In light of the horrific terror attacks on Israel, something like a video game may seem trivial. However, so much of the supposed problem of Jews living in Israel is the false narrative that we are white European colonizers. Jews, are in fact, indigenous to the Middle East, and were colonized and oppressed throughout the millennia. The representations we have on screen — in television, in movies and in video games – matters for not just public opinion but also for the safety and security of the Jewish people.
Last month, I penned a highly pessimistic preview of Ubisoft’s then-upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Mirage for Times of Israel. Therein I made several predictions: 1) that indigenous Middle Eastern minorities would be erased, 2) that Arab colonialism would either be whitewashed or valorized, 3) that the game would attempt to indigenize Arabs to the lands they colonized.
Now that I’ve been able to comb through the game in its entirety, I can confirm that just about everything I predicted has unfortunately come to pass.
First, some context.
Assassin’s Creed is a long-running action-RPG/stealth franchise known for weaving elements of sci-fi and conspiracism into otherwise faithful recreations of historic set pieces. Since the eponymously-named premiere entry in 2007, it has gone on to spawn more than a dozen mainline installments as well as an array of spinoffs, novels, and even a feature-length film.
Mirage, the 13th entry in the mainline series, was released this past Thursday and takes place in 9th century Baghdad. Its protagonist is an Arab man by the name of Basim ibn Ishaq, who is described in the opening segments as a noble hero with an indomitable sense of justice and a commitment to helping the oppressed and marginalized.
In light of this description, it would stand to reason that Iraq’s indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities would feature prominently within the game’s narrative, but this does not happen. On the contrary, the game barely acknowledges our existence.
Assyrians, an indigenous Mesopotamian people who had been (and continue to be) brutally persecuted under Arab colonial rule, are nowhere to be found here. Scant references to Mesopotamian mythology appear in the dialogue, but they come off more as a bad faith attempt at indigenizing Arabs than any serious effort at representation. Mandaeans, another indigenous population of Iraq, are likewise conspicuously absent.
Baghdad was also home to a sizable Jewish diaspora around this time. The presence of Jews in what is now Iraq began with the Babylonian exile of 597 BCE. But even after the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed us to return to our homeland, many chose to remain behind.
As the Arab conquests swept over Baghdad, its Jewish population was corralled into ghettos, forced into apartheid-like conditions, and made to wear yellow badges (no, the idea did not originate with Hitler). Although the Karkh district of Baghdad is featured in the game, its Jewish quarter is not. In fact, Jews do not appear at any point in the game’s story.
Arabs and Persians make up the majority of the game’s main cast and NPCs, with the rest being a combination of Turks, Zanj (Bantu-speaking peoples from Southeast Africa who had been taken as slaves), and Chinese and Greek travelers.
In other words, Ubisoft went to the effort of including Chinese and Greek characters in the game, but could not be bothered to include indigenous Middle Eastern minorities.
In-game historical notes briefly mention the Arab conquests, but only in vague terms. The Arab caliphate is, for the most part, spoken of positively – as a bringer of enlightenment and prosperity – despite its largely antagonistic role in the story. The brutal nature of Arab/Islamic colonialism and its effects on indigenous populations are likewise glossed over, with the in-game notes even lionizing the Arabic language as a “unifier”.
Mirage’s depiction of medieval Baghdad leans heavily into the “Arabized natives” narrative – often going out of its way to depict Arabization as merely an in situ cultural revolution rather than the campaign of settler-colonialism and extirpation it actually was.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed: Mirage – the fourth mainline installment to feature a Middle Eastern setting – boasts all of the same failings that made the previous three (with the possible exception of Origins) deeply frustrating for indigenous peoples who are still fighting for recognition and, in some cases, to even be seen.
Why Does This Matter?
Firstly, according to the Geena Davis Institute’s recent report on ethnic minority representation in gaming, media plays a vital role in socialization and shaping audience perception of marginalized groups. Endeavoring to be inclusive goes a long way toward reducing the spread of ignorance and prejudice. Conversely, failing to be inclusive can lead to situations where false and oppressive narratives are further normalized and entrenched, and marginalized outgroups are further excluded and otherized.
This brings me back to Assassin’s Creed: Mirage. Here we have a game that, inadvertently or not, airbrushes Jews and other indigenous MENA minorities out of our own region while indigenizing Arab colonial majorities, thereby legitimizing their dominance and our continued extirpation.
An even greater fear I have is that Ubisoft will attempt to compensate for the exclusion of Jews here by making an Assassin’s Creed game set during the Holocaust – one that will go to great lengths to indigenize Jews to Europe (e.g. by emphasizing our “deep roots” there, casting white actors in Jewish roles, etc), universalize the Holocaust, and humiliate us by treating us as helpless damsels in distress who need to be “rescued” by gentile saviors. These ideas are, of course, absolutely repugnant, and I would rather Ubisoft just continue pretending we don’t exist.
If Ubisoft, and the entertainment industry as a whole, are as serious about representation as they claim to be, they need to do better by Jews and other indigenous Middle Eastern peoples. For too long, we have been misrepresented if not outright excluded by the industry. That needs to change.
Indigenous peoples count. We must.