Game Gulf

Subject: Arabic gaming remained on pause for nearly two decades due to a popular platform’s demise — and war.

Note: This essay appeared on the 11th issue of The Magazine. Thanks to Marco Arment for giving writers the choice to freely publish their essays anywhere they'd like.

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When I was growing up in Kuwait, it — and many neighboring countries — had a strange and wonderful duality: a meeting of Japanese and American brands, media, and technology. Our television channels carried both Captain Tsubasa, a popular soccer anime program, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My cousins’ dad bought them an NES, while my father brought home Famicom game systems, the Japanese version of Nintendo’s console. (That’s plural: We had three. My three brothers and I wouldn’t share controllers!) Boots or Bath & Body Works? Both!

This Japanese connection explains the dominance for much of the 1980s of the MSX, a Microsoft Japan-led project launched in 1983 to create a standardized computer platform that multiple companies could make and that would be affordable enough for home use. Although IBM introduced its PC in 1981 and copycat compatibles appeared in 1982, those systems were too expensive for many parts of the world and many kinds of users, especially those primarily interested in playing video games.

Unfortunately, MSX turned out to be a dead-end platform, despite its early contributions to the Arabic-speaking world in particular, and it derailed both gamers and the gaming industry in the Middle East for decades. The community is finally starting to revive, in part due to Microsoft’s influence once again.

The sand castle

In the early 1980s, cheap home computers started to sell in the millions of units in both the United States and Europe, and one of their primary uses was playing games. Microsoft Japan’s Kazuhiko Nishi looked to subvert platform lock-in by pushing for an industry-standard computer that could be made in Japan by many different companies and sold directly to consumers and businesses. The MSX included a standard expansion cartridge slot for games and other additions. This would also create a bigger market for Microsoft, which developed MSX-DOS and MSX BASIC.

Built around the existing Spectravideo SV-328 computer, MSX sold in the millions, and versions were produced by Sony and Panasonic as well as by firms outside Japan, including GoldStar (Korea), Philips (The Netherlands), and Spectravideo itself (U.S.). The Kuwait-based Al-Alamiah Electronics got in on the manufacturing action, as well as making software via its Sakhr Software division. Its computer was known as the MSX Sakhr.

But Alamiah wasn’t merely a manufacturer. Mohammed Al Sharekh, the firm’s founder, had received degrees in both America and Egypt, and he brought a Western-style entrepreneurialism to creating an Arabic-language computer culture. He founded Al-Alamiah with 5,000 Kuwaiti dinars (then $20,000) in 1980 to create the first Arabic system, fonts, and programs. He paid special attention to font appearance and technical requirements. They were coded with a proper understanding of the unique requirements for Arabic kerning, ligatures, and other elements. This came during Microsoft’s early years, when MS-DOS lacked any support for Arabic.

Alamiah concentrated on building Arabic educational games and business software on the MSX Sakhr, but avoided games designed purely for entertainment. Its educational software ranged from elementary to high-school levels, and from simple math to electronic circuit design. There was nothing like it on the market in the Middle East. The company introduced the Arabic world to word processing as well.

This range of software and support for Arabic led many companies — and even government ministries — to adopt MSX Sakhr as opposed to other, more expensive computer systems and platforms. While the MSX Sakhr had a limited range of capabilities compared to an IBM PC, a Commodore 64, or other competitors, its limitations were minor enough for most people to ignore in favor of price and language support.

Alamiah kindled a love of video games among many users, even though that wasn’t at all the intent. “Sakhr’s mission was educational. It just happened that we delivered this through an entertainment package,” says Riyadh Al Sharekh, a former marketing manager at Sakhr. “To think that Alamiah’s goal was to solely support video games rather eclipses the efforts and intentions of the company. We saw ourselves as an educational company.” For a few years, this combination worked.

They say misery is a butterfly, and it brought its swarm along in 1990. That year saw the effective end to MSX Sakhr. First, Microsoft abandoned support for the platform around the time it introduced Windows 3.0, its first truly usable version. Second, you might recall that 1990 was the year Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, where Alamiah was headquartered. Although the company also had offices in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the eight-month-long invasion was more than a mere inconvenience; software was delayed, and some employees were poached by other firms.

