"If you can kick it, drive it or shoot it, people will play it here": video games in the Middle East

An interview with the Jordan-based game developer Candide Kirk.

Shamefully, I rarely think about what life is like for non-western gamers -- or even non-English-speaking ones. So I jumped at the chance to speak to Candide Kirk, co-founder and chief technical officer of Quirkat.

The company, based in Jordan, specifically develops Arabic-language games for the Middle Eastern market and is increasingly making use of the PlayStation Network and other digital distribution platforms to navigate a historically cash-based economy. Previous successes include Arabian Lords, a game about the history of the Islamic world, and Al-Moosiqar, a Guitar Hero-style game using the oud (lute).

I talked to Candide about censorship, stereotypes and working at a female-dominated company in a male-dominated industry . . .

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved in games?

We founded the company in 2004 and, at the time, I was working in government [at the Ministry of ICT in Jordan]. My colleague back then, now my business partner, Mahmoud Khasawneh, said: "Hang on a minute, there's no Arabic content." That's something we'd been suffering from in books, entertainment media -- the whole spectrum.

I've always been an avid gamer. I mean, I'm an only child. At the age of seven, my mother got me a Game Boy and, ever since then, I've been hooked. Mahmoud had significantly longer experience in the industry -- he'd worked with several companies that develop software, on the middleware and tech side -- and we thought: there's definitely a niche to be filled.

Which western games reach the Middle East?

All games that are blockbuster hits in the west do arrive in this region. We don't often get any localised versions though, so the versions that do make it over are in English.

We flew a few test balloons. One was a mobile game working with [the game download site] i-Play, which has since become Oberon. We had a portfolio of English language titles there but then we developed a non-branded, original Arabic title -- and it outsold the entire portfolio of English games. That gave us the indication that Arabic was the key.

So there was a real hunger for something that was local?

Absolutely. So, in 2007, we released the first strategy game for the Middle East.

Traditionally, Middle Eastern gamers do not play strategy games because they are so language-intensive. The general perception is that if you can kick it, drive it or shoot it, then people will play it here: because if it's a football game, driving game or first person shooter, the language doesn't really matter. You can guess your way around the menu and start playing straight away.

Our challenge was to fill a void in the strategy game department while focusing on language. Arabian Lords was a real-time strategy game, very similar to Civilisation, but it spoke of the rise of Islam.

It was a trade game, set against backdrop of the 17th century and it was very rich in history -- architecture, trade routes, mosques. That was successful as well and it gave us that reassuring feeling that we were on the right track.

Did you sell that as a download or was it boxed and sold in shops?

It was boxed and sold in shops. Back then, in 2007, our digital distribution options for the region were very limited. At the time, it was the smartest way to go but, since then, we've decide not to do anything boxed, simply because it's such a hassle.

Another thing is we're not a single market and so you have to go through the hassle of entering, for example, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- all the different territories -- and with content in particular, there's high scrutiny.

So any digital distribution is just much easier for game developers because it's so easy for [the governments] to say, "Oh no, it's banned." For example, we did get banned in Saudi, which is a key market for us, simply for having references to Islam in a game.

It was much easier for them to say no, although we'd done our research, we'd hired history teachers and Arabic language teachers and all the content was sanitised for the markets -- but that didn't matter.

How much of that kind of censorship is an issue for you? Are there no-go areas for you, in terms of what games you can make?

There are broad lines that you generally tend to avoid if you are talking to a family audience anywhere in the world. We tend to stay away from religion, politics and sex. Beyond that, it's just common sense.

The other thing is that part of our mission is to avoid portraying stereotypes: camels and pyramids are one thing but the fact that the Arabs are the bad guys in every single shooter is another. That's something that we avoid. We also avoid any political messages simply because we're not that kind of developer: we're after the creation of fun, entertaining, commercial video games.

There are other studios that want to go out with the political messages, so they flip [the usual sides]; like the Arabic soldiers shooting at the American enemy or the Israeli enemy. That's not something we'll ever look at. It's not something that interests us.

In games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, as you say, the Arabs are the bad guys and it is very much "America saves the world". How much play do those games get in the Middle East?

They get a fair amount. They are big games and they are very well designed. The storylines are horrible because of the stereotypes but, at the end of the day, they are sold here and they are quite popular.

It's interesting because the Top 10 charts in the Middle East tend to mimic the Top 10 charts anywhere else. We're very big on football, so the Fifa and the Pro Evolution Soccer [games] will always be the number one and number two; but Call of Duty and all the fighter games will be up there, too.

What size of market is there for games in the Middle East?

It's very difficult to try to equate numbers. We know that there are about 12 million consoles in the region but that doesn't really account for the "grey market". There are quite a lot of grey imports, so that number could easily be doubled.

In terms of sales, we know what the retail sector both on software and hardware is close to $1 billion, around $900m right now.

The issue for us is how things are monetised online; in-game purchases have been difficult to get an estimate on. It all depends on the payment channels and the Middle East is not really a credit card-friendly region. People have traditionally paid for everything in cash. Up until very recently we didn't even have PayPal in the region.

What's happened is we have scratch cards: you walk into a shop, like a grocery store, and you can buy scratch cards for a "virtual wallet". That allows you to purchase game currency and any kind of services online.

Is the lack of credit cards the biggest challenge you face?

Yes, currently. When we first started up, piracy was the number one nightmare. Right now, piracy is, to a certain extent, controlled because of digital distribution and DRM [digital rights management]. A lot of developers in the region are going towards Facebook games and Facebook credits have normalised the markets.

What is the structure of Quirkat, the company you co-founded?

We're ten people: ten full-timers. We have an art team that's based in Beirut -- Lebanon is so rich with artistic talent that it just makes sense -- but the rest of the developers are in Jordan.

What's your family background?

My mother's Jordanian, my father's English. But I grew up in Jordan. I only went to England for university; I spent three years there and then came straight back.

What did you study?

Computer engineering at Sussex.

In the future, what kind of games would you like Quirkat to be producing?

One of the big things for us in 2010 was that we closed an investment round, so that has given us the nice warm feeling of having money in the bank. Now, we're all about developing games that we love, which is a luxury.

We hope to create games inspired by regions that have not been traditionally represented. Having said that, our aim in game development is global appeal and so our plan for the coming 18 months is to create games that are not particularly "Shove the Middle East down your throat", but where the visuals, audio, the feel of the games are Middle Eastern.

We're hoping to tackle that through digital distribution on the global market. We're working with Sony now and are coming on to the PSN [PlayStation Network] and on the PSP and the PS3.

Are you the only female member of your team?

Our studio is predominantly female, which is quite funny. Our marketing manager is female and all of our animators are female. I think we're 6:4 female-to-male ratio; very rare.

Do you get the sense that gaming is still a male-dominated industry?

It is, absolutely. I think the gamers are evening out; it's 50:50 on the gamer side. But in our region, we're the only distributors to have females at all. All the other distributors I know, if they have any females, they'll be on the marketing side or customer services but not on the development side.

Are you drawn to different types of games from your male colleagues?

It's hard to say. Between the females here at the office, we can't even agree on the certain things that we love! Our art director is a real-life martial artist, so her idea of fun is steered towards combat and martial arts games. Another team member has a thing for racing, for car games.

I don't think any of the team members here, with the exception of me -- for research purposes -- play any Facebook games and the perception is that they're very female. Having said that, a lot of my male friends play CityVille and are obsessed with it!

For more information about Quirkat, the company's website is here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage