Inside the frosted glass doors of Afkar Media, located in Damascus’s newly-built free-zone, Muslim software developers are trying to rebuild a civilization inside a video game.
Set to be released in September, "Al-Quraysh" is a strategy game that tells the story of the first 100 years of Islam’s history from the viewpoint of four different nations – Bedouins, Arabs, Persians, and Romans.
One can choose to command any of the armies of the four nations or lead the army of the main character, Khaled Ibn Waleed, a Muslim warrior who defeated the Roman and Persian empires and never lost a battle. Or one can play the role of the Bedouin sheikh, who must earn the respect of his tribe. The player has the task of building and protecting trade routes and water sources, building armies, conducting battles, and freeing slaves.
It’s just one of several new games produced in the Middle East with the idea that video games, like other media, play a role in shaping young minds and impacting self-esteem. The makers hope "Al-Quraysh," named after the prophet Muhammad’s tribe, will help to correct the image of Islam, alleviate tensions with the West, and stoke pride among young Muslims.
"Al-Quraysh is going to help people in the West better understand the people who are living in the East," says Radwan Kasmiya, an avid gamer and the executive manager of Afkar Media. "We want to show that this civilization was a sort of practical and almost heavenly civilization."
The game also holds lessons for Muslims, says Mr. Kasmiya.
"I get very embarrassed by the way we are showing our civilization," says Kasmiya. "There were rational laws that were governing Muslims at that time. This allowed this civilization to last for a long time and to accept the other civilizations that they came in touch with. It was not a conservative or sectarian civilization. But people have stopped taking the ideas behind the laws, and are taking the laws themselves. They do not understand the essence of the laws."
Afkar Media has already produced two games, both dealing with the plight of the Palestinian people. One game released last year, "Under Siege," was born out of frustration with the prevalance of Arabs and Muslims portrayed as terrorists in Western video games. The creators of the game say the story line counteracts the biases in some Western games by showing the Palestinian struggle from an Arab vantage point and creating Arab and Muslim characters who are fighting in self-defense.
In the first scene of "Under Siege," Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler who killed 27 worshipers in a Hebron mosque in 1994, snickers as he sneaks up to the mosque where two boys, Maen and Ahmed, are among those praying inside. Goldstein enters the mosque and starts shooting into the prostrated crowd.
As chaos ensues, Ahmed must disarm Goldstein and turn to fight Israeli soldiers. Killing civilians – Israeli or Arab – will make him lose his stamina. Maen is armed with a slingshot and must help the ambulance, which is being blocked by Israeli forces, reach the mosque.
Critics say the game merely inverts stereotypes – replacing extremist caricatures of Muslims with extremist caricatures of Jews, like that of Baruch Goldstein, and using the violent "shooter" format common to many video games.
But by giving young Muslims and Arabs the chance to see themselves in "the good guy" roles, Kasmiya hopes the games will bolster self-esteem among the region’s children.
"Most video games on the market are anti-Arab and anti-Islam," says Kasmiya. "Arab gamers are playing games that attack their culture, their beliefs, and their way of life. The youth who are playing the foreign games are feeling guilt. On the outside they look like they don’t care, but inside they do care. But we also don’t want to do something about Arabs killing Westerners."
Both "Al-Quraysh" and "Under Siege," which cost roughly $100,000 to make, have been funded and released by Dar al-Fiqr, a publishing house that distributes a wide range of conservative to liberal voices on topics related to Islam. An estimated 100,000 copies of "Under Siege" have been distributed around the Arab world.
Hasan Salem, a director at Dar al-Fiqr, hopes "Al-Quraysh" will promote a more "modern" Islam.
"People believe that only their heritage will help this nation," says Mr. Salem. "We believe that this nation needs a new vision, new people, new blood to study, read, and then think about Islam. We believe in this line, not the old line that only reads old books and believes in the past."
But Dar al-Fiqr and Afkar Media’s toughest challenge may be getting serious gamers to play.
Weak copyright laws in the region limit a company’s ability to profit from such games, which sell for about $10 a copy.
And games like "Al-Quraysh" must compete with the sophisticated graphics and game plots of a multibillion-dollar gaming industry.
Mohamad Hamzeh, a 26-year-old gamer, says he bought "Under Siege," but that he would not play it instead of other popular games like "World of Warcraft" or "Counterstrike" because he says the plot lines are not convincing.
"We do want to put Arabs in games and show that we have a civilization, we respect other people, and that we are not aggressors," says Mr. Hamzeh, who develops video games himself. "But it’s hard to really get into a game like ‘Under Siege.’ When you are in 2005 and you find a game that was released in 1995 that was much more advanced, it is not good. You must feel the challenge in the game. They are paying so much attention to the political and religious part, they are not concentrating on the technical parts of the game."