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Disconnected? Gaming and the Egyptian revolution

Wednesday, 25th 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.

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32 Comments

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  1. ShiroGamer

    \o/

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Patrick Garratt

    :D

    #2 2 years ago
  3. DSB

    Where’s Egpyt at? :P

    Walk like an Egpytian. Totally ruins the rhythm of the song.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Karooo

    That was a great read, Pat. :)

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Patrick Garratt

    Thanks!

    #5 2 years ago
  6. DSB

    I don’t really get the article. It’s interesting to look at how gaming is handled in very different countries, and it’s interesting to learn how it was affected by the revolution, but the angle really bounces in my opinion.

    I’m not really getting a sense of how popular gaming actually is in Egypt, and then it feels like the article gets derailed on peoples connectivity, which was really of little consequence in terms of gaming, and far greater consequence in terms of organizing the resistance.

    That makes it pretty hard to connect with the assumption that gaming mattered to the revolution at all. Just yesterday I watched “½ Revolution” about the first days in Egypt, and I didn’t see anything to support an argument that people cared about gadgets or leisure around that time.

    People were on the streets, they were guarding their neighbourhoods, fighting police, and a lot were concerned with protecting their families. I’m sure that some used gaming as a release, as we all would, but I’m just not buying the idea that it made a difference. It wasn’t a small disturbance, it wasn’t like a French or British riot, it was more like the early stages of a civil war.

    To me it would register a lot more if I knew what gaming in Egypt was all about. I now know that there are gaming cafes, but I don’t know how many, how they’re viewed in general, or whether they have a role in Egyptian society. It would also be interesting to get a bit of contrast in terms of comparing gaming under Mubarak, gaming during the revolution, and gaming under military rule.

    That would also pave the way for a follow-up to gaming under the Islamic Brotherhood.

    … Also I think someone should make a game where you play “Shady Samer Fanous” and “Osama Haggag”.

    Shady and Haggag. Copyrighted.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Patrick Garratt

    The article’s not about whether or not gaming mattered to the revolution, but whether or not gaming can have any relevance to anyone when their country’s blowing up. It did to these people, clearly.

    But yes, I’d love to do a bigger piece on it, go to Cairo, etc.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. badboy_122

    wonderful article Patrick :)

    #8 2 years ago
  9. Patrick Garratt

    Glad you liked it!

    #9 2 years ago
  10. badboy_122

    I live in egypt and the lack of communications in that time was really frustrating .

    also take this

    most popular games in our playstation community are pro evolution soccer and wrestling games

    & most popular games in our PC community are call of duty 4 and counter strike source

    #10 2 years ago
  11. DSB

    @PatGar I wouldn’t go to Cairo for a single story, but that would obviously be amazing :D I think contacting younger journalists there would give you a pretty good idea of the gaming scene from afar.

    Maybe I have the wrong prespective on it. To me it just looks like a good untold story. But one that’s a lot bigger than simply whether gaming matters to some Egyptians.

    That really goes for a lot of the youth in the middle east. We have Iranians right here on the site, and I know from a family member who lived in Dubai that both Egyptians and Iranians are a lot closer to our culture, and our general interests (including gaming) than anyone at home might think.

    It would be a great micro/macro piece. Looking at the state of the youth and Egypt’s future through gaming.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. The_Red

    @11
    Thank you. As an Iranian, this comment makes me glad to see that there are western gamers and people like you. Also thanks to Pat and VG for a rather interesting and unique article like this. Knowing this and seeing American cinema paying attention to an important Iranian movie like “A Separation” (Thanks to Oscar nominations), gives me hope that not everyone is like -Let’s attack Iran and kills “Arabs”-!

    I’m really happy for people of Egypt. I just wish I could have said the same thing about my country. Along with Egyptian revolution, there was a similar movement in Iran a year ago that did continue for a few months. In the end, thousands of Egyptians were killed but at least they finally managed to overthrow the corrupt government. Sadly, only the first and the sadder half of last sentence happened to Iranians that tried to do the same.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. Patrick Garratt

    @11 – Yeah, I agree. There’s a great story in there, for sure. Before I started writing this I honestly knew nothing about gaming in any Arab country, which speaks volumes. Was all very interesting to me, and I’d definitely like to explore it more.

    #13 2 years ago
  14. bpcgos

    @DSB, kind of agree with you! Especially for follow up towards gaming under the Islamic Brotherhood (IB). Personally, I am a fans of IB movements (I’m part of the member of local Islamic Organisation that adopting IB). They showed that Islam can be adopted in any different culture without conflict or under dictatorship (like taliban or islamic kingdom these days).

    BTW, Egypt are much more like my own country (also another 3rd world country) in gaming culture (free to play on PC, jailbreak PS3 on console). Gaming cafe also become common place for people to hangout nowadays. Meanwhile for a non-mainstream PC gamer like me, D2D, Gamersgate, Gog and Steam (with paypal) are better alternatives than the expensive local retail online store.

    BTW, love the coverage, pat!

    #14 2 years ago
  15. The_Red

    @13 A quick note: Iran is not an Arab country but it does have some similarities to points mentioned in the article like the piracy, game prices and yearly income.

    One big difference in Iran however, is that the government has BANNED the sale of legit copies of games. If they see you sell a normal copy of a PS3 game or 360, you’ll be arrested and your business well be closed. BUT! If you buy a cheap $1 copy with censored content, it’s ok. So, pirates in Iran are actually obeying the government’s laws while people that try to support their fave industry buy paying for real / legit copies are considered criminals!

    #15 2 years ago
  16. Patrick Garratt

    @14 – Glad you liked it, dude!

