Visiting the computer souq on Olaya in Riyadh is almost becoming a normal experience for me these days. Almost. Except for the staring. The other day after dropping off my computer for a spot of repairs I decided to hang around and see what else there was to see. Most noticeable was the increase in the number of gaming shops since my last visit.
I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about gaming. I hail from an era that was just coming out of Pin Ball machines and heading into Pac Man and, quite frankly, my skill level at both was fairly dismal, so I never really kept up with the development of video game entertainment. My children, the poor souls, had to make do with visiting their friends and waiting for a turn on their Atari machine because we decided playing team sport was a better way for our kids to spend their time and our money. Given that their friends were better at the Atari games because, let's face it, they got more game time in, my kids often had a long wait for the console. The day my son stopped begging to go up the road to play on his mates Atari made me feel like I'd helped him dodge a child development bullet. My view of gaming didn't change much over the years as the graphics improved and the popular games just seemed to get more violent. Watching my nieces and nephews attempting to blow things up with heavy artillery in futuristic battles just isn't my thing. Candy Crush, however, is. (Yes it's sad I know but remember, I'm old).
While wandering in and out of little shops at the Riyadh computer souq somewhat astounded at the number of luminous green and black boxes dedicated to gaming in all of them, I came across Ashraf who was more than happy to talk to this gaming clueless expat about the equipment being sold in his shop. And apparently they sell a lot. Here's a video wrap up on what I learned about gaming components. (As you can see Ashraf was not shy of the camera).
Although there is a technician on site to put components together as required, Ashraf says quite a few Saudi's like to build their own gaming computer systems. That surprised me because, lets be honest, I still think most Saudi's prefer to pay someone else to do everything for them. Perhaps where gamers are concerned I'm going to have to shake that idea.
Given there are few other avenues for recreation in this country it's no surprise that Saudi's have taken to computer games en masse. Apparently gaming in this country is a huge revenue earner for game developers because so many Saudi's not only play but are prepared to pay to progress to upper levels (why doesn't that surprise me!)
It occurred to me after waving goodbye to Ashraf, that I forgot to ask how many females head through his shop door who like to put together their own gaming consoles. It is no secret that gaming is popular among Saudi females given there is bugger all else for women to do here. In fact, so many Saudi girls are now into video games that, a couple of years back, a motivated young lady ran a female only gaming conference. I got a a bit excited to hear that 3000 or so women went to a gaming conference that was not only for players but also budding gaming developers. Here's an interview from the event in 2013.
After watching this interview I headed to Google to find out what else gaming women in Saudi were up to. It seems not much as there are only a couple of other mentions re: women and gaming out in cyberspace and both of them are articles about Saudi men developing games for the Saudi female psyche. I find it quite bizarre that, with the extreme gender segregation in this society preventing the mixing of genders and discouraging the exchanging of ideas between both groups, Saudi men presume to know the Saudi female mind. But then, Saudi men are brought up to think they know exactly what Saudi women need, and are entitled to dictate as much, so I guess the idea of them presuming to know what games their women ought to be playing isn't so weird after all.
First up was this interview: 'As Saudi Arabia's Love Of Online Gaming Grows, Developers Bloom' which is about a group of guys developing 'strong female characters' in Arab based, Saudi relevant games. I love how it says
"We wanted to present a non-stereotypical lead female character [who is] smart, intellectual and plays an active role in the game."Perhaps this quote was the result of a terrible edit. These guys can't really be saying that the typical Saudi woman is not smart, intellectual and does not play an active role in Saudi society? I'm guessing they actually meant its ridiculous how Saudi girls just aren't allowed to do things over here like treasure hunt, drive, bike ride, participate in physical sport or contribute to matters considered too important for women to worry their pretty feminine selves about. (The game they are talking about in the interview, by the way, has a recently released new version called Unearthed: Trail of Ibn Battuta - Episode 1 - Gold Edition in case you want to go check it out).
What I wanted to know after reading that interview was whether or not any Saudi women join these group developer sessions above Chuck E Cheese. If a few, (or even one), Saudi women were involved in the development of this game it would have been nice for them to rate mention. On the other hand women helping men in gaming development above Chuck E Cheese would likely be akin to women walking on the wild side in Saudi and the Joy Stealers would probably decide they have something to say about it!
At the end of the interview the Saudi government gets a mention for supporting a female gaming developer in creating a driving game, of all things. Is this really a precursor to women driving in Saudi? (Personally, I would have thought allowing husbands, fathers and older brothers to provide driving lessons for their female relatives a more relevant forerunner to women driving. But wait, no, a few have tried that and gotten into grief though I do query why in my post Arrested For Driving.. ). Perhaps my pessimism is running rampant as I write this, but it occurred to me that with a government endorsed driving game available for the girls to play, it's far too easy for the blokes in charge to say, 'You ladies don't need to really drive - just play the game of driving'. (Perhaps they'll throw in a toy steering wheel while they're at it!)
The second article found making waves in cyber space re: gaming and Saudi femmes is about a Saudi prince whose company is creating an upcoming game called Saudi Girls Revolution. An interesting name don't you think? More interesting is what the game is about:
"In this post-apocalyptic future, women are placed in concentration camps with conservative men ruling the land and controlling resources," he said. "It is the story of the girls breaking out and liberating the Arab empire by replacing its leaders."It should be noted that Mr Prince's company is based outside of Saudi and his games are mobile based specifically so they can't be shut down by the conservative half of Saudi hierarchy who, I'm quite certain, wouldn't be greeting the name of this game or its summary with open arms and a welcoming smile.