Video gaming in the UAE

We speak to Dubai gamers ahead of Games12 expo in Festival City

Tekken Tag Tournament 2
Tekken Tag Tournament 2
IGN Middle East founder Hitesh Uchil
IGN Middle East founder Hitesh Uchil
Time In
One Piece: Pirate Warriors
One Piece: Pirate Warriors
Rise of the Guardians
Rise of the Guardians

The gaming scene in the UAE has exploded in popularity in recent years – at least if Dubai’s annual games festival is anything to go by. In 2008, about 500 media types gathered in a back room at the Grand Hyatt to get excited about the latest gaming trends at Games8, the UAE’s first games expo. Fast-forward three years and 40,000 gamers descended on The Dubai Mall for Games11, queuing round the metaphorical block to get their hands on the latest releases and technology. What happened?

While it would be an overstatement to say Dubai’s gaming scene had multiplied by 80 times (the 2008 event was invite-only), the event’s surging attendance figures can’t be ignored as a barometer of Dubai’s thirst for gaming. The first public event in 2009 attracted 10,000 visitors, doubling to 20,000 a year later, before peaking at 40,000 last year. This year’s Games12, shifted to Festival City and expanded to three days, could smash even that.

‘The gaming scene in the UAE has grown because of a very youthful population, high spending capacities and great retail environments,’ said Nitin Mathew, CEO of Cygnus Communications, the organiser of Games12. ‘It’s going to keep growing.’

Compared with the Western world, the region’s games industry is relatively tiny: in 2010, Mathew estimated the industry was worth Dhs2.8 billion a year – in the same year, the US market was worth Dhs66 billion. But the local industry is growing. Internet use in the region multiplied by more than 16 times between 2000 and 2011, with 38 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion internet users from the Arab world. And around 400,000 consoles are sold in the UAE alone every year.

Significantly, the region’s two-handed embrace of gaming is no longer going unnoticed by the industry. For the first time best-selling football game franchise FIFA will include the Saudi Arabian league in its FIFA 13 edition – and will even feature Saudi player Abdulaziz Al Dosari on the front cover.

‘This is massive for the region,’ enthuses Hitesh Uchil, the 31-year-old founder of IGN Middle East, a Dubai-based gaming website that attracts more than a million visitors a month. ‘It shows the big companies taking notice of the Middle East for the first time.’

Business minds have been smart to tap into this enthusiasm with a number of huge arcades in the emirate. Sega Republic in The Dubai Mall is a 7,000 sq m theme park split into five themed zones featuring more than 250 games, with everything from primitive arcade bashers to cutting-edge motion simulators. The most popular attractions include Spin Gear, Wild Series and Half Pipe Canyon rides, according to an Emaar Retail spokesperson.

But hardcore gamers are unlikely to be found at these glitzy emporiums, instead haunting the large network of gamers’ cafés spread across the city, such as the Golden Hall in Oud Metha, E-Zone in Abu Hail, the Living Rooms games café in Festival City and Ground Zero in JBR. These bustling, (almost) trendy cafés are example of how a once-nerdy pastime has moved overground and into mainstream Dubai. ‘A few years ago, if you asked me to describe a typical gamer it would be someone down in the basement on their own playing SAS games,’ explains Uchil, an Indian expat who grew up in Dubai. ‘But right now gamers are everywhere – I can’t stop my mum playing Angry Birds.’

The most popular games in the region include the aforementioned FIFA series, which allows players to control an entire international or club football team; Diablo III, a role-playing fantasy where players explore spooky terrains; and Call of Duty, a tactical military shoot ’em up. Such games have traditionally sparked legitimate concerns about the detrimental effects of gaming on the mind. However, Dubai-based clinical psychologist Amy Baily says there can be significant cognitive benefits to using games, especially in younger children, but warns against overexposure. ‘Computer games are a really good educational tool because children relate well to them,’ she explains. ‘There’s evidence that games can help develop coordination and perception skills, and help attention-keeping. The problem is if you play too much, it becomes destructive. You can have an addiction to gaming in the same way you can to alcohol. If you don’t have access to a computer, it’s all consuming and there are withdrawal symptoms – a physical reaction to the games being taken away.’

Psychosocial studies indicate that violent games, such as Call of Duty, can lead to a greater likelihood of antisocial behaviour. ‘There’s no firm evidence that links games with criminal behaviour, but it does desensitise people to violence so they become more aggressive,’ adds Baily. ‘Something you may have found upsetting or shocking before [playing the game] has to be more violent to have the same impact. Some games are so graphic it can be worrying.’

Overall, the message is clear. Gaming can be fun, relaxing, and sociable, whether online or at a bustling arcade or gaming café. But like so many other leisure pursuits, you can have too much of a good thing. ‘As long as you use [games] sensibly and in moderation gaming has benefits,’ concludes Baily. ‘It’s about how you use computers – rather than how they use you.’
Games12 takes place on September 20-21, 2pm-11pm and September 22, 11am-11pm at Dubai Festival City. Entry is free. To try the games for yourself, visit games cafés Golden Hall (, 04 335 0901), E-Zone (04 269 0272), Living Rooms (, 04 232 9291) and Ground Zero (04 422 7935).

View essential new gaming releases

Essential new releases

Plug in and get practising…

Tekken Tag Tournament 2
The long-awaited eighth instalment of the Japanese arcade beat ’em up features a plot of sorts, as well as a ‘dream match’ function giving fans the chance to play as almost every character in the series so far. Released September 14. Dhs249; PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

One Piece: Pirate Warriors
Released to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the One Piece manga franchise, this story follows Monkey D Luffy, who organises a diverse crew of pirates to hunt for treasure.
Released September 21. Dhs259, PlayStation 3.

Rise of the Guardians
An adaptation of DreamWorks’ 3D blockbuster of the same name, the game allows players to control any of the four guardians and work in teams of up to four players.
Released November 23. Dhs199, Nintendo DS and 3DS, PlayStation 3, Wii and Wii U, Xbox 360.

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