Arabs as Terrorists: The Power of Media Images

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” Malcolm X

Many Americans learn most of what they know about Arabs and Muslims from the media, but television, newspapers, and movies do not always portray Arabs and Muslims positively. Negative Arab stereotypes outnumber positive portrayals across media types, including newspapers, television and movies, children’s literature, and web animations and flash-based games. Arabs and Muslims are frequently linked with violence and terrorism, perpetuating the stereotype that Arabs and Muslims are terrorists (Nacos & Torres-Reyna, 2007; Nisbet, Ostman, & Shanahan, 2009; Shaheen, 2009; Schmidt, 2006; Van Buren, 2006).

This stereotype may be more prevalent within video games than in any other form of media. Being an Arab video game character is almost synonymous with being a terrorist (e.g., Dill et al., 2005; Sisler, 2008). Games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Activision, 2007), America’s Army (U.S. Army, 2002), Conflict Desert Storm II: Back to Baghdad (SCi games, 2003), Delta Force: Black Hawk Down (NovaLogic, 2003), Counter Strike Condition Zero (Valve Software, 2004), and Kuma/War (Kuma Reality Games, 2004) have missions that take place in Middle Eastern settings or in anonymous Middle East-like settings.

Video games, like other forms of media, can develop, strengthen, and activate associations between concepts in the game-player’s mind. Established social-cognitive theories like the General Aggression Model (Anderson & Bushman, 2002) suggest that concepts that are frequently activated simultaneously become interconnected, forming highly accessible knowledge structures that influence perceptions, guide interpretations, and influence future behaviors. For example, playing games that depict Arabs as terrorists may prime, activate, and strengthen this stereotypic association, ultimately leading to its automatization. Such play may influence one’s attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and expectations of Arabs as being aggressive and violent, in both short and long term contexts. These learning episodes may also influence emotional reactions to Arabs and ultimately influence behavior. People exposed to Arabs-as-terrorists media may be more likely to perceive a seemingly neutral interaction with an Arab as threatening or aggressive, thereby influencing the course of the interaction.

Across two studies published in the Psychology of Violence, my coauthor, Dr. Craig Anderson, and I tested the effects of stereotypic video game portrayals of Arabs on attitudes, affect, and perceptions of Arabs.

In Experiment 1, participants played one of three randomly assigned video games for 30 minutes: 1) Counter Strike against Arab-terrorists targets; 2) Counter Strike against Russian-terrorists targets, and 3) Ultra Mini Golf Adventures. In the first two games, players are part of a U.S. counterterrorist squad on a mission to eliminate enemy forces and their attempts to set up bombs. In the Arab-terrorist version, the mission was in a Middle Eastern setting and the enemy targets have stereotypic Arab characteristics. In the Russian-terrorist version, the mission was in a Russian setting (e.g., snow) with Russian terrorists. In the golf game, the player tries to putt the golf ball into a clearly marked hole.

After game play, participants’ attitudes towards Arabs were assessed using implicit (i.e., Implicit Association Task) and explicit methods (Attitudes Towards Other Groups Scale: Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994 and Blatant and Subtle Prejudice Scale: Pettigrew & Meeterns, 1995). Participants in the Arab-terrorist condition displayed greater anti-Arab attitudes than participants in the golf game condition for both implicit and explicit methods. Interestingly, participants in the Russian-terrorist condition also displayed greater anti-Arab attitudes than participants in the golf game condition, though not as extreme as the Arab-terrorist condition. Playing a video game involving terrorism increased negative attitudes towards Arabs, relative to nonviolent game play, even when no Arab characters or Middle Eastern scenery were in the game.

In this experiment, participants were also asked to draw “typical” Arab and Caucasian males and females using 24 colored pencils after game play. The drawings were coded by two raters on the drawn characters’ affect (positive, negative, or neutral) as well as whether the drawing contained a weapon or not. Participants in the Arab-terrorist game condition were more likely to draw “typical” Arabs with negative affect and with weapons than participants in the Russian-terrorist and golf game conditions. Interestingly, game play did not influence the affect or likelihood of weapons for Caucasian drawings. These results provided support for the hypothesis that playing a game in which Arabs are portrayed as terrorists will increase the likelihood of viewing them as angry and aggressive.

Experiment 2 replicated the attitudinal and affect findings, and with the addition of two game conditions (non-violent Arab game, violent non-Arab non-terrorist game), showed that the anti-Arab changes were not simply the result of playing any violent game.

Our findings seem especially significant when one considers how briefly our experiments exposed participants to the video games; how much time children, adolescents, and adults play video games; how many of those games portray various groups in stereotypic ways; and how few alternatives most children and adolescents have for learning about other social groups (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976). Even though Arab stereotypes were tested in these studies, video game stereotypes of any other group would theoretically produce similar results. For many within the U.S, the word “terrorism” has become coincident with Arabs, Muslims, and Islam, (Park, Felix, Lee, 2007). Our work found that video games with only one of the elements (terrorism but not Arabs, Arabs but not terrorism) can prime anti-Arab cognitions, attitudes, and feelings.

For a fuller discussion see Saleem , M., & Anderson, C. A. (in press). Arabs as Terrorists: Effects of Stereotypes Within a Violent Context on Perceptions, Attitudes, and Affect. Psychology of Violence.

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