Challenges & cultural nuances of the Arab Gaming industry
Challenges & Cultural Nuances of the Arab Gaming Industry
When the US Vice President Joe Biden met with the videogame industry representatives’ defending
accusations of fostering a culture of violence in the aftermath of Connecticut’s school massacre last year,
it was a classic example of media industry’s clash of business interests with its ethical obligations. To this
day there are conflicting studies on the impact of videogames on violent crime, but frenzied media
reporting that the 20 year old gunman in Connecticut’s shootout played popular videogame ‘Call of Duty,’
eventuated in industry lobbyists finding themselves in the dock.
The fact that the infamous game on its release fell afoul of censors in key GCC markets including UAE, in
a way rekindles the videogame censorship argument in the regional context; inasmuch underscoring the
importance of gatekeeping in this widely influencing entertainment genre targeting young impressionable
minds. UAE is amongst the top ranking countries on counts of banning videogames under its censorship
clause, these include many best-sellers, although some may contest that this boycott is deterrent to
regional gaming industry’s growth with a current size of $1bn projected to triple by 2016 to $3.2 billion,
yet few would downplay the merit of sociocultural standpoint, particularly in the backdrop of fairly
traditional social context.
Tailoring the solution
In retrospect, the strict policy framework of upholding cultural sensibilities and denying market entry to
contentious content has provided stimulus to game-localization trend and also help demand- creation for
indigenous IPs. Few companies, over the course of time sensed business opportunity in this market
embargo and more so in addressing apprehensions of parents, who found gray market gaming import
their children were engaged with quite appalling. Given that the economics of the trade did not justify
development of exclusive regional games, these companies like Syndigate ME and Rubicon mitigated the
situation by customizing international content to comply with the local standards. Their strategy was
simple, of bringing an alternative to the market, which would meet this emerging but not-catered for
demand. As Steve Tsao, Chief Executive of Tahadi Games outlines, “Kids can either play English-language
games, with half naked characters and lots of blood and violence, or they can subscribe to something that
everyone is comfortable with” – this more or less became the standard pitch for all of these sanitized
Beyond weeding out the unacceptable, most of the makeover done is on the cultural lines, including
aspects as simple as implementing region-specific holidays, demographics etc. “People want to see their
national days, their special dishes, people who look like they are from the region reflected in these games,
not just blonde with a cowboy hat” says Rana Onur co-founder of Peak games.
The customization trend paced, “from a game or two being Arabized two or three years back”, notes A.
Jaffar Ali publisher of T Break Media magazine, to date, where “it is almost every month that we hear
about a game that has been localized”. Popularity of this trend was notably exemplified earlier this year,
when Finnish developers Rovio Entertainment announced Arabisation plans for their widely popular game
Angry Birds, given Middle East ranks the fastest growing region for their title.
Nonetheless customization is not a fit all solution for all the gaming imports, as Ghassan Ayoubi of
Rubicon Holdings states, “there are titles that we wouldn’t choose to Arabise or localize, because they are
off the chart, because they would need reinventing.”
Redressing cultural misrepresentation
A raison d'être for indigenous games to emerge, beyond just being pacific substitutes to western imports,
was to redress the distorted cultural imagery of Arabs depicted in these games. “The Arab and Muslims
are not the rogues, they are made out to believe in this make believe world” lamented a contributor in
the local daily.
First person shooter games like Prince of Persia, War in the Gulf, Delta Force etc. stand mostly accused of
promoting this ‘hackneyed’ stereotype about Arabs. Whereby Middle East is portrayed as virtual
battleground, inviting gamer’s participation in avatar of western forces, combating the enemy
schematized as Arabs with head covers, loose clothes and dark skin. So reinforced is the negative Arab
portrayal in the gaming world, that a research conducted by University of Michigan concluded that
‘negative stereotypes about Arabs strengthened amongst the participants’ even when engaged with
violent- games where they are not mentioned.
Some perceive that it was this ‘demonization’ of Arabs in western videogames that triggered local Arab
games production. In fact, the veterans of Arab gaming industry like Syria’s Afkar Media had gained
notoriety for pushing political agendas in their attempts to promote local narratives through their games.
Early games like Under Ash, Jordanian Jenin and Under Siege had strong nationalistic streaks hoping to be
a counter narrative of the Palestinian struggle. It was only later that these initiatives were successful in
repositioning their image from that of their politicized incarnation. Even today, contemporary initiatives
like Semanoor of Saudi Arabia have entered the fray with a sociocultural agenda of countering plethora
of games “ruining the images of Arabs”. “We went into games because we want to reach out to the youth
who use them, and show them a different picture” says Emad al-Doghaither founder of Semanoor.
A defense for the prejudiced picture of Middle East in the gaming world is that –‘it may not be easy for an
outsider to reflect right cultural heritage of another nation especially when they don’t have to’ i.e. Games
are produced with western consumers in mind, and tend to reflect their expectations and tastes. Thus the
prevalent notion of the region and Islam as it appears in popular culture and people imagery is by default
extended into videogames.
From a totally trade point of view, industry functioning has also played a key factor letting this image
distortion go unchecked. Western videogames have not been widely marketed in the region because of
lack of copyright enforcements and piracy; in a market setting like this, producers were not concerned
with regional read Arab audience’ perception lacking economic weight. “Just five to seven years ago, you
didn’t hear about licensing games to the Middle East and if you did, it was just getting stuff to one broker
to handle the whole region for a teeny amount of money. It was considered a throwaway, because there
was piracy, because there weren’t Xboxes and PlayStations to any sufficient quantities” reasons Joe
Minton of Digital Development Management. There was till recently virtually no presence of big
publishers in the MENA, despite the fact that as per some estimates, there’s an install base of 8.5mn
consoles in MENA (excluding gray imports). With rising penetration of internet, Facebook and
smartphones, an immediate massive market suddenly came online, these factors made it impossible for
gaming companies to discount Middle East. “We used to go to conferences and they would talk about
America, Europe and the Far East; we would have to say, what about that bit in between?’ Now it can no
longer be ignored.” points Quirkat’s Candide Kirk.
With ongoing market correction, issues of encroachment in cultural identity space are also being dealt
with. There has been in recent past increased collaborations between regional and US gaming companies
for designing games respectful of market sensitivities such as Arabian Lords and Knights of Glory.
Challenges of localization & creating own IP
In addition to the fact that game production is both costly and a risky enterprise; for a budding local
gaming initiative the biggest challenge comes in the form of consumer expectations. “Remember the
Middle East is a highly consumer oriented society, and so our audience is used to playing titles from the
likes of Activision, EA and Ubisoft, there by setting the bar quite high” warns Quirkat CEO Mahmoud
Quality aside, designing a game that adheres to cultural sensibilities of 22 Arab countries, makes the task
further daunting. As easier it is to malignly schematize a unified stereotype of all Arabs in video games
imagery, in real-world the scenario is so much more complex. Although the broader censorship guidelines
might seem straightforward: with sex, gambling, alcohol and nudity being the obvious no go areas, there
is huge ambiguity when it comes to topics such as family, workplace ethics, religion etc. areas that could
easily be misrepresented in game environment. Discord in cultural interpretations is well highlighted in
the case of Seminoor a Saudi based gaming company, “We got pressure for having a veiled girl in our
game; people asked us, why are you forcing your culture on us? Well what can we do, women in our
culture wear the veil, other (Middle Eastern) companies have their culture in their games” says Emad alDoghaither the company’s founder.
Initiatives like ESRA (Entertainment Software Rating Association) aiming to formalize uniform industry
ratings, based on perceived ‘shared’ regional sociocultural and religious values have not gained industry
currency, due to a valid argument. “Language is our common denominator, other than that, religious and
political limits are not the same. You have to understand that these (censorship) standards range wildly
across the Arabic speaking Middle East. When you talk about a strict Saudi content standard, it is no means
comparable to the more general decency guidelines, in say, Jordan or Egypt. This variance makes it
impossible to have a uniform regional rating system” says Quirkat’s Khasawneh. Rina Onur founder of
Turkey’s Peak Games equally consents “The Arabic region and culture is more difficult than Turkey to
understand and penetrate, because of cultural differences, religious differences, even the way alphabet
works and the language works is different”.
Another dilemma faced by the gaming publishers is deciding whether to pitch for Arabic market, or to
covet wider international audience. “Companies that develop for their own region tend to run out of
steam after a while” warns Khasawneh of Quirkat. But other do not see the localization route inhibiting,
eyeing Arab expat population beyond the region, “If you look at global Arab population, there is no reason
why we wouldn’t be able to sell locally developed games in other countries outside the Middle East, it just
needs coordination and support to bringing it all together, or getting one really good local title that is a
hit with local games” says Robert Fisser, Sony Computer Entertainment’s GM for MENA.
Videogames are amongst the most popular mainstream media attracting a significant percentage of social
activity of youngsters, and the region is no exception to this global trend. They are no longer ‘neglected
media’ of yesteryears, but play a critical role today in shaping contemporary worldviews and cultural
With the three main religions and great work of literature originating from the Middle East; there is an
inspiring case for regional developers to present native stories as gaming emerges a strong platform to
showcase cultural artifacts. There have been some steps in this direction, with few regional productions
like Gamepower7 using domestic historiography and local popular culture to present Arab characters as
positive heroes. Syrian strategy-game Al-Quraysh, re-telling the story of beginning of Islam, is also a good
example of this effort. These maneuvers are also vital in challenging the stereotype endorsed by
mainstream games, and to an extent subverting the schematizing framework. One could argue that the
burden of presenting the correct image of Arabs lies on regional game developers, rather than their
western counterparts simply on grounds of lacking native wisdom.
Despite the barriers like availability of qualified coders and attracting world class talent, Arab gaming
enterprises today are well-placed to benefit from emerging investment and support framework in the
region. Both investors and game making companies are counting on young local talent like Kuwaiti
teenager Abdulrahman, who has created 23 iPhone games till date, including the highly popular doodle
destroyer to help build a vibrant Arab gaming industry. “I don't see why our young people have to play
games that were designed 20,000 kilometers away when they are intelligent and resourceful enough to
create their own material” affirms Claude Comair, Co-Founder, Nintendo Software Technologies.
Industry support drives to put in place both the physical and intellectual infrastructure has started lately
for the Arab gaming industry. Ubisoft training academy opening in UAE is a case in point. As a result of
these efforts, today more international players are eager to reach out to the market with both localization
efforts as well as Middle East targeted games (IP).