Disconnected? Gaming and the Egyptian revolution

Wednesday, 25 January 2012 09:49 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Can the luxury of video gaming hold any relevance amid violent regime change? As Egpyt marks the anniversary of its revolution and the world looks back on more than a year of the Arab Spring, Patrick Garratt goes in search of answers.

“I would definitely say that since the revolution started the hours I spend playing games on my computer have decreased. How could someone turn a blind eye to his brothers, who are dying every day in hopes of making their country a better place to live in, and still be in the right mood to enjoy a quick game?”

January 25, 2011, was a landmark event in Egyptian history, as the North African nation began its latest revolution in earnest. President Hosni Mubarak’s government was eventually overthrown in one of the Arab Spring’s most significant upsets, a series of events which has affected every aspect of Egyptian society.

It’s difficult to argue that the concept of play and the luxury of entertaining oneself with video games can hold relevance when a country melts down on a level seen in Egypt last January. In any case, the question of whether or not it mattered was rendered moot, for online gaming at least, a day after the protest seriously started; on January 26, the panicking Mubarak regime threw the switch on the Egyptian internet in an effort to stem organisation efforts among revolutionaries on social networking sites.

“It did stop people playing video games, but mainly it stopped people communicating,” 23 year-old student Sherif Abdelhay tells me, speaking in Cairo.

“[The protests were] all arranged through Facebook and Twitter, people wanting to know how to make their next move or to make sure their friends were OK. They cut the cell phone lines as well. All the networks were down, so if you had a friend down there the only way to make sure he or she was OK was to physically go there, which is part of the reason the whole thing erupted more than they had imagined.

“It affected gaming, but we don’t have that many people who game online that their lives were shattered because they lost their internet connection.”

While Abdelhay is philosophical about the importance of gaming during such exceptional social circumstances, the revolution did have an impact on his gaming habits and therefore a significant part of his social life.

“I cared because it’s a hobby of mine, but for other people it’s fine. They just go down the street and play some PlayStation,” he said, referencing public gaming centres in Cairo.

“But I didn’t like it. Most of my friends live abroad and we connect on the internet almost daily, and gaming’s a part of that. The other thing is that there was, and still is, an oppressive government. It was trying to disconnect these people.”

Disconnect

Shady Samer Fanous, an 18 year-old Cairo student, agreed that the main impact of the revolution on Egyptian gaming has been on the availability of internet connections. Even though Egypt’s connection was restored after a few days of being cut by the authorities, it was unusable.

“It was much worse, making any low-ping-reliant game almost impossible to play,” he says.

It’s easy to believe that leisure activities would cease to matter during a time of such upheaval. We’ve seen images of stunning brutality against the Egyptian public in the past 12 months, of people beaten to death by authorities on camera. But just as the reality of modern day Egypt can be terrifying, the unreality of games can allow for escapism and destressing.

Says Abdelhay: “It’s on this physical level that I can disconnect from that reality and culture. I can’t speak for all Egyptian youth, but I think differently from a lot of people in terms of religion, culture, how women should be treated and other subjects. I’m more comfortable with people that I know share my views.”

While Fanous said he doesn’t use games to escape the contemporary Egyptian reality, he plays “games simply to relax from the stress us Egyptians experience every day, especially if you’re a student and have to deal with exams as well.”

Osama Haggag, a unemployed 23 year-old computer engineer, has also used games to relax in the past year.

Gaming centres in Cairo focus on
PlayStation and PC games, charging
fees to play.

“During the 18 days of protests, I would alternate between going to Al Tahrir and safeguarding my neighbourhood due to the lack of police,” he says. “While at home I was either watching news, or unwinding a bit by playing Steam games on offline mode as we were cut off the internet.”

While he uses games to calm down, though, Fanous believes it’s important to maintain a fix on what’s happening in the real world.

“I would definitely say that since the revolution started the hours I spend playing games on my computer have decreased. How could someone turn a blind eye to his brothers, who are dying every day in hopes of making their country a better place to live in, and still be in the right mood to enjoy a quick game?”

Poverty line

While some are fortunate enough to have gaming as a release from the violence seen in Egypt in the past year, for many there’s no respite. Gaming in Egpyt is far removed from the communities and industries we’re more familiar with in Europe and the US.

Only a small part of the population buys games as they’re relatively expensive. Import taxes have a large part to play in forcing up prices of physical games, while digital titles suffer from poor currency conversions from US dollars and euros to the Egyptian pound. Social unrest has had a large impact on exchange rates, making games even pricier.

Mohammed, the owner of Egyptian online retailer Gamesword, tells me that the revolution greatly affected business.

“Sales completely stopped for more than a month,” he says. “The internet and phone lines were cut off for a period of time, and there were no ways to place orders. Plus, everyone was neck deep in politics at that time. It wasn’t safe even to walk the streets during a certain period, so less attention was directed to games. All that caught people’s attention at that time was food and safety.”

As time wore on, though, people began to move back to buying games.

“After March, business began flourishing again and we got back on our feet,” Mohammed adds. “But the change in the exchange rates after the revolution has affected us negatively, as the Egyptian pound fell in comparison to the dollar or the British pound, which made it more expensive to import games from North American and EU suppliers.”

With prices starting high and being pushed higher, it’s not hard to see why piracy is a norm of gaming life in Egypt: this is not a rich nation, in which spending money on luxuries such as video games is an everyday occurrence. Around ten stores in Cairo stock what Abdelhay calls “the cheaper games”. These shops sell pirated Xbox 360 games for EGP£5-10 (£1) alongside genuine PlayStation 3 software. Uncharted 3 might cost EGP£320 (£35) from a local store, but the same in Virgin could cost up to EGP£500 (£50).

Any way of cheapening software provides a boost to Egyptian gaming, revolution or not. Recently, for example, the availability of Russian CD keys for triple-A PC games has been seized upon with gusto.

“During the 18 days of protests, I would alternate between going to Al Tahrir and safeguarding my neighbourhood due to the lack of police. While at home I was either watching news, or unwinding a bit by playing Steam games on offline mode as we were cut off the internet.”

“Russian CD keys are much cheaper than ones from the US and Europe,” says Abdelhay. “I’ve noticed in the past year that people are buying them in bulk then selling them to Egyptian people on Egyptian and Arabic forums. It comes out immensely cheaper. If you’re buying a PC game on Steam, for example, you’re paying US$60 or EGP£350; if you’re buying it from this dude that sells Russian keys you get it for EGP£100-150. It’s insanely low, and it’s created communities for online games.”

To understand why Egyptians either pirate games or look for other methods to reduce their retail costs, it’s necessary to put these figures into perspective. An entry employee at Vodafone in Egypt, for example, could earn EGP£19,200 (€2,442, £2,042, $3,180) per year. That’s £39 per week. Abdelhay tells me an average wage might be EGP£700-1,000 per month. According to a 2005 survey, 44.4% of all Egyptians are “near poor” or below. Of the entire population, 3.8% is classed as “extreme poor,” meaning they’re unable to provide themselves with basic food requirements, even if they spent their entire financial resources on eating. Over 20 million Egyptians, around one in five people, have consumption expenditure below the poverty line and can’t fulfil basic food and non-food needs.

For the average Egyptian, the idea of buying a video game in any form comes a long way behind putting food on the table. For many, the idea of buying a genuine game on a disc in a shop like Virgin is essentially meaningless.

PlayStation nation

Levels of income don’t just drive piracy among Egyptian gamers; they also dictate formats.

“Pretty much 95% of the people I know have PCs at home,” says Abdelhay. “PC gaming is more accessible as you can run any game on any PC. Obviously, you have to buy hardware to crank everything up, but people look at the console as the more expensive investment, even though it’s not: you need to buy the device, an HD TV and so on. They have cheaper games and there are no upgrades, but, because people are using their PCs for other means, it looks as though it’s a cheaper alternative to them.”

As far as console preferences go, Egypt is a PlayStation nation. Retailer Mohammed reckons the ratio of PS3 to Xbox 360 games he sells is 7:1. The leaning towards PC and PlayStation machines as a format is manifest in gaming centres dotted around Cairo, cafe-style establishments where people can get together and play.

These come in two flavours; console and PC. In the PlayStation places, people generally play football games. The PC shops tend to be full of people playing free-to-play MMOs and first-person shooters, games like Silkroad, Conquer and CrossFire. These cafes range from anything from a small place in a poor area, with two or three TVs and some consoles, up to shops in wealthier suburbs where you get your own room, an HDTV and a console, and you can order drinks. People pay anything from as little EGP£2 (£0.20) up to EGP£20 (£2) to play.

Images of police and military brutality in
Egypt in the last year have shocked the
world. Some use games as a means to
distance themselves from the violence.
Warning: graphic.

The revolution, as you’d imagine, hit this social scene hard.

“They had lost a huge amount of money at that same time last year because of the lack of internet and the fact that parents wouldn’t send their kids down to these places, fearing for their safety,” says Abdelhay.

Student Fanous said the revolution caused a “lack of tournaments and consequently a lack of gaming sponsors. Tournaments were much less this year and were focused on a lower number of games than the year before because not only were people simply too afraid to go down on the streets, but also most people’s concentration was on the aftermath of the revolution.”

Gaming has been an important part of the Egyptian revolution for some young people, providing a release from violence. Games are used in Egypt for many as a means of socialising, and revolution has taken this away from them in the short term, making it more difficult for them to compete and relax.

One year on from the birth of the new Egypt, it’s easy to say games don’t matter when a country turns in on itself: speaking to the people that lived it, however, proves the issue of gaming’s relevance to seismic shifting in the developing world is not as clear cut as one may like to believe.

[Pic]

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