Gamers didn’t stick around. They migrated to dedicated and more sophisticated systems like NES/Famicom and Sega Master System (SMS). “No one was willing to invest in this educational move as much as Sakhr,” Riyadh says, which brought development on the platform to a halt. Sakhr still exists, but not the one that gamers shared their childhood with. It now makes PCs and corporate software.

The ignorance that lingers

The perception that Islam, the dominant religion in the Middle East, held back video-game development and playing isn’t quite accurate. It is less that there is a cultivated or collective antagonism to gaming than that there are bans or restrictions in particular countries. The National Rifle Association’s campaign against violent video games in the U.S. is far more directed and harsh than anything in my world.

It’s common to find minors in the region playing Call of Duty or Max Payne. Those games are intended for “mature” players, but no laws require shop owners to abide by ESRB age ratings. Rather, certain games face outright bans. Grand Theft Auto, a game popular for its embrace of player agency — to the point where you can visit a nightclub and hook up with a stripper — isn’t allowed here. The game had garnered a bad reputation in the PlayStation 2 days, and word of mouth alerted government higher-ups that it was a “vile” game. Also banned are God of War and Lollipop Chainsaw, games singled out for blasphemy and sexualizing women, respectively. The Darkness II has an entire section played in a brothel, but no one knows about it — and so no one cares about it.

The United Arab Emirates, however, seems unique in evaluating video games — albeit slowly — by playing them to determine whether it has content that authorities deem worthy of a ban. Otherwise, there are no organized campaigns in the region; it’s usually gossip that ends up blacklisting certain games.

A game could even be blocked just because its cover shows, say, a woman with oversized breasts — even if the game’s content has nothing religiously debatable and doesn’t depict women the way the cover does. In short, it’s selective: Germany and other European countries really hate sex and violence, while the Middle East really hates sex and blasphemy.

“I certainly don’t plan to let complicated cultural obstacles get in the way of what I want to achieve in life,” says independent musician Essam Al Ghamdi of Saudi Arabia. “Life is short. Why not take a chance now and then?” Essam quit his job in the oil industry, and is focusing on his own musical career, but he also recently released Simudroids, a Flash game he designed and which his friends programmed. It garnered a small cult following.

A sun that begs to shine

We’ve finally seen positive signs for gamers and developers in the last five years. Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Sony’s PlayStation Network both launched in the Middle East with a staggeringly high number of subscribers, and enabled users to purchase content with their locally issued credit cards. Electronic Arts’ FIFA 13 was released with Arabic localization (some of the best-known commentators in the region offering play-by-play) and was greeted with praise. It far outsold the company’s expectations.

Arab development teams, like Dubai’s After Work Games, are starting to emerge, and we’ve even started hosting our own expos, such as TGXPO and DWGE. These are all clear indications that the market has reawakened and that there’s a renewed interest in chasing the dream.

“During the MSX days, the ambition of Arab-developed games was on par with those from the Japanese, and that gave us a competitive edge,” Abdullah Hamed tells me. For some years now, he has been managing Game Tako, an attempt to nurture a friendly indie-development scene and build awareness for creating content rather than just consuming. “What has happened with Sakhr is a catastrophe; it created a gap of experience (or lack thereof) that had lasted for over 20 years. This is starting to change with the advent of the Internet, and we have been playing catch-up for some time now.”

The Jordan-based Arab Advisors Group noted almost a year ago that the number of online games available in Arabic grew from one in 2007 to 135 by late 2011. The number has climbed since then, spurred by a rapid uptake in Internet access. As of early 2012, nearly 30% of the 350 million people (about 100 million) in the Arab world had Internet access, a tripling over five years. The number of users is predicted to climb nearly 50% to 150 million by 2015.

We all hope that this awkward phase will pass quickly, that we will start seeing more compelling games in the market, and that more professional teams from the community will be formed. We hit rock bottom and acknowledged it. Nearly 60 million people in our community are under 25. The market for games, especially homegrown ones, seems poised to skyrocket. There’s nowhere to go but up.