On 27th January, President Mohamed Morsi declared a “state of emergency” in three of Egypt’s canal cities. The next day, on the two year anniversary of the “day of rage” which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the revolution, the mood was tense. Deadly clashes between protesters and security forces had continued in the week leading up to Morsi’s announcement and showed no sign of letting up. That day, in an internet café in Cairo, I met with eight young Egyptians who used codenames like “Fire-breathing Dragon,” “The Ghost” and “Hohoz.” They were recruiting men in Alexandria and choosing their leaders in Cairo. They were planning an attack.
These men, however, did not belong to one of the mysterious anarchist groups that have appeared in recent months. They were devotees of a new Arabic computer game called Knights of Glory, a “massively multiplayer” online game set in the seventh and eighth centuries during the Arab conquests and made by a company called Falafel Games.
It was the first time most of these fans had met each other outside the game but they descended upon a small row of computers in the Nasr City district like old friends. As they started to play, screens which normally displayed western games like FIFA and World of Warcraft filled with Arabic script. Some gamers, like “Hohoz” (real name: Hani, a computer science student), have been playing Knights of Glory since it was released two years ago. Others, like “The Ghost” (real name: Bassem, employee at an Islamic Bank), had only just started. They are united by this game created “by Arabs, for Arabs,” in the words of its designers.
Videogames are becoming big business in the Arab world. The market is estimated to be worth between $1bn and $2.6bn. (With such an active grey market there are no exact figures.) Technology analysts Discover Digital Arabia (DDA) estimate that the average Saudi child spends $400 a year on videogames. Even the King of Jordan has been snapped gaming on his private jet. The internet has helped turbocharge the gaming industry. Whatever the role of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring, far more people across the region use the web to play games than to plan revolutions. According to DDA, 65 per cent of Saudi internet users play online games, as do 56 per cent of Egyptian internet users.
Falafel Games is not the only company trying to woo this new market. Other designers like Quirkat, Semanoor and Nezal are pioneering videogames in the Middle East—from sophisticated Playstation titles to simpler Facebook games.
These designers are tired of playing videogames that depict the Arab world in an ignorant way. Vince Ghossoub, one of the founders of Falafel Games, tells me that games too often show Arabs “as they would be imagined by a non-Arab gamer: in a very orientalised way.” The Call of Duty series has been particularly controversial. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, in which you have to oust the tyrant Khaled al-Asad in an unnamed oil-rich Middle Eastern country, fell foul of censors in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan has also recently banned Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 because it portrays the country unfavourably. For designers in the Middle East, videogames are a chance to show the region in a different light.
All the Knights of Glory gamers that I talked to agree that there is a distinctly “Arab feeling” about the game. But it was not created in Cairo. It was designed in a small office space in Hangzhou, China, where the taps only run boiling hot water. In this games studio, Falafel founders Vince Ghossoub and Radwan Kasmiya (see left) lead a team of 20, most of whom are Chinese men. In 2007, Ghossoub read an advert for an MBA in Shanghai. Just a few months later he was heading for the world’s second biggest economy, perhaps following the advice of the prophet Mohammed to “seek knowledge even unto China.” Ghossoub has dubbed himself the “foreign minister” of Falafel—he deals with marketing, publicity and the business side of the company. Kasmiya, referred to as the “minister of the interior,” is the main game designer.
If there is such a thing as a grand old man of the Arab videogame industry, Kasmiya has a strong claim to the title. He began designing computer games in primary school. In 1998, aged 25, he started Afkar Media, the first Arab computer game studio. For his first Afkar game, Kasmiya did not shy away from controversy. Under Ash (2001) tells the story of the first Palestinian intifada. It is considered the first distinctively Arab computer game. Others quickly followed—Hezbollah even tried its hand at creating an anti-Israeli videogame called Special Force in 2003. Kasmiya followed Under Ash with Under Siege (2005), which is based on events of the Second intifada. Players must sometimes attempt to get out of protests alive or, in other levels, fight Israeli soldiers—but never civilians, Kasmiya stresses.
“Some people call them propaganda games, some call them docu-games, depending on their perspective,” says Kasmiya. It is clear which camp he falls into: he tells me the series was based on UN records of events and so reflects reality. Victory is impossible—whichever male or female character you choose, you always die in the end. “You may not get the glory but you do get the knowledge,” he concludes. “I hope my games will make people think rather than just press the action key on the computer.”
After Under Siege his next creations—between spells working on western series like FIFA, Medal of Honour, and Assassin’s Creed—were games with a message. Quraish (2007) is a “history lab” set in the seventh and eighth centuries during the Arab conquests. Tackling a religiously controversial period—the rise of Islam—meant that it took years to make it past Saudi Arabia’s censors and even then some of the choices available to the player had to be restricted.
The censors of the Arab world are a hurdle that all game designers in the region must negotiate. One of Kasmiya’s more recent efforts, Road to Jerusalem, which he describes as a kind of black comedy, is still lost in the corridors of the censor’s office. It is an adventure game telling the story of a young Palestinian boy on his way to Jerusalem. He needs to use various skills and tricks (never violence) to get through the checkpoints and pass other obstacles. It is a kind of modern day Asterix and Obelix, Kasmiya says. “The Gauls are the Arabs, and the Romans are…” He does not finish the sentence.
Falafel Games was born in 2008. Kasmiya had already been making games in Syria for 10 years when Ghossoub, who is Lebanese, got in touch to propose working together. They had never met but Ghossoub knew Kasmiya’s work and Kasmiya was looking for a new direction. “Before the revolution,” he says, “it was a bad time for any creative to work [in Syria].” So he flew to China to join up with Ghossoub. For the first year Kasmiya went back and forth between China and Syria, reluctant to move there permanently, but Ghossoub convinced him to stay
Settling in was not easy. “First I felt like I was moving to Mars,” says Kasmiya. But as two Arab expats in China, they helped each other acclimatise. Now, both are adamant that China, a country that currently bans game consoles, is the best place in the world to be making online games. It’s certainly safer than Syria—Kasmiya’s old studio in Damascus has now been destroyed by shelling. “The only business in Syria at the moment is killing,” he says.
