9/11 and Video Game Representations: An Interview with Michael Hitchens

"Following 9/11 video games actually tended to follow the way events in the world were being reported in the mainstream media. As the mainstream media would focus more on terrorism events, video games would react to that," Michael Hitchens

By Mikhail Yakovlev

When most people are asked ‘what were you doing on September 11, 2001’, most remember the exact moment. The attacks on World Trade Center in New York, USA changed the world in a unprecedented degree: they changed the USA’s global position, they were the beginning of two of the deadliest wars in modern history which were part of the ‘War on Terror’ and continue to influence international politics, they shifted the focus of whole academic fields.

This year, 2021, marks the 20 years since the attack and because of that Media Diversity Institute and Get The Trolls Out! wanted to explore the way 9/11 influenced the media in a broader context. For this reason, we interviewed several academics and journalists with expertise on the broader field of the media and diversity in order to look at the ways 9/11 and its aftermath impacted the media in general as well as journalists’ work more specifically.

The interviews will be published before and after September 11, 2021.

9/11 and the British Media: An interview with Professor Elizabeth Poole by Giulia Dessi

9/11 and the Film and TV Industry: An Interview Dr Evelyn Alsultany by Giulia Dessi

9/11 and Video Games: An Interview with Michael Hitchens by Mikhail Yakovlev

9/11 and Journalism Practice in Afghanistan: An Interview with Bahaar Joya by Marianna Karakoulaki

Michael Hitchens is an associate professor in the Department of Computing at Macquarie University.

Mikhail Yakovlev: What inspires you to study video games and why?

Michael Hitchens: I’m going to be totally honest about why I’ve studied video games it’s because I enjoy playing them so much. That’s a big part of, but not all.

I’m a computer scientist and I was initially trying and operating systems, I did do some work in computer security as well, but I also spent a lot of my spare time playing video games and also doing other things related. And, so, I thought I should actually bring these two parts together.

Besides that, games are a fascinating piece of technology. From a technological point of view, they have to present a compelling experience, an easy-to-use experience in real time. They are not something that people have to use. It is not like Zoom or Excel. People have to choose to play a video game. This means that game developers have to be able to present that experience in a way that people would enjoy. Often, this is achieved in 3D virtual worlds, bringing-in all sorts of graphics and technology. So, games are an enormous technological undertaking – a very sophisticated piece of technology, with their use of high-end graphics and other resources. If you take multiplayer games, they connect people across the world.

Mikhail Yakovlev: In terms of their media value or the way they shape their players’ perceptions of the world, why do you think it is important to study video games? Is it an important media?

Michael Hitchens: One of the reasons, of course, is simply the number of people that use video games.

Another thing that makes them very important is both their interactive and absorbing nature. In one sense, you can look at them and say they’re not that much different to a film or a TV show. All of them are images on screen. But, in another sense, games are very different because the way people engage with them is quite different.

The interaction that you have with a film and a TV show is much more passive. You cannot affect what’s going on. You can actively determine how you receive and process that information and what your response to it is. But, this doesn’t directly affect what’s going on the screen.

With a video game, it does.

Because of that, it can be much more absorbing and much more direct than other forms of media.

Liveness and interactive nature of games makes them stand apart from other media. But, this also makes them limited in some areas. If you think about it from a narrative or a story point of view, there are things that are harder to do in a game. Things that touch on emotions. If you think about the verbs you can do, it’s very easy in a game to: run; jump; or, to shoot, if we talk about first-person shooters. It’s much harder in a game to: argue; cajole; or, to express sympathy.

The artificial intelligence of representing a person on an emotional level is not there.

But with the things video games can do, they can do them in a way that nothing else can.

Mikhail Yakovlev: You mention that certain kind of emotions are difficult to perform inside the game, does this affect the players’ ability to form emotional connection with a game’s characters?

Michael Hitchens: We know both from studies and from our own experience that people can get very attached to characters in games, with which they can sympathize in the same way that they sympathize and empathize with characters in a novel or in a film, but in terms of the actual situations.

Then there are things that video games, at the moment, are not so good at. For example, when’s the last time you heard of a romantic comedy video game? Now, there have been efforts to make these. I am not saying they don’t exist but they’re not exactly a big part of the video game landscape, like they are a big part of the film landscape.

But, whilst, it is a lot harder to display those emotions on screen, it doesn’t stop people becoming attached to characters. People become incredibly attached to their characters.

You are probably aware that some games let you design your character before you start playing. Some players will take hours – literally, hours – designing their character.

Mikhail Yakovlev: And, what kind of characters tend to be available in video games, specifically thinking about 9/11 and its aftermath, and how it affected them representation of Islam and the Arab or Muslim?

Michael Hitchens: Those are two different questions.

Video games across the range represent all sorts of characters that allow you to play all sorts of characters. For example, I have a student at the moment, who is studying the representation of transgender characters in games. A part of that is looking at what is done with transgender characters in games and, also, how transgender players use games.

So, the range of characters that games are capable of representing is incredibly broad and, in practice, you will find all sorts of characters represented.

The effect of 9/11 is part of what I did study, a few years ago. One of the reasons I undertook that study was that there was a number of articles appearing in the academic literature saying that video games were deliberately trending in a certain direction and attempting to lead the argument. And, what I found – this might be a little disappointing to you, I am afraid – is that video games actually tended to follow the way events in the world were being reported in the mainstream media.

As the mainstream media would focus more on terrorism events, video games would react to that.

The way that they represent this tends to be quite simplistic. Games, especially first-person shooters, are not known for deep narratives. They are called first-person shooters, because the way you solve the problem is by shooting things. And, these games are also generally not interested in shades of grey. Now, that’s a sweeping generalization and you can find examples that represent much more subtle and nuanced approaches.

