By Candide Kirk
It’s an exciting time to be living in the Middle East. The start of 2011 has seen the rising tide of change sweep across Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, with more and more young people determined to take charge of their fate in a peaceful manner. We have seen social media put to its ultimate use in organizing rallies, spreading awareness messages and generally acting as a platform for open public debate, in a climate where offline channels are limited if existent at all. In a region where over half the population of 400 million is under the age of 30, those online tools are very powerful indeed. Social media, including Twitter, Facebook and Google have defied borders and enabled communication to flow from and into the Middle East. These mediums have unified people on a global scale, a function that’s also been filled—outside of the political sphere—by video games.
Even with these new channels of communication, a sense of mystery still surrounds the Middle East and the facts about its modern day culture. For example, many people don’t realize that there’s a booming games industry in this region. In fact, figures show that the retail games market is estimated at $800-900 million, with a 10% year-on-year revenue growth for both hardware and software. In 2009, almost 5 million gaming consoles were sold in the United Arab Emirates alone.
Games are inherently universal, and video games are no exception. More and more we see developers and publishers pushing for wider global appeal, driven predominantly by commercial interest but ultimately serving as yet another tool for global dialogue. Where gameplay mechanics are universally uniform, fun and entertaining games have the ability to break even the language barrier. Games such as Pro Evolution Soccer and the FIFA franchise see massive success in the Middle East even without being localized to Arabic. The universal popularity of soccer in and across the Middle East, coupled with the universality of the mechanics, makes localization irrelevant. Traditionally speaking, this has been the main reason for the success of sports, racing and FPS titles in the Middle East. With more and more titles going social and relying on online connectivity, the barriers are coming down even faster as gamers compete directly and forge in-game friendships with other players around the world. When gameplay mechanics are universal, video games truly create a world without borders or geographical prejudice.
Universality of gameplay mechanics has been a main focus of our team, the company I co-founded in Jordan, Quirkat. At Quirkat, we’ve made it a mission to ensure that the influx of games published for our region are correspondingly matched with an output of titles that likewise bring the best of our culture to the rest of the world. Case in point is our Arabian Lords PC strategy game. Familiarity with widespread titles such as the Civilization franchise or Age of Empires make picking up the game largely intuitive, yet the game’s story takes the player through the first seven centuries of the rise of Islam. Cultural stereotypes are difficult to dispel, but games such as Arabian Lords show a more informed perspective of life in ancient Middle Eastern times. The importance of trade and architecture, two significant Islamic concepts, act as the core focal points in the gameplay. By highlighting leadership and trade negotiation rather than violence, the game is informative and intriguing to Western audiences, as well as engaging on a pure mechanical level.Cultural and linguistic issues aside, the love of games and entertainment are ultimately the unifying elements that bring people together. The Middle East is very green—an untapped market with plenty of opportunities across the entire spectrum of the games industry. We are witnessing exponential growth in the industry in terms of online spending. More people play online games, and console sales have increased. Game development provides a great opportunity to bridge cultures and introduce greater cultural exchanges through their inherently interactive medium. Particularly at this point in time, where change is happening on the ground and global understanding is the key to moving forward peacefully, video games—like social media—will prove to be a pillar of this cross cultural interaction.
Prior to co-founding Quirkat, Candide Kirk played an instrumental part as a technology consultant in shaping the CIO Office at the Ministry of ICT in Jordan. Candide has a proven record of leading development teams in the production of regionally relevant game products. Being half-Jordanian, her in-depth knowledge of the region’s culture, language and demographic have enabled her to tap into game storylines catered for the region. Her game credits include Arabian Lords, Mythic Palace, Tariq’s Treasure, Al-Moosiqar and the unreleased Relic Hunters game.