Falafel Games’s big hit Knights of Glory was designed as an experiment in uniting all corners of the Arab world. Ghossoub is proud that “people from all over the Arab world talk together without regard for nationality… It creates stronger bonds between people.” In a region where the print media is heavily censored and there is often limited access to news, even about neighbouring countries, this game offers a new way of interacting. It may be set in the early Islamic empire, but it attracts 10-20,000 unique logins a day from Morocco to Iraq and the number is growing. Its most hardcore players, who number around 5000, play it online for an average of 10 hours a day, six days a week.
Each team is composed of 16 players who communicate via a chat box in the bottom left of the screen. This is the corner where most of the action goes on: plans are formed, defences reinforced, and contemporary politics discussed at length. Ghossoub, himself an avid Knights of Glory player, says that from his chats with fellow gamers he learns about events in the Arab world that rarely make it into newspapers or news channels. “If I have an Algerian on my team,” he says, “I know what’s going on in the street in Algiers.” It was from this chat box that Ghossoub first heard about Israel’s air strikes on Gaza in November.
Ghossoub and Kasmiya’s mission to encourage pan-Arab sentiment, from their base in China, is ambitious. They intend to translate the game into Urdu and Farsi in order to reach a wider market in the Muslim world and are making plans for a game on the Arab Spring.
For now they are focusing on the Middle East—rather than expanding into the more profitable western or far eastern markets—but one day they will design games in English. “A large proportion of Muslims use English as their primary internet language,” says Ghossoub. “However, what we will not deviate from is making games anchored in Arabic culture.”
The Falafel formula is not the only way to make an Arab computer game. In late November I met the CEOs of Jordan-based games company Quirkat in a café in London, a long way from Hangzhou. Mahmoud Khasawneh and Candide Kirk had come to talk to some of their UK-based designers.
Founded in 2004, Quirkat had a smash hit three years later with their first game, Arabian Lords. This was made in association with an American company called BreakAway Games. It spent six weeks at number two in Virgin Megastore’s official Middle Eastern charts (nothing can knock World of Warcraft off the top spot, according to Khasawneh). Since then the company has worked on games like MENA Speed (see left), where players race around Cairo, Dubai and Kuwait City, or Moosiqar, where you strum an Arabic lute along to Arabic tunes (“Oud Hero,” if you like).
The company pointedly takes its name from the ancient Middle Eastern game quirkat, which is said to be the origin of draughts (or checkers). This moniker reveals its aim: to create Arab games that are popular with a global audience. It has just released Pro Foosball, the first Arab game for global release and, just as importantly, the first Arab game to be fully published by Sony. “We really had to fight the perception that Arab companies could only arabise or localise games,” Khasawneh says. “We had to fight the perception that if it is ‘locally made’ it is rubbish.” Sony now believes Quirkat can make global games from its base in Jordan.
Yet Khasawneh is quick to point out that marketing to a global audience doesn’t mean abandoning the things that make Quirkat Middle Eastern. They design games which portray the Arab world in a modern, non-stereotypical fashion. “No tents,” says Khasawneh “No camels!” Focus groups have led them to believe that Arab history will not interest their market; teenagers are more interested in “James Bond, but James Bond who looks like my father.”
Falafel and Quirkat’s outlooks are very different. In terms of sales and global reach, Quirkat’s model seems to be more effective, and Playstation agrees. But both companies command respect in the Middle East. In an industry rife with piracy, people are actually willing to buy their games legally. Pirates do not create illegal copies of Kasmiya’s creations, a phenomenon he likes to call “digital dignity.”
This is an exciting decade for the people making Arab computer games. While demand for new games is on the rise, the Arab world still lacks designers. “We are sick of being called pioneers,” says Quirkat’s Candide Kirk. She complains that producing and publishing a game entirely in the Arab world remains a difficult task. Since Quirkat are looking for designers in Britain and Falafel Games are looking in China, she might be right. But new companies are springing up. Nezal, based in Alexandria, has completed a “rhythm-based game,” where you play a group of Egyptian protesters who need to tap out rhythms in order to defeat the police and, eventually, Hosni Mubarak himself. They have just received $1m from Ideavelopers, an Egyptian venture capital firm, to make a new game. Kirk thinks the Saudi games industry is the one to watch. “They really think in Arabic,” she says “They would code in Arabic if they could.”
Arab videogame designers are at least getting the ear of large companies. French company Ubisoft has offices in Morocco and the Gulf, and Sony has lent crucial support to Quirkat’s games. “We used to go to conferences and they would talk about America, Europe and the far east,” says Kirk. “We would have to say, ‘What about that bit in between?’ Now it can no longer be ignored.”
These videogame developers in the Arab world feel they have a lot to contribute. Beyond simply the setting and the characters, the Arab world has a unique kind of creativity. “We are one of the best storytelling cultures in history,” Khasawneh argues. Kasmiya, too, thinks they create games in a uniquely Middle Eastern way. Western games are about “building instincts” and how quickly you can react to the events on screen, he says, but “the games in the Middle East reflect our passion. Our games reflect more the heart than action.”
The Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim said that long ago there were only camels in the Arabian peninsula, no horses. If anyone mocked the Arabs for this, their answer was simply “give us the horse and we will ride it.” Today a generation of Arabs are saying, “give us the computer and we will play it.”