In a museum nestled in the heart of Riyadh, young Saudis find themselves captivated by the evolution of video games. From the classic Pac-Man to the cutting-edge PlayStation 5, this display of gaming history is more than just a trip down memory lane. It is part of a larger project called Gamers8 – an eight-week festival of eSports tournaments with a staggering prize pool of $45 million. However, the purpose of this unique initiative extends beyond mere entertainment. Saudi Arabia, a nation known for its love of gaming and eSports, aims to inspire its youth to create their own blockbuster titles.
Saudi Arabia’s passion for gaming is not limited to its masses. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself is reputed to be an avid Call of Duty player. The country’s interest in gaming has led to a $38 billion investment strategy for the Savvy Games Group, aimed at promoting local game production and turning Saudi Arabia into a hub for game developers. As part of this strategy, the Gamers8 festival features not only a museum but also “game labs” where aspiring developers can learn essential skills like coding and animation. This shift from mere consumption to active creation reflects a growing desire to make gaming a vehicle for promoting Saudi and Arabic culture.
While Saudi Arabia boasts a young population with a strong affinity for video games, one challenge remains unsolved – how to design a game that showcases Saudi culture and resonates with international audiences. Faisal bin Homran, the chief eSports officer at the Saudi Esports Federation, acknowledges the difficulty of this task. Currently, there are 25,000 developers, both Saudi and foreign, wrestling with the complex puzzle of blending cultural representation with game design. Homran believes that with the influx of expertise from abroad and the transfer of knowledge, internationally successful Saudi games will emerge. He draws inspiration from characters like Shaheen in Tekken and Rashid in Street Fighter, who already represent Saudi Arabia and the Middle East in popular franchises.
Saudi Arabia’s national gaming and eSports strategy has set tangible goals for the future. By 2030, the kingdom aims to produce 30 internationally competitive games in domestic studios. The potential is evident – despite being relatively unpolished, some Saudi-made games have already struck a chord with local audiences. Khaled Alghaith, a 14-year-old Rocket League enthusiast, expresses his pride and enjoyment when playing games developed by fellow Saudis. He reminisces about a game called “Khashem” (meaning “Nose” in Saudi Arabic), which tells the story of a character who regains his memory through challenges related to his sense of smell. These early successes fuel the hope of unlocking Saudi Arabia’s game development potential.
As the gaming industry in Saudi Arabia gains momentum, concerns about censorship and creative limitations arise. Similar to China’s rise as a game development powerhouse, there is apprehension that Saudi Arabia’s growing influence may lead to a reduction in critical perspectives within games. Tobias Scholz, an eSports expert at Norway’s University of Agder, predicts a shift in development towards a more supportive and positive tone to align with the expectations of Saudi authorities. While this may harbor the risk of stifling creative expression, the excitement surrounding Saudi Arabia’s game development journey is currently overshadowing such concerns.
For young Saudis like Abdulaziz Maher, the Gamers8 experience has been life-changing. Through classes on sound design and 3D landscape navigation, Abdulaziz has discovered a passion for game development he never knew existed. The chaos of ideas in his mind has now found an order, and he sees a clear path ahead. The opportunity to turn his creative ideas into realities that reflect his cultural heritage is both inspiring and empowering. Abdulaziz’s story is a testament to the transformative power of gaming and the potential it holds for Saudi Arabia’s future.
Saudi Arabia is poised to embark on a remarkable journey into the world of game development. With the government’s support and a young population eager to embrace this emerging industry, the kingdom is determined to create a thriving ecosystem for local game developers. As the Gamers8 festival continues to inspire and educate aspiring developers, Saudi Arabia’s dream of becoming an “Eden for game developers” gradually takes shape. While challenges and concerns loom on the horizon, the undeniable passion and talent of Saudi youth serve as a powerful driving force, propelling the nation towards a future where Saudi games captivate global audiences and proudly display Arabian culture.