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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.

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