Gaming, they say, can make a better world. Games make us better at being hopeful, forming social bonds, being productive, seeking meaning in our lives, and surviving suffering, gaming expert Jane McGonigal has argued.
Yet gaming today is just as known for its dark side: its bro culture where sexual harassment is commonplace, calls for more female protagonists earn a stream of vitriol on Twitter, women executives are viewed with skepticism, and 88% of employees are male, despite the fact that almost half of gamers are women.
One of the places where that is swiftly changing is perhaps a bit unexpected: Saudi Arabia.
While the tradition of gender segregation in the Kingdom poses challenges for its workforce (and gender segregation isn't a recommended solution for sexism on the whole), the realities of Saudi society have allowed a group of female gamers to forge a community, foster solidarity, and reclaim gaming as a tool for cultural transformation.
Bringing over 2,000 women together for three days, G-Con (short for "gaming convention") is now one of the biggest women-only gaming events in the world. Led by 23-year-old Tasneem Salim and a band of female computer science graduates-turned-game-developers, the event, held in Riyadh this October, consisted of gaming tournaments for Call of Duty Black Ops and The Last of US, a game developer competition, a variety of game trailers, and even a cosplay (short for “costume play”) competition, in which women dressed up as their favorite game characters.
And with the support of gaming heavyweights PlayStation, Nintendo, and Ubisoft, along with Verso, a local business incubator, G-Con is working to translate the hobby into a route to employment. In a country where only 20% of women are present in the workforce, gaming is a powerful option for those who prefer flexible hours and working from home, says founder Salim.
“Many studios allow you to work remotely, as programmers, artists, and testers,” she explains. “Especially when building for mobile. You can also self-publish on iOS and Android, and have your own income, without the need for a publisher or to work with a studio.” As local women increasingly seek out computer science skills, G-Com (the community connected to the conference) hopes to channel those skills into viable careers, by hosting training sessions and allowing women to post and publish their games online.
Yet to position G-Com as a driver of employment alone would miss
the power of its message. Salim and G-Com aren’t aiming only to
create new jobs; they’re hoping to encourage newfound creativity in
“We are calling upon people to imagine a future through games and through creative industries that we can apply to our culture,” says Salim. “We believe that societies that don't have a sci-fi culture don't evolve. We're hoping to start a spark and talk about local sci-fi, and how we as girls can develop the future.”
It’s not just gaming that suffers from stigma, she explains. “When you work in gaming, people don't take you seriously. The same goes for related fields, such as animation, art scripting, and development; [those industries] have only been developing for the past two to three years.”
Yet creative culture, and local sci-fi, is evolving. Case in point: one of the trailers shown at the event, from the first Saudi sci-fi novel, incorporated traditional themes, such as the idea of jinns, into a futuristic narrative. “It has a very local flavor, in a very unusual setup,” Salim describes. (For more, watch the film’s creator, Yassar Bahjatt, explain how Arab Sci-Fi can dream a better future, in his TED@Doha talk).
G-Com is also plotting to improve the quality of local education. Naming education as the theme of its game development competition, the convention awarded games that could teach complex concepts to young children. The winning game (trailer below) featured an alien teaching physics, while a runner-up created miniaturized characters that journeyed throughout the human body, teaching biology.
“Our hope is to get these games used in schools eventually, once they go through the incubation process at Verso,” says Salim.
These aspirations may seem large for a group of college
graduates, but it’s clear that G-Com has broad support, especially
from its male counterparts at GameTako,
an indie gaming community also based in Riyadh. Led by founder
Abdullah Hamed, GameTako “were one of our first sponsors, and
we always collaborate with them,” Salim says.
Women in the digital community are also rallying to assist. Salim’s employer Esra Assery, the energetic founder of local digital marketing agency eTree, is “very supportive,” Salim says. When Assery attended our Wamda for Women roundtable in Riyadh to debate workplace policies and role models this May, it was clear that eTree was focused on empowering creative thinking in its employees over rote task completion and set hours.
These days, Salim doesn’t have a lot of time to actually game, she admits. Having grown up on Donkey Kong and Super Mario Brothers, she and her team now have to carve out the time to finish the latest titles. “Occasionally, we can squeeze in an hour or two,” she admits.
And as if its ambitions weren’t enough, the team is now using
those extra few hours to finalize a documentary on local female
game developers and members of the Ubisoft team, revealing growth
in gaming across the Arab world.
The hope is to document those who may become the community's next breakout stars. "Hopefully, by next year we can start to see a success story, whether from us or someone else," says Salim. "We hope to support that story, be a part of it, and just keep on growing."