Even with the sound of distant shelling rattling the windows, LAN centers in the often blacked-out Yemeni capital of Sanaa always host a steady stream of youthful revolutionaries, or politically apathetic FIFA soccer nerds, rapping away on keyboards and Playstation controllers.
Yemen is the Arab World’s poorest country, but many of its younger citizens still manage to play video games in their spare time, even on days when real life violence flares. FIFA, Electronic Art’s popular soccer title, is far and away Yemen’s most-played video game. Other titles like Counterstrike 1.6 and Red Alert are not far behind.
When you are gaming in a public LAN center in a capital gripped by revolution, political instability and shortages of just about everything, however, the power will always eventually go out.
Gamers cry “Ya Rab!” — meaning “oh lord” — in desperation when their matches are cut short. They angrily slam half-empty glasses of tea down on tables and head back into the newly-darkened streets.
No matter the obstacles, though, Yemen's gamers always find a way — a testament to the growing popularity of gaming across the Middle East and North Arica. The Arab world now has one of the fastest-growing communities of gamers around, according to a report by Reuters and statistics released by Sindibad Business, a research group based in the United Arab Emirates.
According to Sindibad, about 60 percent of the 350 million people in the Arab world are younger than 25, with internet penetration in the region at about 70 million users, a more than 300 percent increase over the last five years. Internet penetration is expected to reach 150 million users by 2015, Bahjat Homsi, the company's founder, told Reuters.
Reuters also cited the success of one of the world’s first Arabic language video games, Unearthed: The Trail of Ibn Battuta, which is essentially a no-frills rip off of the game Uncharted. In Unearthed, you play Fares, a young Arab adventurer in search of the lost works of Ibn Battuta, a famed 14th century Arab explorer that chronicled his travels across Africa and Asia. The game can be played in both Arabic and English.
The YouTube video was posted to popular Saudi Arabia-based gaming news site SaudiGamer.com, one of the first websites of its kind in the Arab world. The founder of the site, Mashhoor al-Dubayan, told Reuters that the increasing interest in his site has boosted his gaming ambitions from a hobby to a viable commercial proposition.
"After just a year of running it, we started seeing a business opportunity and began relationships with major companies (as sponsors). Next week, I'll be leaving my job to stay with SaudiGamer full-time," he said.
Electronic Arts is also looking to release Arabic language versions of FIFA in 2012. Other large US- and Europe-based developers are also hoping to expand their reach in the Arab World as well.
In places like Yemen and other poor or rural parts of the Arab World, internet penetration still hasn’t broken 10 percent. But that hasn’t stopped pioneering Arab nerds from building their own computers, setting up LAN networks, and playing their favorite games.