How Video Games are Culturally Adapted for the Arab Market

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The culture in the Middle East is very different from that in the Western. This can been seen in daily life, but it also influences the Arabic gaming industry. To become more successful in the region, a number of video game companies have recently not only turned to localization, but to ‘culturalization’ as well to adapt their games to the Arabic culture.

In the Middle East, religion is more important than in most Western countries. This is often visible in all aspects of daily life, including, Colin Campbell says, the gaming industry: games dealing with alcohol and violence are often banned from the shelves.

Thus, to be published in the Middle East, Western games often have to be localised to fit the Arabic culture. In this article on website Polygon, Campbell explain how this is done.

According to Campbell, many video game companies do not pay a great deal of attention to the Arabic world. Game companies usually simple launch the English version of their games in the region – if they do not contain alcohol, nudity or violence, that is. All games that are officially distributed comply to the morals of the predominantly Muslim region, but Campbell says gamers have found numerous ways to get their hands on games that go against the local beliefs.

Arabic consumers thus mostly play games in English, but Campbell states a number of companies are planning on creating Arabic versions of their products.

FIFA, for example, already includes local teams and languages in their games and Ubisoft has opened an office concerning localization and culturalization in Abu Dhabi. This new focus on the Middle East is not surprising as Campbell reveals that the gaming market in the region is currently worth 1 billion US dollars.

Leader of the Ubisoft project is Yannick Theler. He says that the main problem in localizing Western games for the Arabic market is actually not the cultural differences between the West and the Middle Eastern, but the language difference.

In fact, the user interface is the biggest hurdle, he says, as Arabic consumers look at games differently than Western ones. This means games not only have to be localized, but culturalized as well – people who read Arabic, which reads from left to right, look at other places on the screen for buttons than people who for example read from left to right.

However, simply creating a mirror image isn’t enough, Campbell says.

Many Arabic game players are used to reading games from left to right because they have played them in English for a long time. This is why he believes games aimed at older teenagers and adults might sell better if they remain untranslated. On the other hand, Theler states that Arabic might be more suitable for certain games such as children’s games. This has already proven to be the case for the Smurfs game, which had higher sales in its Arabic version then it would even have had in English.

According to Campbell, video game companies the market of people who want to play games in their mother language is very large and far from saturated. However, he points out that the Arabic market actually consists of several smaller markets. This is explained by Egyptian gamer Mohamed Mazloum, who says that the Arabic language has many different dialects. Because of this, Mazloum believes, localizing a game for the entire Arabic Market into formal Arabic (which all people can read) could damage the tone of the original game.

Theler states that game developers should take the Arabic culture into account when localizing a game for the Arabic market. He says that all references to alcohol have to be omitted and that characters with revealing outfits are covered up, for example. However, if games feature too much inappropriate elements, they simply cannot not be published in the Middle East.

The availability of games differs per Arab country, however. According to Mazloum, Egypt, for example, has less strict rules than Saudi Arabia. However, gamers can always turn to the black market to find illegal games such as Grand Theft Auto or God of War. In fact, Saleem Dabbous, who grew up in Kuwait, says the Middle East has a flourishing import culture. A number of specialty game stores sell games imported from Japan of the United States without looking at their contents. Every once in a while, the government finds out about one of these games, Dabbous says, in which case the stores bribe the officials and still sell the game afterwards.

Even though the Middle Eastern and the Western gaming market seem to be very different, Theler says there are more similarities than differences between the two. In both regions, games are played by both teenagers and adults and as about half of the Middle Eastern population is under 25, these number of potential consumers for localized games is substantial.

As long as their localization and culturalization strategies are in place, gaming companies are very likely to strike on a gold mine here.

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