    #16 2 years ago
  17. ManuOtaku

    #15 the same thing happened here in venezuela, the government also did banned the sale of videogames, especially the violent ones, we can only find on the store sports games, and music games, if a gamer wants to find a legit game, they need to go to the black market, where it costs 200$ and even more, even a game like kane and lynch that costs 10$ on amazon, is costing 200$ here, for that i feel your pain, hey by the way is no coincidence that both presidents are that close and do almost the same things.

    #17 2 years ago
  18. GwynbleiddiuM

    Pat, make a trip to Iran and let me show you how difficult is to game around here. How games and gamers are being treated.

    But I really liked your article.

    Here we also used facebook and twitter for spreading the word and arranging protests even when they blocked the said sites, we used vpns to inform people, mass email sent to everyone.

    Now the government tightened the leash on gaming these days. They blocked many gaming sites including Joystiq.com, IGN, CVG, Massively (which is also a part of joystiq’s domain), Gamasutra, Destructoid, etc. even Gamespot was blocked a couple of months ago. STEAM! Steam is blocked (and it’s so hard for me to buy games now). Mainly because they’re seeing video games as a treat to the Islamic culture and values that they tried so hard to brainwash people with, because they think one of the reasons that made the Iranian uproar was the fact they have forgotten the values of the Islamic culture and replaced that traditions and teachings with the western propaganda that were in the video games, load of crap you’d think, but it’s true in their eyes.

    They generally believe all sorts of medias are there to combat these values. They banned every foreign news agency from Iran and you don’t how idiotically they’re reacting to licence revoke of their precious Press TV. Madness…

    #18 2 years ago
  19. badboy_122

    in egypt they don’t ban games actually they don’t ban anything :) ..maybe the only thing they banned was [ the davinci code ] from screening at cinemas but if you searched the bookstores you’ll find the book and the movie itself was out on DVDs ..but the prices are hellishly high ..really high

    the way you spend $1 is like us spending (EGP)1 ..imagine that you’re paying $49 for a game and we’re paying 5.5 times that price in EGP for that certain game.. you’ll want to smash your head in the wall

    #19 2 years ago
  20. Patrick Garratt

    @18 – I can’t believe we’re not blocked in Iran. I feel left out.

    Seriously, though, that’s harsh. If you and some people you know were willing to talk to me about it, I’d love to do an article on gaming in Iran. Drop me an email if you like: patrick@vg247.com.

    #20 2 years ago
  21. GwynbleiddiuM

    I will, thanks Pat.

    Though if you were blocked it would’ve sucked cause I check this place out multiple times a day, even weekends were you guys usually don’t have updates. There aren’t many places I visit, but here, mmo-champion, diablofans, massively and mmorpg.com are on top of my daily browsing list. Without VG247 there only would be bluesnews left for me to get first hand news.

    #21 2 years ago
  22. KrazyKraut

    Interesting article. But Pat just put the youtube video on this page, because he maybe knows what I would say^^

    Anyway, it shows us how gaming is becoming a big part of our lives and it doesnt matter what country you live. Like movies (and cinemas) some decades ago. I am interested how gaming is affected in stricter regimes like Iran, Irak or Afgahnistan, too.

    @GwynbleiddiuM
    be careful mate… :(

    #22 2 years ago
  23. Patrick Garratt

    @21, 22 – Yeah, don’t do it if you could get into serious trouble. I’m all for the journalism, but…

    #23 2 years ago
  24. Ireland Michael

    Distasteful.

    #24 2 years ago
  25. R3D_ONE

    I’m Egyptian and getting games in here is a hard task to do and it’s even harder to support some developer by buying their game like how i wanted to support Skyrim Developers by buying it , however steam is region locked for Russian cd-keys making it hard to activate from Egypt,on the other hand buying unlocked EU and US Keys are twice More Expensive , i already bought Battlefield 3 Russian Key ofc and some other games but it would be great if steam lifted their Region Locking thingy and alow us to activate it from anyplace in the world , as buying from Russian site to get the best price is a hard task it self,returning to the article after the Disconnection happened,pretty much our life ” gamers ” was summarized into : Eating,Watching News,Praying,Securing our neighborhood at night till dawn,checking the Internet Situation” however it made us as a gamers not to be isolated from our society as it needed us, So far I bought 5 games to support the Developers only from Russian Sites.
    Thanks Patrick for Posting this, it’s great to see that gaming world would count middle-eastern Gamers as a part of them, thanks again Patrick i liked it very much

    #25 2 years ago
  26. Patrick Garratt

    @25 – You’re welcome. Glad you liked it. Hope I can do more.

    #26 2 years ago
  27. NinjaMidget

    Great article Pat, really interesting read! I currently live with an Iranian fellow on campus here at university and whilst we’ve already talked about the state of the Iranian government, this article makes me want to ask him about gaming in Iran!

    VG247 doing some fantastic features these days, keep up the fantastic work!

    #27 2 years ago
  28. Patrick Garratt

    @27 – Cheers! Glad you liked it!

    #28 2 years ago
  29. OlderGamer

    I thought it was an interesting look into a window that we don’t often get a chance to see. Thats one of the reasons I enjoy stopping by, the flavor of VG247 goes beyond my own little corner of the world.

    #29 2 years ago
  30. LOLshock94

    needs more dragons

    #30 2 years ago
  31. mathare92

    Just needs a little more in-depth research to provide a broader view on the topic. Great effort, nonetheless.

    #31 2 years ago
  32. Klaxusprime

    Great article.. Chapeau!

    #32 2 years ago