Rayane Jemaa uses digital renders to scrutinise Orientalist video games set in the Middle East

The British-Tunisian digital artist explores the implications of using the Middle East and North Africa as a setting for violent war games.

29 October 2021

In Iraq, orange trees blossom fruitfully, the marshes team with abundant wildlife like birds and deer, and the street vendors of its cities call out for cheap prices on their dates and spices. You wouldn’t be able to grasp all of this beauty though, if you experience the country through a video game like Six Days in Fallujah. War games like these use Middle Eastern countries as their settings to imitate shooting, grenades, and explosions all from the safety of a headset and controller. Rayane Jemaa, a digital artist based in Switzerland, embarked on his graduate project Is this the Middle East? by simply asking the question: What is the Middle East and North Africa according to these games?

Rayane got his start as a digital artist through skateboarding. “It’s actually pretty impressive to see how many creatives, especially filmmakers, started their journey through skateboarding,” he explains. “Back then, I would shoot skateboarding clips for an entire weekend, and edit the footage on Sunday night. At that point, I was interested in filmmaking as a career, but in the following years I realised filmmaking alone wasn’t fulfilling my curiosity towards a wider range of digital tools.” Studying film, says Rayane, was too restrictive – by enrolling in the media and interaction programme at Écal, he quickly became interested in the theoretical approach towards new technologies. Having been brought up in a variety of places and between many cultures meant Rayane had some form of an identity crisis, growing up in France and Switzerland and being British-Tunisian. “Throughout my studies though,” he continues, “this naturally became a source of inspiration and also meant I was curious about things going on outside of the place in which I lived.”

During the summer of 2020, Rayane started playing some older Call of Duty games. Revisiting old video games was, for him, an exercise in viewing the old through a new set of eyes; it was retrospective in a way that was enlightening to his new work. “For me, playing those games nowadays meant I discovered things I never would’ve noticed before.” That was also the summer Rayane was writing his Bachelor’s thesis. “It was a sort of speculative guide to drone use in traditional Arab cities, specifically the Tunis Medina.” The project he ended up with boiled down to exploring how Middle Eastern and North African cities are depicted in games and through certain technologies. “You could say the question is still not answered and I am still trying to figure it out. I realised that the majority of games set in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa), are inherently violent games and war games. Even if it is not implicitly stated, we’ll find clichés and stereotypes to remind us that we are in fact in ‘the Arab world’ or the Middle East.”

Rayane Jemaa: Is this the Middle East? (Copyright © Rayane Jemaa, 2021)

Rayane was curious to discover how these games had evolved, so he downloaded “a bunch of more recent war games to analyse them. I realised that, while graphically speaking, these games progress rapidly, a lot of the stereotypes remain the same.” Rayane often found an Orientalist approach, but instead of seeing cliches one would find in 19-20th Century paintings, “we now witness war-torn towns, meaningless Arabic writing, and an extremely oversimplified version of a region bigger than Europe” in these games, he says. “In a sense, these complex 3D renderings are fictive, but inspired by a westernised vision of the MENA region.”

Rayane felt the need to archive these scenes; he’s not a huge video game player himself, but he’s fascinated by the way the games’ environments are created. “At the same time, I was exploring photogrammetry and working on a side project with a friend where we reconstructed artists’ studios using that technology. It works by taking a bunch of photos of an object or a place, feeding those images into an algorithm, and the software will give you a 3D model, generated from all the photos you’ve taken. I also used cinema4D to process the extracted models. So the more images you have, the clearer the model and its textures will be. I thought to myself, what would happen if I fed the software screenshots from a three-dimensional digital space – video game screenshots. I immediately jumped on my computer and took screenshots from the video game Counterstrike: Go, and to my surprise, I managed to extract an entire building from the game using this technique.”

Rayane explains that the project is ongoing so he can continue to develop it; by presenting a website that gathers all the scenes he’s scanned, he’s sorted the different artefacts we find in the games set in the MENA region. “Through the website, you can interact with the 3D scenes to see things you may not notice by simply playing the game. It’s also interesting for me to have all the models on my hard drive and think about what I can do with them beyond uploading them onto a website.” The artist explains there’s a photographic aspect to the project too, wherein the line between real image and 3D render is blurred “because the 3D renders look similar to the images we see on Google Earth (Google uses the same type technology to obtain the 3D views of cities, mountains and monuments for Google Earth).” Fond of the research and experimentation stage of the creation process, Rayane is still looking at ways to push the project further.

GalleryRayane Jemaa: Is this the Middle East? (Copyright © Rayane Jemaa, 2021)

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Rayane Jemaa: Is this the Middle East? (Copyright © Rayane Jemaa, 2021)

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About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.

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