"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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism