Video games in the Middle East (part 1): The road to 2015

In this two part series, Andrew Braun breaks down the issues surrounding the state of gaming in the Middle East. This includes the challenges and opportunities for the international and local gaming industries alike. Part one highlights the external Western influence.

Despite the lack of attention it gets internationally, the Middle East and North Africa region is becoming one of the world’s most interesting video games markets. Local developers are becoming more active, and the worldwide gaming industry is beginning to catch on to the growing value of the gaming market in the region—projected to grow from 1.6 billion USD in 2014 to 4.4 billion in 2022.

The Middle East presents a unique set of challenges to both local and international developers alike, however, from political and legal concerns to cultural difficulties that have long discouraged serious progress in the gaming market. Its native creativity and technical ability, however, along with its predominately young population, make it worthy of examination for its potential as both a consumer and producer of video games.

The mobile gaming sector in the Middle East is one of the fastest-growing in the world, largely due to its high rate of mobile phone penetration. Nour Khrais, CEO of Maysalward Games—the first mobile game development company in the Middle East—and the chairman of the Jordan Gaming Task Force tells me that mobile games are by far the most popular kind of game in the region, “As they are cheaper to play. The economy play a role in the platform of choice.”  The countries with larger populations of gamers—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Egypt— he says, tend to have excellent 3G and 4G connections.

Added to that, 68% of the region’s population is under the age of 34 and skews male—an age group and gender that, on average, composes the standard target audience for video games worldwide. PCs and game consoles have lower penetration than smartphones—due to their cost—but adoption of these devices is also on the rise, though, as Khrais says, quite slowly.

Nonetheless, the major game studios have shown fairly little interest in the region, though most are making at least small efforts. Valve and Ubisoft, two notable game companies, have made advances, and Sony has been quite supportive, but the obstacles that discourage many other developers do not seem likely to disappear in the near future. Though internationally-made games are very popular among gamers in the Middle East, there are, unfortunately, a wide variety of reasons why many of the bigger entities are reluctant to enter the market.

Piracy, one of the most-cited reasons for avoiding the Middle East, is rampant: an estimated 59% of all video games sold in the region are illegal copies. Almost any game—even officially banned ones—can be obtained easily and cheaply. However, as Yousef Ahmed, a fourth-year Egyptian medical student and gamer, writes on the IGN website, the effect can be cyclical: the fact that many games are not available for legal sale leaves consumers little choice but to obtain them through the channels that are available, thus discouraging studios from marketing their games. Both music and movies have seen reductions in piracy rates with the introduction of easily available legal sources—iTunes and Netflix respectively—and it is likely that this would hold true for games in the Middle East.

So what else is holding back the international studios?

One of the most important issues to developing or retooling games for the Middle East is localization—the adaptation of a game to its audience. In the Middle East, this means far more than simply changing the language to Arabic—it means attempting to conform to widely differing decency laws across many countries, as well as attempting to present things in a way that is appealing to a non-Western culture.

One of the main reasons that setting up shop in the Middle East is an unattractive prospect to many studios is the fact that their game might be rejected by any number of countries’ governments due to what each one judges to be inappropriate content. The standards often seem arbitrary, and even games which remove the nudity, alcohol, and drug-related content which would merit an automatic rejection can be turned down for any number of other reasons, such as being perceived as anti-Islamic.

Take Spec Ops: The Line, which is banned in the United Arab Emirates because of its portrayal of a post-apocalyptic Dubai. The game is banned both as a download and as a physical copy, though “the ban is more out of nationalist reasoning rather than "protect the kids," says Noor Nahas, an active gamer in the Dubai scene.

Also banned in the UAE is the Grand Theft Auto series—for obvious reasons, for anyone who is familiar with the themes of violence, sex, and general vice that pervade the games. Though, as Marwan Fekri, a gamer from Dubai tells me: “You can always find them in game stores, but you have to not look like a cop. Someone I know went to buy GTA 5 [Grand Theft Auto 5] and the store clerk asked him if he was a police officer.” This, of course, is a bit of a headache for the big game producers, who typically don’t want to go to all the trouble of adapting a game to several different standards, only for it to be banned in some markets despite their efforts.

Mobile games, says Khrais, incur “less hassle with censorship, as most games come from app stores.” Governments have a much harder time controlling games spread on mobile networks as they cannot control their citizens’ access to individual apps in the same way they can to websites or software.

Another problem is the lack of credit card penetration in the Middle East—Iran is especially troublesome, since international banks don’t do business there, but banking in general in the region is an iffy proposition. With a growing number of games available as digital downloads through services like Steam, this cuts off yet another method of legitimately obtaining games. Even the countries that do have a relatively high rate of credit card ownership and usage are often stuck as far as purchasing games online, as for legal and security reasons these services do not accept some nationalities’ credit cards.

Nonetheless, some of the larger game studios are taking the region seriously. Ubisoft set up a studio in Abu Dhabi in 2012, and is taking proactive measures to adapt its games to the Middle Eastern market. Perhaps most importantly, they are hiring local workers with the necessary cultural knowledge to localize games accurately. Gamers in the region, though, say they haven’t seen anything from the company yet. Valve, the company that owns Steam, has also made some progress in the countries it operates in, starting up several game servers in the area—a move that Nahas says more companies should be making if they want to explore the gaming market.

One game that will be coming to the broader western market from an Arabic perspective this year is 1979—a game developed by Navid Khonsari, one of the creative team members behind the Grand Theft Auto series. An Iranian-American himself, with family still in the country, he has put a great deal of effort into making the project—financed using mostly Kickstarter funds—not only entertaining but informative. Westerners playing the game will find themselves benefitting from extensive interviews with participants in Iran’s 1979 revolution and scholars who have studied it.

It sounds a lot like history class, but Khonsari has made it clear that his goal is first to entertain, though it is inevitable that his own experiences and perspectives (he was ten years old and living in Iran at the time of the revolution) will give the game a distinctly political feel. His work on the game has already made it unsafe for Khonsari to return to Iran—the game will almost definitely be banned, and his ability to safely travel to Iran to visit family has already been curtailed. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January—the first video game ever featured there—and though it is a western-produced game, it may help draw attention to a section of the world that is rarely seen in video games—save from behind an M16. 


Read Part two of our Middle East Gaming series, which looks at the local scene.


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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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