Gamers Are Here: Middle East Gaming


[Journalist Kareem Shaheen was attending at GAMES 2008 convention in Dubai, and asked us if we fancied writing anything about gaming in the Middle East. And we said HELL YES, as we like capital letters very much. And here it is. It also made us think think that a kind of world tour of gaming may be a good idea, which we’ll continue when we can twist other journalists into writing about their locale.]

We need games. What else are you supposed to do in the sweltering heat of midday on a July afternoon in a Middle Eastern city like Dubai? Surely if you wish to avoid organ failure you wouldn’t seek out field sports with the high approaching 50 degrees. Even the beach isn’t feasible. Ergo, a lot of us like to stay inside.

It’s hardly surprising then that the little LAN gaming corner in the American University’s student center is rarely deserted. United by language and a common desire to pwn noobs, these college students spend hours playing Counterstrike, C&C: Generals, World of Warcraft, and Warcraft III’s Defense of the Ancients mod.

The neighboring TV room is host to a hotly contested game of Pro Evolution Soccer. Mehdi is tearing through Mahmoud’s defensive lines, eager to score a late winner. He does, the crowd onscreen cheers ecstatically, and the Arabic commentator (the version they’re playing has been modded to Hell and back to incorporate Arab teams and audio) begins to wax poetic about the skills on display. Mehdi yells out some colorful names and storms out for a cigarette, eager to escape the humiliation of losing in front of his friends.

A lot of these games take place during the day. Presumably to the detriment of some academic endeavor.

That last point is of some import because for a long time if you were an Arab in college studying something other than medicine or engineering, you were a bit of a disappointment. Amongst many people in a culture that places so much emphasis on getting your diploma, gaming is seen as, literally, child’s play. No matter that you’re running around shooting fake pixel men in the face or orchestrating the Normandy landings, if you were into gaming you drew out those looks of disapproval that are so much worse than outright contempt.

That trend is mellowing for the same reason it’s disappearing elsewhere – Arabs who grew up with videogames are now professionals, opening up the perception of the medium as a serious form of expression. An Islamic lifestyle ad illustrates that co-existence with gaming when it shows an Arab player embroiled in an intense race in a LAN party competition when he looks at his watch, notices that it’s prayer time, and abandons the race seconds before crossing the finish line. On the other hand, the second largest mobile phone operator in Saudi Arabia, Mobily, ran this year a 3-month ad campaign within localized versions of Need for Speed, Pro Evolution Soccer and Guitar Hero, thanks to the proliferation of broadband. The three games are among the staples of the Middle Eastern gamer’s entertainment diet.

It’s almost a cliché at this point to bring up online penetration, which allows such a campaign to take place. Less relevant to the PC market but an indication that gamers here want to go online as well, Sony says 33% of PS3s in the region are connected to the PlayStation Network, and many users play on Xbox Live despite the service not officially launching here. Also, Activision Blizzard’s representative at last week’s Gaming Alliance Middle East Show 2008, the region’s first ever gaming convention, said the company was happy with its Middle Eastern numbers for the 800-pound gorilla World of Warcraft, numbering the game’s customers in the region at “tens of thousands,” but refusing to give specifics.

But talk to the myriad publishers and distributors on the convention floor and they’ve got other concerns. They’ll work the ‘P’ word into the conversation amidst breathlessly praising the region’s economic growth and avoiding questions about the failed EA-2K merger. It’s the elephant in the room that everyone talks about. “Piracy limits the investment of third party publishers into the region,” said Armagan Demir, head of the entertainment and devices division at Microsoft Gulf. Obviously, publishers are less likely to set up local offices or hire distributors in a region rife with piracy, but why is the Middle East any different in that respect?

For one thing, piracy in the Middle East is, to a large extent, an educational problem. To be fair, enforcement of intellectual property rights is lax, but advocating an RIAA-style rampage or “piracy funds terrorism” campaign of ludicrousness is fallacious. And whether it would even work is unclear in an environment where a lot of customers are seemingly oblivious to the ramifications of piracy, and the virtues of a legitimate retail channel.

