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Arab game strives for ‘digital dignity’

Ghossoub: “[Knights of Glory] has been historically researched.”

BEIRUT: Two years ago, Radwan Kasmiya got a phone call that would bring him from his home in Syria to the far eastern Chinese province of Hangzhou.

At his studio in Damascus, he had been developing video games for Arab players – “Under Ash” and “Under Siege,” inspired by the first and second intifadas respectively – and he had also started on a game based on the Muslim conquests, spending his days doing historical research at the Damascus Library.

Meanwhile, aspiring Lebanese entrepreneur Vince Ghossoub was just finishing his MBA in Shanghai and was looking to get into the gaming business.

“I noticed there weren’t many Arab games online, and I thought there was a good opportunity to start a business,” says Ghossoub on a recent visit home to Lebanon.

“It took Vince one call to convince me to jump over for a visit, and one green tea session to convince me to sign the papers. And here we are now – closing the first round of investment with best Arabic browser game award 2011 [by Arabmmo.com],” says Kasmiya via Skype from his office in China’s technological hub of Hangzhou.

The two avid gamers merged to create Falafel Games, now a two-year-old company with 20 local employees, and two Middle East-based venture capital firms behind them. Their mission, stated on their website, is to “become ambassadors to our rich and dynamic Arab culture,” and to “preserve, enjoy and express our dear civilization.”

They worked together to develop Kasmiya’s third project, which became “Knights of Glory,” an interactive online game based on the Muslim conquests which began in the seventh century.

Kasmiya says, “We grow up learning about these leaders and conquests. People prefer games that reflect their culture, and their identity. We’re trying to make video games that suit their taste.”

He believes that such a game can give Arab players “digital dignity” – a way of giving pride to people of cultures that tend to be negatively portrayed in the media, including online games and forums.

Indeed, the Arabic language game, which delves into Muslim history, is becoming a popular social platform for young gamers, prompting some to organize group meetings in person and plan their team strategy.

“Most of the video games that teenagers play are Western, and they show Muslims as the bad guys. I know that kids in the Middle East are playing these games and feeling something.”

Western games, he says, have “a shallow hero with weapons and muscles. By the end of the game he gets the heroine.” He says that in his games, on the other hand, “the heroes are normal people. You lose by shooting civilians.”

He explains, “That’s what makes us proud. The games reflect our culture. [Knights of Glory] shows the circumstances of why people carried weapons. We’re trying to redefine Islamic conquests. There are a lot of myths about it, and there are a lot of fanatics who put out inaccurate information about this period. A lot of parties use it in the wrong way, and it gives people the wrong message about history.”

On the other hand, with this game, he says, “We’re trying to show tolerance, what really happened.”

Their gut instinct backed up by research that other Arabs feel the same way appears to be paying off.

While the game was still in Beta testing, registered players reached well over 100,000 with 500 users online at any given time, far surpassing their expectations.

The Arabic-language browser game takes between six to nine months to complete, depending on gamers’ skills and whether or not they purchase tools that help them advance their mission.

Ghossoub acknowledges that they have gotten some messages from people criticizing the game’s premise.

But he says he’s not worried.

“There have been some negative comments on Facebook. The Internet is an arena of dialogue, and we’re certain our game is not offensive. The game has been historically researched, detailed to the types of clothes they wore.”

Two Arab private equity firms, Lebanon’s Middle East Venture Partners and MBC, a Saudi media group, have invested in their company, and they are also giving them strategic help with their regional expertise. They joined early-stage investment by Chinese and American firms.

“The Arab market for gaming is very interesting and very driven. Gaming is one of the most sought after commodities in the Arab world,” says MEVP executive director Walid Mansour. “Players from the GCC are higher than the world average. And MMO (massive multiplier online) games are ranked as the most engaging. The Arab market hasn’t yet been served by proper MMO games.”

He adds, “Knights of Glory is a very big project and it takes a lot of expertise. The team is really amazing and they’re very close to their consumers.”

Although their offices are on the other side of the world from their target audience, these two self-described “gaming gurus” say they are happy with their location in Hangzhou, which over the past couple of decades has become known for its economic and technological zones, first developed in 1992. It has also become something of a gaming hub.

In fact, being an economic hub is nothing new for this coastal Chinese province, which 800 years ago was host to Arab merchants who came by land and sea to trade their goods during the Song Dynasty. Among the prominent explorers was Ibn Battouta, who was charmed by the lake and hills and impressed with the local craftsmanship. During the same period, what is now known as the Phoenix Mosque was established by an Egyptian trader.

Hundreds of years later, these two young Arab entrepreneurs have found Hangzhou an ideal place to do business.

“I love China. It was a good move to come here,” says Kasmiya, whose studio in Damascus was forced to close a year-and-a-half ago amid the beginning of the uprising. “There’s plenty of talent, technology and green tea.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 29, 2012, on page 4.

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