“Hi-tech hope for an ancient problem:
the video game that fights Islamophobia”
—Wednesday, 23 May 2017
For the millions of people whose irrational aversion to Islam impacts their quality of life daily, help might be on the way from an unorthodox source, a major study suggests. Taking a leaf from the world of cognitive-behavioural therapy, an Aussie-made console game promises to “expose players to more—and more diverse—Islamic characters with each level, rewarding them for successful interactions at closer and closer distances.”
Designed for Xbox and Playstation, the first-person shooter—codenamed Islamicide: Bloody Crescent—won’t hit shelves until mid-2018, but it’s already got the attention of mental health workers and military psychologists alike.
If early buzz is anything to go by this will be an A1 release in its own right, with all the bells and whistles modern gamers expect from Sydney-based atelier Manly Crew. Islamicide boasts dynamic shadows, ragdoll physics, fractal vegetation, volumetric lighting, destructible environments, fully customisable avatars, a gamut of multiplayer and co-op modes and a rich, open world—all delivered to your retina at a consistent 60 frames per second.
Oh, and it also uses science to break the cycle of Islamophobic thoughts, adds producer Dominic McNally.
For most players he recommends a mode called Desensitisation.
“You start out at the controls of a US drone, bombing Pashtun wedding parties from a safe, depersonalised distance,” explains McNally, a boyish multimillionaire with a physique honed by decades of monitor use.
“It’s completely non-threatening.
“A hundred hours of gameplay later—after graduating to door-to-door, hand-to-hand urban combat—you’re bayonetting insurgents in a Sadr City alley no wider than your bathroom. But, and this is the genius part, you’re too busy disembowelling them to remember you have Islamophobia.
“Or, dare I say it: had Islamophobia?”
Obligatory boss fights and fatality leader-boards aside, the game was designed to feel as self-paced as possible. The only limit to your progress, says McNally, “is your own comfort level around Muslims.”
We got the chance to play an intermediate mission at this year’s E3 trade show. As a Coalition sniper parkouring the roof-scape of Baghdad, our orders were simple: take down wave after wave of explosive-strapped teenagers before anyone gets killed.
As you draw a bead on the next junior jihadist, the scope reveals every zit and follicle on their ill-fated forehead.
“They can’t see you, but boy, can you see them,” as McNally puts it. “We’re pretty proud of that level. It’s one of the bigger hurdles for people [with Islamophobia]: they’re forced to confront the humanity, the Muslimness, of their quarry.
“So I insisted in design meetings that every terrorist, even the Downs [syndrome] kids, had to be unique, an individual. There’s no Fred-Flintstoning.”
For those who need a faster pace—or faster results—the company’s patented ‘Let’s Roll’ Mode uses the psychology of immersion, dropping players straight in the proverbial deep end. According to the game’s press kit, “you’re transported to a lovingly-recreated simulacrum of Lakemba Mosque, right in the middle of Friday prayers, [where] you have 60 seconds to take out as many worshippers as you can. A smorgasbord of weapons is yours to unlock… but to score the really big points, there’s no substitute for the intimacy of manual murder!”
“It had to be fun for the whole family,” says McNally, “both NIPs [non-Islamophobic persons] and NNIPs [non-NIPs]. That’s our one rule—we don’t sacrifice gameplay for therapy.”
McNally’s team worked closely with the Muslim community in Sydney’s South West to ensure the ambience of key scenes, including a climactic religious-school massacre, was pixel-perfect.
“They were great—our [male] artists and designers got VIP access to some of Punchbowl’s most historic and serene places of worship,” he says, adding a special shout-out to community leaders Keysar Trad and Sheikh Yahya Safi.
“If you guys are ever up Vaucluse way, beers are on me!”
Meanwhile, early clinical trials of the game show clear benefits in a population of real phobics.
280 volunteers were assigned at random to either the intervention or control arm of a study by the University of Sydney earlier this year.
The former enjoyed unlimited play time with Islamicide—and Mountain Dew, Red Bull and NoDoz tablets on tap. The other group simply sat in a room while researchers fed them soothing platitudes, like “Islam is a religion of peace.” (They were only informed at the end of the experiment that this wasn’t true.)
After three weeks, the subjects who’d played the game reported a 54 per cent improvement in their symptoms (compared to just two per cent in the placebo group). Almost a third even said they’d be willing or very willing to approach a Lebanese neighbour and strike up a conversation—a feat that would previously have been unthinkable.
The military applications of such technology practically sell themselves. Left untreated, Islamophobia can decimate the morale of a fighting unit, not to mention its effectiveness on the ground.
While the wars of the past were fought by armed men on foot against Boers, Cossacks, Germans, Japanese and Viet Cong, the wars of the 21st century will be fought by armed men on foot against Muslims. The last thing a Western nation can afford is to see its best soldiers curled up in a gibbering mess at the first sight of a ‘muj.’
Spokesmen for Manly Crew would only confirm that “a number of national Defence Ministries” have been courting the company.
“Islamophobia prevents something like 25,000 of our enemies from being killed per annum in the Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian theatres combined,” explains McNally. “And these estimates are coming from the military itself. So yes, you can imagine the brass might be interested in our IP.”
The game’s gestation has been an eye-opening process for McNally.
“Did you know Islamophobia has been a thing since, like, the Middle Ages? Really.
“I can show you the descriptions of hardened mercenaries in the Holy Land, shitting themselves en masse—pardon my French—after a single wave of Saracen cavalry. And these are guys who had no problem wading knee-deep through the blood of Jews in Toledo, or casually swatting away swarm after swarm of crossbow bolts in a Norman murder-hole.”
(McNally likes to muse that the Third Crusade might have gone “very differently indeed” if Bloody Crescent had shipped 900 years earlier.)
“I can’t explain it,” he shrugs. “There’s something about Muslims.”
The most surreal moment in the journey, though, was when Kuwait’s Minister for Mental Health personally phoned the Sydney studio, pleading for five hundred passwords to the online beta test.
“We’re not just dealing with a Western phobia here,” says McNally. “Apparently it’s just as bad in the Muslim world, where a culture of stigma and silence can make life hell for sufferers. Which I guess would explain some of the insanity [in the region]!
“Just imagine—not even being able to open your door for fear of bumping into a fellow believer or seeing a minaret. What kind of existence is that? I don’t know about you, but I’d probably contemplate suicide [bombing].”
If I:BC feels and plays like a labor of love, that’s because it is. McNally says the game was inspired by his 4-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with Islamophobia on her second birthday.
“I made a vow, then and there: this disease wasn’t going to define her life.”
But Islamicide isn’t the studio’s first foray into the Serious Games movement, he admits. Reaching into a dumpster of DVDs in the lobby, McNally excavates fistful after fistful of classic Manly in my general direction.
“As you can see, we’ve been churning out Art With A Social Conscience for years.
“Take, take, go ahead. Pretty much any of this early crap is a perfect antidote,” he says, wheezing from the generous exertion, “to the scourge of gaming addiction.” ■
United Nations International Islamophobia Awareness Week Awareness Month [UNIIAWAM] is never long enough, is it? *sigh* Anyway, we hope the upbeat implications of today’s article gave you some closure.
See you in United Nations International Islamophobia Awareness Week [UNIIAW],
Your temporal and cognitive Prince,
First of my Name,
Pontificator Maximus, Dictator of Climate Doctrine to all free-thinking peoples,
And King of something called the Andals which nobody is really sure what it is—
A handful o’ Vandals from Andalusia, maybe