The initial reaction of your average Ahmed Sixpack to an inquiry regarding why he pirates is incredulity that there exists this subset of people who actually seek out original games. “Really, all your games are original? Why?” he asks. Not only that, but if you pirated, you were savvy. “You come off as a person that knows how to handle their finances, not wasting your money on mere games,” said Abdullah, just another gamer from Saudi Arabia who’s starting to shun his pirate past.

The explosion of older, cheaper consoles like the PS2 in Arab households and casual piracy on the PC has made buying bootleg copies for 10-20 dirhams (~2-4 euros) almost second nature, as opposed to buying a full priced game that costs 10 times as much. Lending further credence to Stardock head Brad Wardell’s business plan of making strategy games because they’re less likely to be pirated, the more popular genres in the region are foot-to-ball simulations, racing games and shooters.

Calling for government enforcement is easier said than done as well, with some of its policies on entertainment products going out of the way to harm its most adherent minions.

Take Call of Duty 4. The game has been banned since its launch in the United Arab Emirates on all platforms, presumably due to the Arab identity of most of the game’s enemies. The official bans prevent the bigger distributors such as Red Entertainment, which controls 60-70% of the distribution market in the country, from importing the game. Predictably, parallel-import channels are set up that circumvent the official ones and get games on store shelves. The result is a rather amusing backfire of government policy that nobody ultimately does anything about.

Not that this bothers distributors. In fact, Red have gone out of their way at times to self-censor, producing another arbitrary checkpoint. “We have in the past chosen not to release high profile products in this market purely because we felt they may be offensive to the local people,” said Nitin Mathew, Red’s marketing manager. His company refused to sell Peter Molyneux’s God game Black & White as well as Rockstar’s GTA: San Andreas, stifling consumer access to virtual hookers and fast Banshee cars. This is all in addition to the government’s ratings process that exists outside the ESRB and PEGI systems.

Meanwhile, Mehdi steps back into the TV room, with a fiery but wounded look. It’s time he kicked Mahmoud’s butt in Tekken, he growls.

36 Comments

  1. ImperialCreed says:

    That’s a nice read. Given that most Western folk (myself included) know next to nothing about life and culture in the Middle East, this was a nice snapshot of what goes on about a subject that I can relate to.

    Much like Jim’s feature on the Russian gaming scene in PCG a while back, come to think of it. That deserves a post on here too, if it hasn’t gotten one already.

  2. gromit says:

    More please! Thank you.

  3. PleasingFungus says:

    Yeah, I’ll second what Imperial Creed said. One quibble:

    “Mehdi is tearing through Mahmoud’s defensive lines… Mehdi yells out some colorful names and storms out…”

    It looks like the first one is the wrong way around.

  4. Fumarole says:

    So basically we learn that gamers elsewhere are much like us in many regards. Commonality is good. Also, I find it funny that Dubai is not actually highlighted on that map.

  5. Picacodigos says:

    It saddening to me to see how similar are spanish gamers to middle-easterns on one subject: the “P” word.

    Here you will also get unbelieving looks if you state that all your games are originals, here the savvy and smart ting to do is to download them gratis so you have more money for the adult things of life; namely booze.

    Sigh.

  6. Fumarole says:

    Well then, who can argue with that?

    link to lib.utexas.edu

  7. Sal says:

    I had a breif taste of this when i was visiting a friend in US Navy. It was…intresting to say the least.

  8. Gwyn says:

    Yeah, you kinda highlighted Saudi Arabia instead of the UAE.

  9. Ergates says:

    Was it childish of me to snigger at “It’s almost a cliché at this point to bring up online penetration,…”

  10. Jim Rossignol says:

    I can exclusively reveal that Kieron is an idiot. I am also an idiot.

