In May 2005 I was studying Arabic at the Language Institute of the Damascus University in Syria. I stayed in the sūq sārūja area; a beautiful, shabby part of the Old City. Every morning on my way to the university, I passed through the main computer and videogame market, where vendors sold mostly copied U.S. and European games and a few unauthorized Arabic localizations of the latter. If you chose to buy a game, the vendor would ask if you wanted an original or a copy. If you wanted a copy, the vendor would simply burn the game onto a CD and sell it to you for the equivalent of two U.S. dollars. If you asked for an original, the vendor would essentially repeat the same operation, plus he would print a colored booklet for an additional fee. A similar process was applied to software, music and movies, which were all widely available from street vendors throughout the city.

During that time friends told me about a Syrian political game about to be released called Tahta al-Hisār (Under Siege), which supposedly retold the story of the first Intifada from the Palestinian perspective. Being an avid gamer, I wanted to buy this game. So I asked every day whether it was available. The vendor always said it was expected to arrive soon; probably the next day, inshā'Allāh (God willing). After about two weeks of this, a surprise awaited me in the shop. It was not a CD with the game, but the programmer of Under Ash, a prequel to Under Siege, who was curious - and maybe suspicious - as to why I kept asking for the new game.

Through the programmer I met Radwan Kasmiya, the manager of Afkar Media, the company that produced Under Ash, Under Siege and other Syrian videogames. It was after interviewing him that my deeper interest in Middle Eastern videogames and their broader social, political and cultural aspects started to develop. Moreover, encounters with Middle Eastern game designers and the games they produce have profoundly changed how I think about videogames and geographies (in terms of representations and politics) in videogames, their production and consumption and development and design.

Since my encounter with Arab games in 2005, when this topic was largely unexplored and neglected by academia, a number of articles, book chapters and conference papers have appeared: indicating a growing interest in this field. This emerging research comes from a variety of academic backgrounds; including game studies, cultural studies and Middle Eastern studies.

Pioneering research in the field has focused on analysis of the symbolic and ideological dimensions of in-game representational politics related to the Middle East. Marashi (2001) has outlined the stereotypical modes of representation of Arabs in combat videogames focusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Reichmuth and Werning (2006) have described the exploitation of things Oriental, topoi, in various genres of Western videogames. I (Sisler, 2008) have analyzed how mainstream European and American games construct the representation of Arabs or Muslims; particularly in the framework of "digital Orientalism." Finally, Höglund (2008) and Kavoori (2008) have discussed in-game representation of the Middle East as found in US action games; namely in relation to "War on Terror" discourse.

More recently, research focus has shifted to games produced in the Middle East and to how they deal with the issues of representation and identity. Galloway (2004) described how social realism and congruence are negotiated within two Arab, pro-Palestinian games. Similarly, Machin and Suleiman (2006) have compared the discourse of two Arab and American war videogames, focusing on how they recontextualize and frame real-world events. Taking a different tack, Tawil-Souri (2007) has presented an ethnographic account of how Palestinian children play, comment and make sense of Arab videogames. My own research has analyzed how identity is constructed and communicated to players in Arab (Sisler, 2008) and Iranian (Sisler, 2012) games; and how Palestine is envisioned, and its representation constructed, through the procedural rhetoric of Arab and Iranian videogames (Sisler, 2009). Finally, Shaw (2010) has provided an audience reception study aimed at critically evaluating how Arab gamers identify with virtual Arab in-game characters.

The last research cluster related to Middle Eastern videogames deals with the topics of Islam and Muslim culture: how virtual worlds can recreate Islamic holy sites and rituals (Derrickson, 2008); how videogames are appropriated by the emerging Muslim consumer culture (Sisler, 2009); and how videogames are used to teach the basic tenets of Islam and to communicate Islamic moral and ethical values (Campbell, 2010).  

Despite growing academic interest, existing research remains largely anecdotal and focuses on isolated, albeit important, threads within the fabric of videogame culture and development in the Middle East. To a large extent, this is the result of the fact that only a limited number of games have been produced in the Middle East. Therefore, gamers in the Middle East remain largely dependent on European, American or Japanese games. In other words, a "mainstream" Arab, Iranian or Pakistani gaming culture does not yet exist - or, more precisely, it consists primarily of the consumption of "Western" games, albeit in new contexts and social settings (Sisler, 2009). 

Videogame producers in the Middle East face many challenges, which make local game development more difficult than in the US or Europe. This chapter discusses these challenges and identifies the particular production strategies and design features local game developers use in order to adapt to them. In other words, it analyzes the broader cultural, social and political aspects that shape videogame design and production in the Middle East, focusing particularly on the Arab world and Iran. By doing so, it aims to transcend the fragmented character of existing research and propose a theoretical framework for the contextualization of videogame development in the Middle East.

