Video games are great at allowing you to walk in the footsteps of any- and everyone. Want to be a burly, 100-foot creature destroying a metropolis? Play Rampage and you’re even given a choice of monster. Want to be H.R. Giger’s indelible toothsome ray of sunshine? Various generations of Aliens vs Predator games let you get in touch with your inner secondary jaw. There’s many games that let you slip into the physique of lithe, scantily-clad warriorettes, and I won’t even try to count all the titles that put you in the futuristic boots of space marines.
Yet there are some identities we’re very rarely asked to assume – so it’s nice when a game actually gives you such an opportunity.
As indicated in my earlier post, I’m currently nursing a minor addiction to Assassin’s Creed Origins, or more accurately, to its depiction of Ptolemaic Egypt. I love the majesty and mystery of its cities, ruins and deserts. I greatly enjoy my animal sidekicks, my trusty eagle Senu and my as-yet-unnamed camel that constantly seems to be hiding behind nearby columns or assorted canopic jars so that it can trot towards me leisurely whenever I whistle for it. What I’m also enjoying, though, is that I am playing a North African – not least for the fact that games, especially big-budget titles that reach a huge audience, rarely allow me to do so. Mainstream games are very much geared towards a very particular audience: mostly white, mostly male, mostly of European descent. Mainstream cinema isn’t all that different, and even when we get protagonists from North Africa or the Near and Middle East, they tend to be whitewashed to some extent – remember Disney’s Aladdin, who might as well have been a young Tom Cruise after a week at the tanning studio, while more villainous characters were more clearly marked as ‘ethnic’? Even Assassin’s Creed‘s very first protagonist, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, the child of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, had any clearly Middle Eastern features sanded off. (Freedom Cry, a more recent game in the series featured a former black slave as its protagonist, but it was clearly marked as a smaller game and as a spinoff of one of the main titles – which did star a white, European protagonist.)
Bayek the Medjay, though, is different. His visual design doesn’t try to make him more relatable to a white mainstream audience. His features aren’t generalised. He looks closer to what we’re used to see, in games, movies and TV series, as shopkeepers, peasants and terrorists – but most definitely not as a protagonist. While there is an exoticist aspect to the game, I don’t think this extends to Bayek: his foreignness to what I assume the majority of players to be isn’t played up, he looks the part but doesn’t come across as any visual stereotype I’m aware of.
Part of me wants to be able to say, “Of course he does, he’s an Egyptian in 50 BC, what else would he look like? What’s the big deal?” Except it is a big deal, because the heroes we get to watch and play simply don’t tend to look like that. Even when they should, they generally don’t – again, see Aladdin.
Games are great – or at least have great potential – at putting you in someone else’s shoes (though admittedly Bayek mostly goes barefoot), but that potential is often wasted in favour of yet another white dude with a gun. All questions of politics of representation aside for a moment: apart from anything else it’s simply refreshing to be playing as Bayek the badass Egyptian.