  11. Aldaris says:

    Anyone else noticed the shady picture edit?
    Anyway, good read.

  12. Bema says:

    The picture edit is epic win – Almost as good as the article! :)

  13. Mo says:

    Excellent article, if a bit short.

    I lived in Dubai a very long time ago … flashback time!

    OMG, the Black & White thing! You have *no* idea how mad that made me! I ended up getting a bootleg copy, only to move to Canada a couple of months later and buy a shiny new copy from a store. Everything worked out alright in the end. :)

    It’s interesting to note that Populous 3 was sold in Dubai, because if you’ll recall, you didn’t play a God in that one.

    Now for anyone living in Dubai, I must know two things:

    (a) Suco Enterprises. On Khalid-bin-Walid road in Bur Dubai. That’s where I bought *all* my games from. The guys there knew me, gave me huge discounts, and even stuck price tags over the “18+” labels so that my Dad wouldn’t notice the rating when I got home. :) Is Suco still alive and well? Do they still have the huge PC games collection?

    (b) There was this LAN cafe I used to frequent just about every weekend. It was on the second floor in the corner of a mall in Jumeirah. I think the mall was called Beach Center. Anyway, are they still alive and well?

    Cheers for the nostalgia trip!

  14. Markor8 says:

    Actually i live in Dubai and the weather over here is real hot . Hotter than Hell!!!

  15. Markor8 says:

    MO i don’t think they are here any more. I get my games from Virgin Mega Store. But i can’t find The Witcher enhanced edition here because of the ban on Adult Games

  16. Kareem says:

    Thanks for all the encouraging comments guys, I’m thrilled that you all enjoyed the article.

    Markor8: Yeah I’d kinda forgotten about the Witcher myself and didn’t make the connection with the adult aspect of the game. It’s funny how inconsistent the whole thing is – I think I saw Leisure Suit Larry – Magna Cum Laude at a shop here once. I’ll probably be picking it up on Impulse myself.

    Mo: I’m unsure if the two are still around (I used to go for LAN parties at Beach center way back when) but now major retail chains are fairly dominant. Computer Plaza still has a few small software shops, though.

  17. Lim-Dul says:

    I don’t understand – are gamers swimming/floating around in the Persian Gulf? ^^

  18. Dreamhacker says:

    BEST RPS ARTICLE OF THE YEAR!

    More of this! More! :D

  19. Mo says:

    @Kareem: yeah, “way back when” is absolutely right … it’s been around 8 years since I left Dubai, so I figured things would change just a bit since. :)

    Back then, broadband was non-existent in Dubai … ISDN was just introduced as I left. Terrible lag during online games coupled with rather expensive by-the-hour internet meant that the LAN cafe scene was *huge*. I suspect it isn’t nearly as big now as it used to be, which is really a shame. I mean, online is wonderful, but you can’t get any better than fragging someone who’s in the same room as you.

    Thanks for the info Kareem and Markor8!

  20. Ozzie says:

    Yep. great article, well written and interesting to read.

  21. lethu says:

    “(the version they’re playing has been modded to Hell and back to incorporate Arab teams and audio)”

    I wonder if one can find something similar here in Morocco, I wish I could put my hands on such a game copy, it would drive some of those pes mates crazy a bit =)

  22. subedii says:

    You know, I’m pretty certain there are also gamers in Saudi Arabia, so it’s not as if the original picture was especially misleading.

  23. sinister agent says:

    Also many fish play online games, if my brief foray into MMOMRGRGPOGs is anything to go by.

    Nice wee piece. It’s silly that so little is said and done about anywhere but American, Japan and Europe on the subject.

  24. ur-eka-poster says:

    what about girl gamers :(

  25. sbs says:

    What about them.

  26. Markor8 says:

    Mo i think you have heard of Gitex in Dubai(computer and electronics exhibition) But this year they are doing a special venue for gamers both pc and console, its gonna be happening here in October, MAN I CANT WAIT FOR IT!!!