The material presented here is based on content analyses of more than 80 games developed in the Arab world and Iran between 2005 and 2011, and on interviews with 10 major Arab and Iranian game producers. Substantive portions of the materials were gathered during fieldwork trips to Damascus in 2005, Cairo in 2007 and Tehran in 2008. Many of the games that were then in production were later obtained for analysis. The interviews were conducted in Arabic, Farsi and/or English. In most cases they have been amended by extensive e-mail communication.

Before discussing the general structure and organization of this chapter, I would first like to make a few comments on the term "Arab world." For the purpose of this chapter, I define "Arab world" as an umbrella term for countries belonging to the Arab League of Nations and whose official language is Arabic (see also Abdulla, 2007). As is the case with any umbrella term, by no means does this indicate that the Arab world constitutes a monolithic bloc. Despite the fact that most Arab countries share the same language, culture, religion and history, there are core differences among Arab audiences regarding political and cultural ideologies (Amin 2007, p. x). It's also important to emphasize that although the majority of Arabs are Muslims, the population in the Arab world encompasses a variety of other religions, including Christians, Druze, Baha'is and others. In the following text, when using the term "Arab world", I limit my analysis to videogames stemming from the Arab-Muslim cultural heritage.

Fig. 1. Framework
Fig. 1. Challenges and strategies for videogame development in the Middle East

The structure of the chapter is organized around two sets of challenges for videogame development in the Middle East (Fig. 1). The first set is related to the role of the State, namely to lax or non-existent copyright protection, regulation of cultural production and media control. The second set is more broadly defined and deals with the social and cultural aspects influencing videogame production in the region; namely cultural communication patterns, cultural identity and religious values. Whereas the challenges of the first set impact primarily the production side of videogame development in the Middle East, the challenges of the second set impact design aspects. Therefore, the key strategies and adaptations developers use in order to overcome these challenges are similarly grouped into the two categories - production and design. By no means are these adaptations mutually exclusive. On the contrary, developers combine and appropriate them in a way that best fits their specific needs and objectives.

Challenges of the State: Copyright Protection, Regulation of Cultural Production and Media Control

Among the primary challenges faced by videogame developers in the Middle East are (1) lax or nonexistent software copyright protection, (2) state regulation of the cultural production and (3) state control of the media landscape.

The Annual BSA 2010 Global Software Piracy Study reports that the average PC software piracy rate in the Middle East and Africa is 58%, compared to 21% in North America and 33% in Western Europe (BSA 2011, p. 4). Several Middle Eastern countries exceed the worldwide average piracy rate of 42% by more than two times that figure: Yemen (90%), Libya (88%), Iraq (85%) and Algeria (83%). Others are close to the regional average: Turkey (62%), Egypt (60%), Kuwait (60%) and Jordan (57%). Only a few Middle Eastern countries fall below the world average; most notably Israel (31%) and the United Arab Emirates (36%).

At the same time, the estimated commercial value of unlicensed PC software in the Middle East and Africa is the lowest of all monitored regions - $4,078 million; compared to Asia-Pacific, which leads the chart at $18,746 million (BSA 2011, p. 5). Therefore, global videogame companies presumably do not place high priority on the Middle East as a region for possible expansion or collaboration with local companies, although recent development suggests that this may change. Chris Deering, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, stated in 2003: "We are committed to developing and introducing Arabised titles in the region. [...] If piracy were not such a big issue here, we would have introduced Arabised titles much earlier" (Nair, 2003).

Although BSA doesn't provide any data for Iran, Sreberny and Khiabany (2010, p. 24) note that software piracy is widespread in the country. This is due, in part, to the fact that Iran is not a signatory to international copyright conventions. Moreover, US embargoes prohibit many software companies from doing legitimate business in Iran.

A typical American or European game can be bought for 2 to 3 US dollars in most Arab and Iranian cities. These games usually appear on the local market soon after their release in the United States or Europe, if not sooner (Sisler, 2009). As a result, local producers compete on the domestic market with cheap, copied Western games. Due to US technology embargoes, developers often can't legitimately buy engines, middle-ware and other development software (Sisler, 2006; Sreberny & Khiabany, 2010).

Moreover, the media landscape in the Middle East is often subject to control and censorship by the State, alongside the regulation of cultural production. This is particularly relevant to videogame production in Iran where the digital environment is controlled through complex legislative and non-legal ploys. As Sreberny and Khiabany (2010, p. 24) note, the Islamic State that came to power after 1979 defined itself predominantly in a cultural sense. The twin aims of the cultural policy of the new state were based on destruction of an imposed Western, alien culture and its replacement with a "dignified, indigenous and authentic Islamic culture" (Alinejad, 2002). The State began to develop a range of institutions and regulatory bodies to implement and safeguard the Shi'ite Islamic culture of Iran. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was given the specific tasks of managing and running the press, as well as charities and religious endowments (Sreberny & Khiabany, 2010, p. 25). Recently, the Ministry has also been charged with overseeing the development of a rating system for foreign games and, more importantly, approving all the domestic Iranian game production. In 2006 the government approved the establishment of the National Foundation of Computer Games in Tehran under the supervision of the Ministry (NCFG, 2011). The aim of this Foundation is twofold: to boost economic growth in the videogame industry segment and to subsidize the development of games in Iran that are conceived in accordance with Iranian and Islamic values.

In the Arab world the situation varies significantly from one country to another. Though national Arab regulatory frameworks exhibit similarities and overlaps, they also reflect the fact that each Arab country has developed media regulations and policies to meet challenges specific to that country; whether social, political or economic. As Kraidy and Khalil (2009, p. 123) note, national media policies in the Arab world have traditionally reflected a handful of concerns: most notably regime survival and protection of moral and socio-cultural values. Since the late 1950s, royal families, ruling parties and political dynasties have monopolized television broadcasting; banning critical coverage of themselves, the armed forces and other components of the apparatus of power. At the same time, putative moral values and socio-cultural concerns motivate many Arab media policies. Television is especially susceptible to censorship based on concerns about its impact on national and cultural identity, relations between men and women, young people and prevailing moral values.

Yet, as Khamis and Sisler (2010) describe, a "new media revolution" erupted in the Arab world in the 1990s. In particular, the introduction of satellite television channels and the Internet represented an important shift from the "monolithic," state-controlled and government-owned, media pattern to a much more "pluralistic" and diverse media scene, where a variety of competing voices representing different political positions and orientations could be heard.

As a result, most game developers in the Arab world operate in a highly hybridized and pluralistic media environment where "state ownership" and "private ownership," as well as "government control" and "individual or party control" coexist and shape the media landscape. Unlike Iran, most Arab states do not have a specific national policy regarding the production of videogames. Therefore, the Arab videogame industry reflects a multifaceted and complex mix of business, culture and politics. Moreover, given the ongoing political changes associated with the events of the "Arab Spring" the national media regulations and policies could undergo substantial changes in the near future.

Adaptations of Production: Personal Engagement, State Support and Global Markets

The above-mentioned challenges have resulted in a number of strategies among videogame developers; including (a) personal engagement and (b) private investment, (c) seeking state support and (d) aiming for global markets.

Most of the producers I interviewed in both Iran and in the Arab world confirmed that their primary motivation for developing games was a deep personal interest and desire to produce games that are technologically and conceptually advanced and that do not pale in comparison with mainstream European or American production. Often they had invested personal funds from commercial software development and web design projects into game development (Sisler, 2006, 2012). Arash Jafari from the Iranian company, Fanafzar, said, "It was more passion and personal interest than business. The greatest challenge was that you hoped that the Iranian youngsters and teenagers would buy this, because this is something different than other Iranian or Western games." Similarly, Radwan Kasmiya, CEO of the Syrian company, Afkar Media, argued that they did not develop games for money since sales barely covered production costs. Instead, he coined the phrase "digital dignity" to describe their work. According to his explanation, this concept consists of pride, self-esteem and aptitude: "It is how an Arab teenager feels when he puts his hands on a game that reflects his point of view, knowing that non-Arabs may play it too." In other words, the motivation to develop Arab or Iranian videogames among local designers often fuses "technological pride" with the desire to create "their own" digital representations reflecting their specific cultural identity and challenging Western stereotypes.

In order to be successful local videogames can't be sold for a price much higher than copied Western games. Therefore, most Iranian games are available for the equivalent of 5 USD on local markets, and a similar ratio applies to the Arab games. As a result, many independent companies aim for global markets in order to obtain additional revenue. For example, the English version of Quraish, a Syrian real-time strategy game describing the origin and spread of Islam, can be bought in many Arab or Islamic shops in London. Similarly, the Iranian games, Garshasp and Quest of Persia: Lotfali Khan Zand, dealing with Iranian mythology and history, are available for download in Farsi, English and German for 9.99 USD or 15 USD respectively, payable via PayPal. The makers of another Iranian game, Mir Mahna (Espris Studio, 2011), dealing with the liberation of Iran from colonial forces, plan to distribute it in Indonesia and Turkey (Payvand, 2011).

