karim’s name is also Arabic. The chemical attack on her city, her torture in prison, even the furnishings in her family home look like they were lifted from portrayals of the Syrian war. But Karim comes from Urzikstan, a fictional Caucasus country bordering the Black Sea whose name is probably a mashup of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, neither of which have sizable Arab populations.
What do video game characters like Aliya Elasra and Farah Karim teach us about the representation of Islam and Muslims in video games and the entertainment industry more broadly? Two professors at the University of Chicago, Alireza Doostdar (Divinity School) and Ghenwa Hayek (NELC), have embarked on a collaborative multimedia initiative sponsored by the Martin Marty Center to explore these questions.