  27. Insurgent Observer says:

    Interesting, but more or less what I expected from experience with the Indian scene. Someone should do an article on the gaming scene here in India. The salient characteristics remain the same:

    1. The staple diet consists of bootlegged copies of Need For Speed, FIFA irrelevant-year-here, Cricket irrelevant-year-here and Grand Theft Auto version-that-can-run-on-intel-graphics-adapters. And of course, Counter Strike and Age of Empires (um, yeah).
    Any mention of Deus Ex, Bioshock, Stalker, Gears of War or KOTOR- y’know, games, leaves people puzzled and confounded.
    2. Piracy is the norm. Surprisingly, a large fraction of the teenage crowd have not discovered torrents yet, so most piracy involves either buying bootlegged copies for Rs. 100-200 (2-3 Euros), or passing around DVDs in classrooms and campuses. The idea of buying games is fairly alien- and somewhat ridiculous given their mindset (“I did pay for the PC, didn’t I?”).
    3. Consoles are far from pervasive, probably because it’s hard to convince your (philistine) parents to buy you something that you can only play games with. As opposed to a PC, which salespeople assure have “educational uses”.
    Also, pirated console games are much harder to find.
    4. No graphics cards! Most people who play games don’t even know what that means. To them, the PC is still a hermetically sealed product, like a TV. Graphics cards are also prohibitively expensive (about twice as much as in the US), so most people are still stuck playing games from the early 2000s on awful resolutions.
    I could go on, but I suppose that’s long enough for a comment. The generation of gamers who lend some respect to gaming when they grow up and become professionals is possibly yet to arrive in India. For now, though, the worse-than-outright-contempt attitude prevails.

  28. Mo says:

    @Markor8: I used to go for Gitex every year. :)

  29. Vandell says:

    Not a personal fan of Dubai, being gay and quite sexually exploratory (TMI, rite?) I simply wouldn’t be able to stand the bans of various games, either.

  30. Ozzie says:

    (TMI, rite?)

    I had to look that up, but, not really.

  31. Moody says:

    Nice article and really nails the scene in th gulf area in regards to gaming. This is from a person who lives in Oman which is next to UAE (east of UAE).

  32. deadManWalKing says:

    @Insurgent Observer : I bought 3 games here and people started looking at me as if were not-quite-right-in-the-mind :P
    Games are still at the upper levels of affordability even when heavily discounted compared to international prices.

  33. deadManWalKing says:

    Oh and I came across this page when searching for The Witcher Enhanced availability in India…

  34. Yazan says:

    Gaming is alive and well in the UAE. In contrast to what people who have commented believe piracy is not all that dwells here in the gaming scene in Dubai.

    I live in dubai, I own a 360 with 14 games (Original, and the latest such as Gears 2, Fable 2, Fallout 3 and such). I assure you to that someone who said people are not aware of torrenting, they ARE aware of what a torrent is. MANY of them are. There are extreme PC gear heads in Dubai, in any general crowd in any country you wont find many of these types. You must know where to look.

    Yes, alot of people play on PSN and Xbox live (Despite Xbox live not being introduced here) myself included. Most releases are on par with our mostly european providers. So we get most brand new titles around the same time as our european friends. (And thank goodness for that in this oh season of AAA titles that are raining down on us.)

    You will also be surprised to know how much of a non-arab population (excluding indians who make up a large portion) populate dubai. The playstation and Sony shines brighter than Microsoft and even the PC sometimes. With the Wii staggering to make a market here (well not “Staggering” but it is struggling in comparison to the competition)

    Oh and, a 500 person line up infront of a games retailer at the midnight launch of WoW Wotlk speaks for its self.

    Just adding in some general info from a proud U.A.E gamer of Arab origin.

    I also think Gears of war 2 is the best thing since sliced bread.

    -Yazan

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