Fig. 2. Quraish (Afkar Media, 2005)

Again, producers' motivation to succeed on the international market merges economic needs with the desire to present their own culture and technological aptitude to the outside world. As Hamid Roustaie, the PR manager of the Iranian Tebyan Institute, told me: "Tebyan aims simultaneously to fill the gap in contemporary digital production in Iran as well as inform the world about the Iranian culture through its videogames." Similarly, Farshad Samimi from the Iranian Tahlil Garan Tadbir studio confirmed that they "want to export their games to other countries, so not only Iranian but also foreign people can understand the Iranian culture and see that Iran has two thousand years of history." Given the novelty of the Middle Eastern game industry, no data is available on how successful these games are on the highly competitive global market. And yet some of these games, namely fantasy, role-playing games like Garshasp or Age of Pahlevans, have a certain appeal because they offer a viable alternative to the Anglo-Saxon mythological canon that has dominated the industry for decades.

As mentioned above, the National Foundation of Computer Games was established in Tehran in 2006. Through this institution local videogame producers have the rare opportunity to seek state support for game development, which is rather exceptional in the region. Given lax enforcement of copyright law in Iran and the low cost of copied Western games, state support can mean the difference between survival and failure of a game project. Local producers understandably seek state support in one way or another. This is usually pursued through obtaining technological development grants or funds for the preservation of cultural heritage, such as for the games, Quest of Persia and Age of Pahlevans, in which the cities of Bam and Zabul have been virtually recreated. Moreover, a number of companies directly produce games, for which the scripts have been prepared by governmental agencies and which aim to foster national pride and promote "Iranian and Muslim values" (Sisler, 2012). On the contrary, in the Arab world, state subsidies for videogame development are scarce or non-existent. One important exception is the support for videogame development provided by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which finances games that recreate in virtual form real battles with Israeli forces in South Lebanon. In these games the Arab and Muslim identity of the hero is important to the authors and is integrated into all aspects of the game, i.e. audiovisual content, narrative and gameplay. At the same time, many Arab game developers pursue their own visions and aims and refuse to be connected to official structures and financial support. As Radwan Kasmiya insisted, "We are not financed by anyone and we do not want to be, we want to keep our independence."

Finally, as a result of widespread software piracy in the region, most Iranian and Arab games currently available on the market use unusually sophisticated copyright protection systems, which include double codes and registration over the Internet, as well as specific CD copy protection technology (Sisler, 2008; 2012).

Societal Challenges: Cultural Communication Patterns, Cultural Identity and Religious and Moral Values

Beyond the issue of lax copyright protection and state-controlled media, game developers in the Middle East have to take into account the (1) specific cultural communication patterns, (2) cultural identity and (3) religious and moral values of their audiences.

As Kirlidog (1996) argues, the socio-cultural environment in which any information technology is deployed has substantial influence over the technology's success. Communication technologies, in particular, only function properly if they facilitate culturally acceptable modes of communication (Zakaria, Stanton & Sarkar-Barney, 2003, p. 63). Although some users - particularly early adopters (Rogers, 1962) - may exhibit a substantial degree of flexibility, transcending cultural preferences and adapting to a disruptive technology, broadly successful deployment of a new communications technology must include localizations that enhance the "fit" of the technology to the culture. In other words, the success of implementing IT applications cross-culturally depends on the careful appreciation of prevailing local norms and values (Zakaria, Stanton & Sarkar-Barney, 2003, p. 63).

The role of religion, particularly Islam, is important to Arab and Iranian media landscapes; albeit in different ways. In Arab culture, as Elashmawi and Harris (1998, p. 51) state, religion plays a vital role; influencing most decisions in life and business. Similarly, Jandt (2001) argues that Islamic values and symbols have a strong influence on Arabic cultures. Regarding the media landscape, as Kraidy and Khalil (2009, p. 70) describe, religious programming had been part of state television channels in several Arab countries decades before the satellite era in the 1990s.  It has enjoyed renewed popularity since. Privately owned Islamic satellite channels include both traditional channel formats featuring charismatic preachers and strong production values, as well as hip Islamic alternatives featuring a mix of prayer, talk shows and music. The latter, such as Saudi channel, al-Resalah, increasingly produce cartoons and animated films infused with moral messages (Kraidy & Khalil, 2009, p. 72). Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, the owner of al-Resalah, says that his priority is to present "Arab heritage through a modern medium" and to "counteract the misconceptions of Islam in other societies" (al-Resalah, 2006). These statements parallel the responses I got from many Arab videogame producers when discussing their aims and motivations. However, these motivations are not driven by state support. In the Arab world it is mostly private entrepreneurs, who subsidize the production of games promoting Islamic values. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are notable exceptions.

