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Gaming in the land of sand.

Video gaming has evolved much since the days of walking into an arcade with a pocket full of quarters. Entire gaming “cultures” took shape and form all over the world and the games industry has evolved to be as big as the music and movie industries. We all know about Asian, American and European gaming, each similar but different in their own little ways, but what about other places like Africa, South America and the Middle East? While I cannot talk about the first two places, I can definitely provide some interesting insight on the last one.

The common stereotype surrounding the Middle East is that it is a region of conflict, sand, dust, and terrorist Arabs and while that may be true in many parts, there are some surprising similarities to Western life, in particular gaming.

Waleed Al-Suwaimel is a Middle Eastern gamer from Saudi Arabia who enjoys PC gaming: “Saudi Arabia has a large community of dedicated PC gamers and the most active game servers [of] the Middle East. [But] video gaming in general is popular everywhere in the world.”

Ahmed Bin Shams is another Middle Eastern gamer from Bahrain who described the average Middle Eastern gamer as being from 15 up to 25. “About 85% of all online Arab players play Counter-Strike: Source, Halo 3 and Battlefield 2. We are almost the same [as Western gamers] but in less numbers.”

Although there are some differences: “I think Western gamers are more dedicated because [games] could be played professionally” but not in the Middle East due to a lack of investors. There are no major gaming centers and most people do not consider electronic sports interesting. “We play more for fun and interest,” said Waleed.

Many Middle Eastern governments have banned games, such as Call of Duty 4 for taking place in the Middle East and Grand Theft Auto 4 for obvious reasons. However, God of War was banned not because of its violent and adult content, but for the act of killing gods in-game, regardless of the fact that they are ancient Greek gods.

Some Middle Eastern governments have even proposed an all-out ban on games, such as Afghanistan which put playing video games as being against Islamic morals and fineable between $10 and $104. This law, thankfully, has yet to pass; it has received a lot of opposition for being a rehash of old, traditional Taliban laws.

However, this does not stop Middle Eastern gamers for a second: “Over 90% of video gamers here buy pirated [game] copies,” said Waleed. Games, PC hardware and consoles are some of the most popular black market items sold in the Middle East. In addition, if it is not on the black market it will most likely be on the Internet.

Games in the Middle East lack a dedicated ratings system seen elsewhere, like the USA’s Entertainment Software Ratings Board or the EU’s Pan-European Game Information. Ahmed states that most Arab family members know what is best for each other without having to look at the ratings tag.

Unfortunately most Middle Eastern governments think otherwise and would unfairly judge a game based only on its cover, description and/or title and ban it if they believe it goes against Islamic or government values, which are often synonymous, regardless of the actual game.

Gaming in the Middle East is not a new fad according to Waleed: “My brothers had the legendary Atari 2600 games console in our house when it just came out in the late ‘70s and I played it as a little kid. Video gaming [in the Middle East] was adopted just as fast as it was for things like Western cinema or industrial revolutions. Throughout the years, I’ve always seen that the local video gaming scene was always up to what was/is a current generation of gaming in the West.”

Unfortunately for most of the inhabitants of the region, Internet speeds and latency is atrocious. Middle Eastern gamers suffer from terrible pings and the inability to join most servers online that are not Arab. The cost to have an Internet connection to begin with is extremely high so the online Middle Eastern gaming scene is not as active as perhaps the single-player one.

The developer side of gaming in the Middle East is a very different one: “Games either come from [the] US, Japan or Europe. There are very few game developers in the Arab world and their releases are mostly for kids and education,” said Waleed. However, Arab game developers are not limited to just kids games.

Syrian developer Afkar, the most prominent Arab developer in the Middle East, developed two controversial but highly successful first-person shooter games based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict called UnderAsh and its sequel UnderSiege. Both games focus on the alleged brutality and evil of the Israelis and the supposed suffering of the Palestinians.

Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah produced two games based on their conflicts with Israel called Special Force and Special Force 2 where the player’s job is simply killing Israelis.

But not all Arab-developed games are based on ideological and political conflict. Afkar, the same people that made the controversial UnderAsh and UnderSiege, is busy making a Civilization-like strategy game called Quraish. Quraish or Al Quraish takes place during the first century of Islamic history and aims at providing a truthful account of the events that gave birth to Islam, much to the chagrin of both the West and Islamic extremists who worry the game will not endorse their accounts of what they believe happened.

UAE- and Jordanian-based company Quirkat released Arabian Lords last October with help from US-based BreakAway Games. Arabian Lords allows you to play a merchant during Islam’s golden age and participate in trade, not conflict, and learn about Islam and Arab history.

What do Middle Eastern gamers think about these games? “They all mostly suck,” said Ahmed Bin Shams.





"I'd be pissed too, but you didn't have to go all Minority Report on his ass!" -- Jon Stewart on police raiding Gizmodo editor Jason Chen's home
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