Is Religion, Stereotyping or Strategies Holding Down XBox, Wii and PlayStation in the Middle East?

Video games are on the list of the most popular mainstream media, which makes up an important percentage of social activity for a considerable portion of youngsters worldwide. The Middle East region is no exception; video games are as popular in the region as it is anywhere else in the world despite the minimal support/focus of the major hardware players Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. Their lack of interest in the region – so far – keeps the doors open for piracy to nourish and dominate the regional video games industry. For instance, almost every Nintendo Wii in Saudi Arabia is modified with a special chip to allow the machine to play pirated games that cost 3$ to 8$ in comparison to the original games costing around $80 – $100 in the region – even higher than their prices in many western countries -.

Quraish Arabic Video Game

Quraish Arabic Video Game

Is price the issue here?

Partially yes, but not for the entire region. We have to bear in mind that countries in the Middle East differ substantially in their income levels. There are the richer Gulf countries where people’s income rivals the income of European countries, and there are other countries which are not rich at all and where people’s incomes are much lower. Both cases can be treated differently with a proper distributor from the major hardware players. The answer maybe an adequate price point for original content that fits these markets. Rotana, the biggest Arabic music producer and distributor figured it out, and provided an excellent model of pricing for their music productions that left little room for piracy. The same can apply to video games.

Localized content and cultural conflicts…

Pricing is not the only barrier holding up the growth of video games in the Middle East. Other major factors include language, localized content and cultural barriers. Wall-E, a game built based on the popular animated film produced in 2008, has been the first world game to be localized for the Middle East. We are talking here about a single game which received very poor reviews and considerable criticism. The fact is that localization of games for this market is very minimal, thus leaving out a big pool of people who simply find it hard to understand English.

On the other hand, the Arabic culture and heritage is rarely portrayed the right way in video games produced in the west. That is understandable in a way because it may not be easy for one to reflect the right cultural heritage of another nation especially when they don’t have to – games produced are usually targeted for western audience -. Beside stereotyping (Delta Force) and oriental-ism (Aladdin), there are no real Arabic characters that would get video game players in the region to relate to. It’s gotten even worse, because – like in Hollywood – major video games that incorporate Arabic characters are usually based on recent Middle Eastern conflicts and thus depicting Arabs as enemies and terrorists!

Local video games productions strike back!

The offensive portrayal of Arabs in some Western video games has triggered local Arab production companies to come up with their own version of video games to protect their identity and perspective of the state of affairs of the regional conflicts. Afkar Media, a Syrian company, has already produced different games with nationalism streak: Under Ash, a political game that tells the story of the first intifada from the Palestinian perspective. Under Siege, is another political game that tells the story of a Palestinian family and their struggle during the second intifada (1999-2002). Quraish, the first Arabic 3D real strategy game (RTS), tracks the origins of Islam in the desert of Arabic 590 A.C.

Big potential…

With the population of the Middle East approaching 300 million, there is a big market for localized and focused video games. High rate of illegal software use may be an obstacle, but it can be worked out with proper strategies if there is a good will to penetrate the Middle Eastern market. Local offices or partnerships with local development companies can also help in delivering some good quality content. Relatively cost-effective and skilled labor is also available in the region especially in Jordan and Egypt.

Is piracy really what’s preventing Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft from taking the full advantage of the market? Is it a strategic decision – or lack of it – to hold off targeting the M.E.? Or is it the lack of consideration of the religious and cultural differences between the East and the West?

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