In Iran, the situation is quite different, given that Islam plays a major role in the official public sphere as well as in the media landscape. The Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979 after the rapid mobilization of a popular revolution. All developments in relation to digital media have occurred within a highly politicized, post-revolutionary environment with Shi'ite Islam as the ideology of the dominant theocratic state (Sreberny & Khiabany, 2010, p. 1). Islamic values are promoted on all levels of the national media policy. Subsidizing the production of games conceived in accordance with Islamic values is one of the priorities of the National Foundation of Computer Games. The Foundation particularly focuses on "the indication, improvement and promotion of cultural bases and Iranian-Islamic identity by this industry with special attention paid to children and adolescents" (NCFG, 2011). The emphasis on Iranian-Islamic identity is important here. Not only does it connote the promotion of a specific Shi'ite Muslim identity, but it also fuses this identity with Iranian nationality and culture; as opposed to many global Islamic games aiming for the symbolic recreation of a universal Muslim community, the umma (Sisler, 2009). In Iran it is mainly the Islamic state, and not independent entrepreneurs, that is concerned with the promotion of Islam and Muslim identity.

Another significant point of reference in Iranian society, culture and media is the Iran-Iraq war. Iran experienced a bitter, eight-year war with Iraq that produced significant death, injury and destruction, including missile attacks on urban areas. The impact of the war is still very much present in Iran today. Among the consequences of the war were the issue of security superseding all other public matters, the elevation of war veterans to national hero status and their rapid ascension up various socio-economic ladders, and the reinforcement of a culture of martyrdom, sacrifice and defense (Sreberny & Khiabany, 2010, p. 4). In particular, the rhetoric of Sacred Defense (defa-e moqaddas), referring to the invasion of Iran by Iraq, runs deep in Iranian culture and is periodically commemorated by government-orchestrated campaigns; including rallies, memorials, murals and recently videogames (Sisler, 2012).

Beyond religion and politics, a thousand years of tradition, cultural heritage and history constitute an important referential framework in Iranian society. As Zandapour and Sadri (1996, p. 192) write, Iranians value and respect their tradition and cultural heritage: "Whereas in the West old ideas often lack cultural currency, in Iran old fables and stories are abundant and relied upon to explain current issues and events." For example, ancient Iranian mythology and epic poems, such as Shaah Naame and Garshasp Naame, provide rich backgrounds, hero characters and settings for independent videogame producers in Tehran.

Similarly, in the Arab world culture and tradition play a profound role as a source for contextual references. Many cultural values held in esteem in contemporary Arab societies have their origins in the pre-Islamic period. Studies of Arabic culture usually describe three common basic cultural values: collectivism, honor and hospitality (Feghali, 1997). Feghali (1997) mentioned that social life in the Arab world is characterized by mutual interdependence and situation-centeredness and collectivism, rather than self-reliance or individualism common in Western societies. From this orientation, loyalty to one's extended family as well as the larger "in-group" takes precedence over individual needs and goals (Nydell, 1987). Honor is also a strong value in the Arabic culture and is grounded in the "modesty code" by which family members must abide and which also pertains to the collective property of the family (Jandt, 2001). Again, understanding of these concepts, particularly the emphasis on modesty and honor, is essential for assessing contemporary Arab videogame production.

Another way to characterize Arabic society is through its modal preferences. Amin and Gher (2000) argue that Arabic cultural heritage must be considered when trying to evaluate the impact of digital communication in the Arab world. As they write, "Primary among many cultural issues is the fact that the oral tradition is the preferred mode of communication among Arabic peoples" (p. 136). By the same token, Zaharna (1995) points out that Arabic preferences for oral communication coincide with higher usage of metaphors, analogies and storytelling to establish the emotional qualities of a message. In this mode, communications engage the imagination and feelings of the audience and the distance between the communicator and the audience diminishes (Zakaria, Stanton & Sarkar-Barney, 2003, p. 65).

Finally, in the Arab world and in Iran, the context in which local videogame producers operate includes an increasing emphasis on "de-Westernization" of media and cultural production and on searching for "authentic" Arab, Iranian and/or Muslim expression. In the Arab world, the West figures often as a source of "cultural conquest" and opponents of Westernized cultural content, both within the state and private sectors, act as moral guardians, striving to protect Arab Muslim youth and women (Kraidy & Khalil, 2009, p. 123). In Iran, the state cultural policy directly aims to challenge the "imposed" Western culture and replace it with an "authentic" Islamic culture (Alinejad, 2002). The critique of Western mainstream cultural production often argues that it portrays explicit sexuality, the commoditization of female bodies and desensitizes viewers to violence. According to an Egyptian psychoanalyst, Dr. Khalil Fadel, Western games are responsible for inciting violent behavior among Arab youth because they glorify "solitude, narcissism and hatred of the other." All this reflects the cultural choices of the Westerners who produce them (Mernissi, 2006, p. 121). Some Western games have been banned in several Arab countries, usually due to sexually explicit or violent content, as was the case with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in the United Arab Emirates (Game Politics, 2008). In Iran, some games have been similarly banned. Others, like Call of Duty 4, have been criticized for misrepresenting Islam (Sisler, 2012). In fact a substantial part of strategy and action games based on real or fictitious Middle Eastern conflicts (e.g. Battle in Sadr City or Assault on Iran) tend to portray Arabs, Iranians and Muslims, generally, as enemies within the narrative framework of fundamentalism and international terrorism (Sisler, 2008; Tawil-Souri, 2007; Campbell, 2010). Often these games flatten the diverse ethnic and religious identities of the Muslim world and reconstruct them into a few schematized caricatures.

