In the Arabic artwork for a mobile game, the lead character does not bare his abs like he used to. Elsewhere, a woman’s bodysuit has been refashioned to include a flared skirt.
These are the works of Jordan-based Tamatem Games, which translates and localises international mobile games for an Arab audience. Since 2013, the gaming company has released over 50 games like VIP Belote, Hollywood Story, My Story and Clash of Empire for consumers in the region. In an interview via Google Meet, product manager Shorouq Ghneim — who oversaw 15 of these projects — talks about the rise in demand for localised Arabic content that’s relatable and culturally appropriate, and how they try to change stereotypical representations of Arabs in games through their work.
Learning through gaming
As a 90s kid, Shorouq grew up playing on video game consoles like Atari. The advent of PCs was a turning point although like most parents, her parents viewed gaming with a great deal of skepticism and allotted only a grand total of 30 minutes to her and her two siblings for play. “We took turns and always wanted to play more,” she smiles.
Back then, Shorouq’s favourite video game was The Sims as it allowed her to create and design structures, like houses. “I think gaming helps you learn a lot of things without even realising it,” she says. The 31-year-old loved gaming enough to study and make a career out of it — in college, she got degrees in motion graphics, interactive design and game development and went on to work in UI/UX design, interactive and motion graphics, design, advertising, creative direction and, more recently, product development and management.
The demand for Arabic content
Shorouq points out that Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world and yet, only less than five per cent of online content is available in the language. “There are 400 million Arabic smartphone users in MENA,” she points out.
Secondly, the representation of Arab characters in games has always been, to put it mildly, problematic — gaming writers and websites have called out the villainisation of such characters. Shorouq says that although she hasn’t personally worked on such projects, such stereotypes annoy her as a gamer. “When foreign companies try to publish a game targeted at the Arab audience and include Arab characters, they usually end up looking like Aladdin which is a very stereotypical representation of Arabs,” she says. “They put female characters either in a face cover or a black burqa, and men are given the hatta, the robe, everything. This is a part of our culture, but it’s also a small part of our culture. The Arab world is much more than that, in my opinion.”
They have also been criticised for failing to accurately recreate sprawling, buzzing cities from the region. “They have no idea how our cities look — there’s always a camel somewhere in the desert which you can ride to school and back,” says Shorouq. “It’s frustrating and infuriating because this is not how we live, but people will begin to think it is.”
The cultural differences between various regions are also usually a blind spot. “Instead, they think of the Arab world as one unit,” she adds. “Someone from Saudi Arabia in the Gulf region is very different from someone from the Levant, like Jordan and Lebanon.” Their cultural and traditional differences are seen everywhere — in their architecture, furniture, fashion and art — but usually go unacknowledged in games.
Localising an international game
“I don’t think it’s very difficult to present an Arab hero in a game,” continues Shorouq. “He is a regular hero or character, who is just more modestly dressed. That’s what we aim for. We keep it simple as we don’t want to speak to the Gulf user at the risk of alienating the Levantine user and vice versa. So, if the original character is wearing a revealing outfit, we tweak the design here and there to cover it up enough to suit the culture of the region but we don’t go as far as covering the hair or covering the face because that’s widely accepted in many Arab countries.”
Sometimes, the team changes a game’s original story completely if it clashes with the audience’s cultural beliefs. “For instance, if we have a story-based game about dating, we might completely scrap that story as that’s inappropriate for our culture, and start from scratch by creating our own story.”
They also try to infuse a ‘sense of culturalisation’ and ‘Middle Eastern flair’ into the games. “During holidays like Eid al-Adha, we include characters that are local and add a story about it in the game.” She adds that they also redesign the game’s user interface to reflect the holiday spirit by changing the interiors of rooms and adding home decor items that are typically found in homes — like the traditional Arabian pitcher or jug, glass lights and lamps, and pictures of religious texts and whirling dervishes.
One of her most interesting and intense projects was localising the game Hollywood Story by gaming studio Nanobit. The team localised, renamed and published it in 2020 in the MENA region as Fashion Queen. It was an instant hit, says Shorouq, with more than 10 million downloads. “The original story of the game was about the main character trying to make it in Hollywood as a star. We decided to make it about fashion instead because youngsters in our region are very into it, more than acting.”
She explains that in the original game, the player proceeded to the next level by filming movies and TV shows that were already built into the game so she and her team painstakingly went over the storylines of more than 300 movies and TV shows to check whether they were appropriate for their audience. “We had to change or fix some of them,” she says. “More recently, we’ve adapted it even more to our local culture. For instance, we created a new character in the game called Arub — she’s a hijabi and has a specific story for Eid Al-Adha, which you can play along with. And people love it.”
“Most people in the region learn to speak English as a second language,” she continues. “But at the end of the day, Arabic is our first language and naturally, we would much rather consume content in our native language.”
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