As Saudi Arabia's Love Of Online Gaming Grows, Developers Bloom
The Middle East has one of the world's fastest growing communities of online video gamers. With a majority of the population younger than 25, demographics drive the market, which was worth an estimated $1.6 billion in 2014. The region's largest market is in Saudi Arabia — where gamers play a lot and spend a lot, say regional game developers.
In Saudi Arabia's conservative culture, there are no cinemas or music concerts, so young people turn to video games as an outlet, says Abdullah Hamed, the vice president of a tech company that backs game development. The enthusiasm for gaming is part of the country's overall embrace of online video and social media.
"The culture in general is very restrictive to what the rest of the world considers entertainment," he says. "The best way to have fun is to play games. They are cool, pretty and entertaining."
Once a week, Hamed gathers a group of game developers in an office space called The Work Hub, above a Chuck E. Cheese in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
"We all grew up playing video games," he says. Now he is trying to promote regional game development to meet the growing demand for local characters and stories.
The superstar of this group is full-time game developer Ahmed Jadallah, director of development for Semanoor, a Saudi company that produced the first successful Arabic-language video game, Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta.
The game's main characters are a brother-sister treasure-hunting team, says Jadallah, who helped produce the game. Its action-adventure story is based on the life of Ibn Battuta, the famed 14th century Arab explorer and mapmaker, and the book he wrote on his decades of travel across Africa and Asia.
In the game, a long-lost chapter leads to secret treasures. There are no cowboy hats, no U.S. military uniforms and no Middle East terrorists. The game instead offers a local lens on Arab identity and history.
Jadallah says the game also has a social and cultural mission.
"We wanted to present a nonstereotypical lead female character," he explains. That character, an archaeologist named Dania, "is smart, intellectual and plays an active role in the game."
Like all Saudi women, she covers her head, but unlike most, she drives — and not just any vehicle, Jadallah says gleefully, but "a quad bike in the desert, while being chased."
Strong Female Characters
Regional game developers are portraying powerful female characters like Dania in recognition of Saudi women and girls as a growing market for video games.
Another important Saudi market for international game developers is the dedicated players known as "whales," who pay to speed their way through the levels of a game faster than they could free.
"A whale is a person that pays a significant amount of money, usually around the $5,000 mark," says Hamed. "When you are a developer, you want to be sure those people get into your game."
Saudi "whales" spend three times more than their American or European counterparts, he says.
That willingness to pay is just one sign of the country's passion for gaming. Another is the growing presence of next-generation Saudi game developers. The gaming industry calls them the Arab digital generation. In Jiddah, a group of young developers meets weekly at a tech office in a shopping center. The space is filled with computer stations and offers free Wi-Fi.
Sara Zahran, 23, gathered the group and is prominent in Jiddah's gaming community. She grew up playing shooter games with her brothers and learned English through role-playing games in narratives that appealed to her.
After getting a degree in computer science, she now designs educational games for a tech company — an uphill battle all the way in her conservative family.
"I never got a computer until I was, like, 17, 'cause I was a girl," she says and laughs. "But now my family accepts that I love games."
Zahran believes games can open minds, develop emotions and even change attitudes. In a country where women are banned from driving, she is working on a government-backed game to teach them how. Zahran believes it's a sign that Saudi Arabia will eventually soften its restrictions on women driving.
"That's actually a step because it's a governmental thing. It's like — you will play the game whether you are a girl or a boy. It's really good."
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