In response to this, the establishment of an official videogame ratings authority and videogame rating system for the Islamic world was announced at the 3rd Dubai World Game Expo in 2010. The new rating authority, called the Entertainment Software Rating Association (ESRA), was established by the Index Conferences and Exhibitions Organization (ICEO), based in United Arab Emirates. This was done in close cooperation with the Iran National Foundation of Computer Games. The latter is the agency largely responsible for the creation of ESRA, its structure and its protocols, which are designed to evaluate and rate games based on their content (Boots-Faubert, 2010). Behrouz Minaei, the managing director at NFCG, says that the rating system is "designed based on the culture, society and special values of Islam." Anas Al Madani, Vice President of the ICEO, states, "The rating of games is a voluntary system and is intended to ensure that games do not violate any of the Islamic traditions.... We as organizers endorse this initiative, which aims at evolving the Islamic values and maintaining the conservative aspect within the (sic) children and the society in general" (Boots-Faubert, 2010). Given that the rating system is voluntary and producers are only encouraged to adhere to it, it is hard to estimate what its impact will be outside those Muslim states where similar control mechanisms based on Islamic values are already applied. Arab and Iranian game designers have to struggle with the general, negative perception of videogames as Western and anti-Arab or anti-Iranian among religious authorities, parents and policy makers. Now it seems that they have to adhere to Islamic values and cultural norms, if they intend to market their products in Iran or to the generally more conservative Arab societies in the Gulf.

Design Adaptations: Culturally Sensitive Design, Identity Construction and Educational Appeal

Videogame designers can take a number of approaches to ensure the effective use of design concepts based on prevailing cultural values. In the Arab world and Iran these approaches include (a) culturally sensitive design in general, and (b) religious sensitivity, (c) identity construction and (d) educational appeal in particular.

Among these issues, the question of specific Arab or Iranian identity and its construction in videogames seem to be most important to the majority of producers I interviewed both in Iran and in the Arab world. This could be a response to the stereotypes of Arabs, Iranians and Muslims in Western mainstream videogames. As Radwan Kasmiya says, "Most videogames on the market are anti-Arab and anti-Islam.... Arab gamers are playing games that attack their culture, their beliefs and their way of life" (Roumani, 2006). Other Arab videogame producers have expressed similar concern (Sisler, 2008; 2009). As a result, most Arab games available on the market directly deal with the identity of the main hero, the virtual representation of the player's Self, and use different concepts, values and cultural references in the hero's construction. These include, but are not limited to, Bedouin tribal society and its honor code set in the pre-Islamic and early Islamic period in the Syrian game, Quraish; informal settlements in contemporary suburban Cairo juxtaposed against the rural culture of Upper Egypt and its values in the Egyptian game, Abū Hadīd; or the Shi'ite Islamic values of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and the heroized depiction of its struggle with Israeli forces in the 2006 war in the Lebanese game, Special Force 2.  

Similarly, in Iran, independent and state-run producers both share a common belief that Iran and Iranians are misrepresented by global videogame production and that they should strive to present unique, relatable Iranian heroes to their audiences. To this end, the Cultural Institute Tebyan, which is affiliated with the Islamic Propaganda Organization (Sazman-e Tablighat-e Eslami), states, "Computer games can be used for positive or destructive means. The latter represent games preparing the public for military campaigns, such as attacks on Iraq or Afghanistan, and misrepresenting Muslim forces. Authors of these games misuse their monopoly for developing and publishing games.... Therefore we aim to develop games in accordance with Islamic and Iranian values." (Tebyan, 2008) The games produced by the Tebyan Institute aim to foster national pride through the digital reconstruction of key victorious battles from throughout Iranian history. The game, Valfajr 8, is based on Dawn 8, an Iran-Iraq war operation during which Iranian forces captured the Fao peninsula in 1986. Other games directly participate in an ideological and political struggle with the United States and Israel; i.e. the game, Resistance, which is set in the year 2015 and relays a story in which the player controls Hezbollah commandos sent to Israel to seek and destroy a secret military program. Finally, these games also promote Islamic and family values; i.e. the Islamic Sims which openly appropriates a successful Western genre and recasts it in an Islamic fashion (Sisler, 2012).