In general, however, these games have a very much binary set-up – you vs. the enemy.

And, you go out and shoot the enemy. This means that when they do so that when they do represent characters, like terrorists or other types of enemies, they tend not to present them in any other terms, other than quite simplistic and two-dimensional.

But as I said, based on what I found, such representations are in response to demand. For example, my and other people’s research shows that in the late 20th century, when terrorism was not perceived as such a big threat, but at the height of the American war on drugs, there were quite a few video games which represented enemies as being drug dealers and drug smugglers. Then, again, video games were not leading the discussion. They were following other media.

Mikhail Yakovlev: While video games may respond to trends in Western media, they obviously travel around the world and are played by different people around the world. What is the effect on players who happen to come from a background that is being stereotyped in the game?

Michael Hitchens: Video games do have some issues. The wider study in which my research was part of showed that the typical first-person shooter player character was a white male with some sort of military, police or security background. Now, this puts a distance between the character and the player, when the player is someone who’s not white, or male or from that background.

And, not every player may necessarily agree with the political stance that’s inherently taken by the game’s ‘storyline’. While I said that the games were following broader media and political discourse, that doesn’t mean that they’re free of a political stance.  

Obviously, if you present a particular subsection of the world’s population on one side and other sections on the other side, you are influencing your potential audience and, also, the likelihood of your game being accepted by certain groups of people.

This is not just true of terrorism, for example games that might pick a particular country and pitch its government as the enemy in the game. Well, people from that country might not be terribly interested in playing that game.

Mikhail Yakovlev: And, what are the main tropes used in games to represent Muslims and Arabs?

Michael Hitchens: While there are some games that are much more sophisticated in their representation, most games, especially first-person shooters, are quite simplistic and, in some cases, downright insulting in the way they represent certain groups of people.

Overall, Western people are treated much better than others. I think this both the source of the games, which to a large extent are produced in the West, and the developers’ desire to appeal to the people who they think are their target market.

Now, the way that they portray other groups of people is not all that good. But, again, I would point to the similarity with Hollywood and other dominant forms of media, where the same sort of thing is happening.

To me, racism and Islamophobia in video games is just another example of a broader problem in the media, where the people creating them don’t think clearly enough about what representation, biases and how they might be perceived by people other than white men.

On a more simplistic level, one of the things that I do with my students is give them an example of a game about Barbie dolls; it is aimed at eleven year old girls. I ask them whether they think there were many eleven year old girls on the design team. Clearly, the design team had to think outside their own box.

Now, it is difficult for all of us to think outside our box. But, what this example shows – now, I am not defending Barbie – is that if you are producing a piece of media, you do need to think about what the reception is going to be beyond people like you.

Another thing that I tell my students is – you are not your representative player.

And, these things are too often forgotten, both by this industry and other industries, as well.

Mikhail Yakovlev: Is closer collaboration between scholars, players and design teams the answer?

Michael Hitchens: I am not sure. In some ways, we, as scholars, should try to maintain some sort of objective distance from the topic of our scholarship. That is not to say we shouldn’t talk to the industry or that industry shouldn’t talk to us.

Certainly, the industry needs to think more clearly about who is their target audience. Again, that is not to say that that the industry never does this.

A while ago, I was playing a game where the central character was a woman with a mixed European, Indian and Ethiopian heritage. This was very unusual in a game, but it just demonstrates that it can be done. There’s nothing stopping developers from introducing more diversity.

Unfortunately, designers too often default into thinking that most of the people that play games – and this is not even necessarily correct – are white males, so we are going to aim our game at white males.

This kind of thinking is not doing themselves or their audience a service, because there are other people that might play games and just because I am a white male it doesn’t mean that all I want to see in my games is white males.

Mikhail Yakovlev: Do other positive examples of video games that got diversity right come to mind?

Michael Hitchens: There are multiple examples, if we look beyond first-person shooters.

From a technological perspective, there is absolutely nothing that says that a game has to be a particular way. Now, I would like to mention one reason why developers may be tempted to default to white-centric storylines. Simply put, the more choice you build into character customisation, the more development effort and cost must be expanded.

For example, if I simply want to give players of my game a binary choice between a female or male character, then already I have to pay for two voice recordings, instead of one. If somebody speaks back to the main character in the game, they will probably need use different names and pronouns. Again, this means extra recordings. And, that’s before we get to the animation and modelling. Therefore, there is an obvious economic temptation to stick with a fixed character.

And what is the biggest game playing demographic to base the fixed character on? Well, they think it’s white men.

I am not trying to defend game developers, but trying to highlight that they don’t think outside the box or ask what are the possibilities of video games as a media.

Mikhail Yakovlev: Do you think of part of the problem is that a lot of the developers happen to be men?

Michael Hitchens: There’s no doubt about that. I should have mentioned it, when you asked about possible collaborations between players, designers and scholars.

I really think the industry needs to diversify, for all sorts of reasons. If nothing else, they need to do it for the health of their own internal workplaces. We have seen a lot of reports that point out that they need to diversify more. They need to get more voices, more contributions from a more diverse workforce.

And, if it was diverse at all levels, not just the bottom level, then you would see more diversity in characters and more diversity of stories. Whereas, at the moment, there’s always the temptation just to play it safe.

Mikhail Yakovlev: From your own teaching and research experience, are women and/or people of colour interested in this kind of career path?

Michael Hitchens: Not as many as I would like. Computing, as a whole, has a problem with diversity for a whole range of reasons, but it’s a whole other conversation itself. But, there is a lack of diversity in the whole IT workforce. That, then, extends into the video game sector, the workforce as well. I had people of colour in my classes, I have women students but not as many as I would like.

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