The Middle East has one of the world's fastest growing communities of online video gamers. With a majority of the population younger than 25, demographics drive the market, which was worth an estimated $1.6 billion in 2014. The region's largest market is in Saudi Arabia — where gamers play a lot and spend a lot, say regional game developers.
In Saudi Arabia's conservative culture, there are no cinemas or music concerts, so young people turn to video games as an outlet, says Abdullah Hamed, the vice president of a tech company that backs game development. The enthusiasm for gaming is part of the country's overall embrace of online video and social media.
"The culture in general is very restrictive to what the rest of the world considers entertainment," he says. "The best way to have fun is to play games. They are cool, pretty and entertaining."
Once a week, Hamed gathers a group of game developers in an office space called The Work Hub, above a Chuck E. Cheese in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
"We all grew up playing video games," he says. Now he is trying to promote regional game development to meet the growing demand for local characters and stories.
The superstar of this group is full-time game developer Ahmed Jadallah, director of development for Semanoor, a Saudi company that produced the first successful Arabic-language video game, Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta.
The game's main characters are a brother-sister treasure-hunting team, says Jadallah, who helped produce the game. Its action-adventure story is based on the life of Ibn Battuta, the famed 14th century Arab explorer and mapmaker, and the book he wrote on his decades of travel across Africa and Asia.
In the game, a long-lost chapter leads to secret treasures. There are no cowboy hats, no U.S. military uniforms and no Middle East terrorists. The game instead offers a local lens on Arab identity and history.
Jadallah says the game also has a social and cultural mission.
"We wanted to present a nonstereotypical lead female character," he explains. That character, an archaeologist named Dania, "is smart, intellectual and plays an active role in the game."
Like all Saudi women, she covers her head, but unlike most, she drives — and not just any vehicle, Jadallah says gleefully, but "a quad bike in the desert, while being chased."
Strong Female Characters
Regional game developers are portraying powerful female characters like Dania in recognition of Saudi women and girls as a growing market for video games.
Another important Saudi market for international game developers is the dedicated players known as "whales," who pay to speed their way through the levels of a game faster than they could free.
"A whale is a person that pays a significant amount of money, usually around the $5,000 mark," says Hamed. "When you are a developer, you want to be sure those people get into your game."
Saudi "whales" spend three times more than their American or European counterparts, he says.
That willingness to pay is just one sign of the country's passion for gaming. Another is the growing presence of next-generation Saudi game developers. The gaming industry calls them the Arab digital generation. In Jiddah, a group of young developers meets weekly at a tech office in a shopping center. The space is filled with computer stations and offers free Wi-Fi.
Sara Zahran, 23, gathered the group and is prominent in Jiddah's gaming community. She grew up playing shooter games with her brothers and learned English through role-playing games in narratives that appealed to her.
After getting a degree in computer science, she now designs educational games for a tech company — an uphill battle all the way in her conservative family.
"I never got a computer until I was, like, 17, 'cause I was a girl," she says and laughs. "But now my family accepts that I love games."
Zahran believes games can open minds, develop emotions and even change attitudes. In a country where women are banned from driving, she is working on a government-backed game to teach them how. Zahran believes it's a sign that Saudi Arabia will eventually soften its restrictions on women driving.
"That's actually a step because it's a governmental thing. It's like — you will play the game whether you are a girl or a boy. It's really good."
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
There's at least one place in the Middle East where people can play out conflicts in relative safety - online in video games. The Middle East is one of the fastest-growing communities of online gamers. In Saudi Arabia, a generation has grown up playing Japanese and American games. NPR's Deborah Amos visited the kingdom and found some game designers developing stories and characters with local resonance.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Faris Jawad and his brainy sister are the heroes of the first hit video game developed by a Saudi company. It's called "Unearthed." There's hidden treasure, bad guys with big guns - you know, the usual story. But this online adventure game is based on Ibn Battuta, the famed 14th century Arab traveler and mapmaker.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "UNEARTHED")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The adventure of one of the world's greatest explorers.
AMOS: Gamers can play in 21 languages, including Arabic and English.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "UNEARTHED")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No, no, no, no.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Watch out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: "Unearthed: Trail Of Ibn Battuta."
AMOS: The story has a particular Arab flavor - no cowboy hats, no U.S. military uniforms here. And that's made it a financial success in the Gulf and a model for other Saudi developers. I met a group of them recently in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. We all grew up playing video games, says Abdullah Hamed, vice president of a tech company that backs game development. And why are games so popular here?
ABDULLAH HAMED: The culture in general is very restrictive to what the rest of the world considers entertainment. And usually the best way to really have fun in those places is to play games. They're cool. They're pretty. They're entertaining, so people play video games.
AMOS: The developers meet once a week, arrive from other jobs, develop games part-time.
We have another game developer.
The superstar of the group is full-time game developer Ahmed Jadallah.
HAMED: The biggest one of us all, not just by size.
AHMED JADALLAH: But also size.
AMOS: He hit it big with "Unearthed." Jadallah says his game has a social mission to change the image of Arabs, who are usually terrorists in Western games. He also takes aim at Saudi culture. One of his main characters is Dania, an archaeologist - a smart woman in a scarf.
JADALLAH: What we wanted to do with Dania is to present somebody who is a smart intellectual, plays an active role in the game.
AMOS: Does she drive?
JADALLAH: She does - a quad bike in the desert while being chased, so...
AMOS: And so the only place that women in Saudi can drive is in games?
HAMED: I mean, we're trying to do our best.
AMOS: Trying their best to appeal to Saudi's growing market of female gamers. And there's another market that's important - the so-called whale, says Hamed. Anyone who develops a game that's free needs the whales - dedicated players with open wallets who pay online to speed their way through the game's levels faster than they can for free.
HAMED: (Laughter) A whale is a person that pays a significant amount of money, usually around the $5,000 mark.
AMOS: There is a fair amount of whales in Saudi Arabia.
HAMED: Yeah, definitely. I mean, they spend three times more than whales in the U.S. and Europe.
AMOS: It's just one sign of the gaming passion here. Another is among the next generation of game developers. This group meets in Jeddah, and they show me the latest game soon to be on the market.
Will you play it?
SARA ZAHRAN: Yes, of course. I did, actually. It's a really great game.
AMOS: The organizer is 23-year-old Sara Zahran. She grew up playing shoot 'em ups with her brothers. She learned English through role-playing games in stories that appealed to her. After getting a degree in computer science, she now designs educational games for a tech company - an uphill battle all the way.
ZAHRAN: I never got a computer until I was, like, 17 because I was a girl (laughter) yeah.
AMOS: She believes games can open minds, develop emotions, even change attitudes. In a country where women are banned from driving, she's working on a government-backed game to teach them how.
ZAHRAN: The game that we're developing for the company I work for is an educational game to learn how to drive safely. That's actually a step because it's a governmental thing. It's like, you will play the game whether you're a girl or a boy, and you will learn how to drive. It's really good, yeah.
AMOS: Also good, she says, that more Saudi girls are playing games. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.