While the Iranian government perceives videogames as a new semiotic language for youth and therefore uses them to promote Islamic values and foster national pride, many independent producers maneuver within and around the State's interests presenting their own, often quite different, concepts of identity. Unlike government games that adhere to the official communication policy of the Islamic state, the concepts of identity constructed by independent designers reflect their personal experiences, values and beliefs. As Puya Dadgar, the manager of Tehran-based Puya Arts Software, told me, he was disturbed by the way his university colleagues in the US had perceived Iran. So he decided to create a videogame with an Iranian hero, based on Iranian history and culture "that would help people understand Iran." Similarly, Farshad Samimi from the company Tahlil Garan Tadbir told me that they also produce their games for a foreign audience so that "people can understand the Iranian culture and see that Iran has two thousand years of history." In other words, the construction of identity is intertwined with the issue of self-representation through a medium the young designers perceive as relevant to their generation. The games they produce often deal with Iranian history and mythology, such as the game, Garshasp, which is based on the epic poem, Garshasp Naame, and is, according to its authors, "a symbolic recreation of the spirituality, grandeur and mythical atmosphere of ancient Persia." As the authors state, "The treasure trove of Persian mythology contains within it some of humanity's oldest and most profound myths. They recount a rich and ancient culture, meaningful literature and exciting legends that bring to life the excitement of Iranian civilization in all its glory - an experience often lost in the daily travails of modern life." This statement, rather unusual in the realm of digital entertainment, fits with Zandapour and Sadri's (1996, p. 192) claim that Iranian tradition and cultural heritage is highly valued and relied uponin contemporary Iranian society.

Regarding culturally sensitive design, the game, Quraish, in particular meets the Zaharna's (1995) claim of Arab oral culture heritage. Every mission starts with an unusually long and well-developed introductory story narrated in classical Arabic. Through these introductions many concepts of pre-Islamic Arab culture and early Islamic history are communicated to the player, e.g. sharaf and 'ird (Bedouin honor codes), thar (retributive justice) or murūwa (manliness). During particular missions the player takes part in many historic events, such as the war between the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids, and visits places like Hira, Ukaz or Medina. The prophet Muhammad and his Companions (al-sahāba) are present only through their deeds and sayings, since depictions of these religious figures is a highly sensitive cultural issue. At the same time, the "ordinary" visual signifiers, like the Bedouin tents, clothes and facilities have been designed with respect to their historic function and presumed look. The game has been positively received by Arab gamers and has sold more than 50,000 copies (Sisler, 2009). On the other hand, a Syrian game called Zoya (Technisat3D, 2002) that was inspired by the Lara Croft series sold less than a hundred copies in the region. Many claim that the "improper attire" of the female warrior featured on the cover was the reason why the game was unpopular (Kasmiya, 2010). The emphasis on honor and modesty, particularly as relates to female characters, seems to be key to success on the Arab market.

In Iran, the situation is again significantly different. Essentially all cultural production in Iran has to be approved by The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Vezarat-e Ershad) in one way or another in order to be officially published. Therefore, producers automatically adjust their games to the values and rules of the Islamic state. As Puya Dadgar said, "In Iran, nobody is going to make a game with lots of bloodshed, or lots of sex. I don't think anybody is stupid enough to do it. Overall, everybody follows the rules in their mind anyway." As a general rule, violence is not graphically emphasized in Iranian games. Sometimes, the emphasis on the high moral profile of the hero could be the result of the motivations of the authors, not just the expectations of the State. For example, in the independent game, Age of Pahlevans (Asr-e Pahlevanan, Rezana Afzar Sharif, 2009), the main character is Pahlevan, a hero who follows a moral code. The concept of Pahlevan runs deep in Iranian culture. Pahlevan, literally meaning champion, could be a combat hero, a national athlete or a cultural icon. More importantly, he or she has to be distinguished by his/her humanity and moral integrity (Sheibani, 2009).  The focus on ethical and moral values permeates Iranian game production as a whole. As Arash Jafari, one of the authors of Garshasp, told me, "We tried to bring Eastern values into the game, not just, you know, the violence that you can see in Western games."

Age of Pahlevans
Fig. 3. Age of Pahlevans (Rezana Afzar Sharif, 2009)

Finally, many of the developers in the Arab world and Iran emphasize the educational potential of their videogames. Moreover, they often perceive games as a state-of-the-art medium for communicating positive values and fostering cultural dialogue. As Radwan Kasmiya said, "I want videogames to start being more open towards other cultures and to be as balanced as possible. I want them to teach topics that can't be taught easily in schools like courage valuing, accepting others, judging right from wrong and ethics." By the same token, Arash Jafari from the Iranian company, Fanafzar, told me, "We bring a lot of new concepts to the game, like forgiveness and ethics....  So, indirectly, our games can have a positive educational effect because of this underlying moral logic." Farshad Samimi from the Iranian company, Tahlil Garan Tadbir, told me that he wants to "change the way children in Iran play games and let them contemplate why they are playing" in order to foster a "yearning for knowledge among them." Perhaps this perception is simultaneously the result of the negative image videogames generally have in Iran and the Arab world. It could also be a way to combat these stereotypes as well as the fact that videogame producers in the Middle East do not perceive mainstream Western videogames as neutral containers and are therefore not motivated to use their own production as such. In other words, if videogames are able to schematize and stereotype Arabs, Iranians and Muslims, they should inherently be able to serve as a vehicle for cultural dialogue and understanding. As Radwan Kasmiya said, "For Muslims the West is embodied by symbols like Britney Spears; whereas, our culture in Western society is associated with Osama bin Laden .... We are trying to build a bridge - to create a dialogue advantageous for both sides. We are trying to do away with stereotypical thinking."

Concluding Remarks

This chapter discussed videogame development in the Middle East, focusing on Iran and the Arab world. By doing so, it identified the challenges videogame producers in the region face and analyzed the adaptation strategies the producers use in order to overcome these challenges. The fundamental aims of this chapter were to transcend the media-centric logic that typically dominates discussions of new media in the Middle East and to lay down a framework for theorizing videogame development in the region in its broader political, social and cultural contexts. 

What has to be emphasized over and over again is the diversity of cultural and political configurations present in the region. The Middle East is a highly heterogeneous and versatile region, the locus of several world religions, home to a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups and thousands of years of history. Any possible methodological framework can't thoroughly describe all the challenges and the adaptation strategies regional videogame producers have to face. Nevertheless, as we have seen from the interviews, there exists a relatively coherent set of concerns which most of the producers in Iran and the Arab world share and which fundamentally shape their design outcomes and production strategies. These concerns include primarily emphasis on self-representation, personal motivation and engagement and respect for one's traditions, religion and culture. As Mustafa Ashur, one of the designers of the Egyptian game, Abū Hadīd, said, "We are proud that Abu Hadid is one hundred percent Egyptian, from technology to the content" (Dream TV, 2006). With a striking similarity, Puya Dadgar, the author of the game, Quest of Persia, told me, "Quest of Persia is one hundred percent Persian, from music to environments, up to characters."

Nevertheless, given the fact that the genres, platforms and game mechanics the Iranian and Arab games appropriate almost invariably closely follow and/or react to their Western counterparts, what emerges from the Middle Eastern game production is a story of "hybridization" and cross-cultural exchange rather than "authenticity". As Sabry (2010, p. 2) puts it, "the history of the 'Arab' is a history of cultural encounters with others: in no particular order or chronology - the Greeks, Aristotle, Byzantines, Persians, Indians, Romans, Jews, Amazighs, Kurds, Africans, Turks, Chinese, Paganism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Aramaic, Hebrew, Napoleon, Europe, European colonialism, Empire, Marxism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, Rock'n'Roll and much more; yet, it seems, all this common cultural universe, this cosmos of encountering has never stopped people from searching for that one thing they call a pure and 'authentic' Arab identity."

This chapter has tried to analyze what structures and mechanisms lie beneath the encounter with videogames as a socio-cultural phenomenon in Iran and the Arab world. Armbrust (2010) has argued that contemporary Middle Eastern media studies are "relentlessly presentist" and tend to emphasize the transformative effect of media when, in fact, change is a gradual and more complicated process. Taking a different tack, this chapter has anchored the ongoing research on Iranian and Arab videogames in a broader historical, cultural and political context capable of showing how certain practices and processes were determined and how they have evolved.

As Sabry (2010, p. 11) argues, cultural encountering in the twenty-first century, with the spread and "overabundance" of media technologies and floating signifiers of the other, has undermined the role of place as a necessary element of encountering. According to Sabry, witnessing or encountering other cultures now has little to do with physical space and has become more of a symbolic phenomenon. Videogames are now increasingly becoming spaces where cultural encountering takes place and where cultural "authenticity" as well as "hybridity" is simultaneously construed and contested.


I would like to thank Radwan Kasmiya, Hamid Roustaie, Farshad Samimi, Puya Dadgar, Arash Jafari, and Bahram Borghei for the interviews and Ebrahim Mohseni Ahooei, Rioushar Yarveysi, Hamed Rajabi, and Houman Harouni for the invaluable help.


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