Tariq Mukhttar has had his upcoming game A Cat's Manor successfully greenlit on Steam, created two indie game development communities in Saudi Arabia, worked with the International Mobile Gaming Awards (IMGA), and helped organize the largest game jam in the region, the Pan-Arabian Zanga Game Jam.
When asked what the indie game scene is like in Saudi Arabia, Mukhttar refers to Rami Ismail's six stages of game dev community development. "Using it as yard stick, we're in Stage 2 mid stride towards Stage 3," he says. "Local devs have found each other and organized gatherings, and have also connected with other dev communities in the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region. International experts have been invited to foster knowledge exchange and mentorship."
Two of the indie game developer communities were founded by Mukhttar himself, with a combined total of over 900 members. Geography, he says, is a major factor in how the communities are organized. "Saudi Arabia is mainly three major regions/cities: East, Mid, West," he explains. "The Western city of Jeddah took the initiative first, and are already an established, organized community.
"The Eastern shores (where I am) had none, so I took the initiative. Being very close to other GCC (Gulf Coalition Countries: UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, KSA) countries enabled me to quickly grow and establish ties with other communities in those countries. The Mid region had a failed meetup community attempt. I stepped in when it was shutting down and turned things around. That's how I ended up with two communities."
Geography isn't the only difference between the two regions, though. "The Mid region has the population density, and most of the established businesses in the creative sector, but is geographically isolated in the middle of the desert and religious law is more observed there," says Mukhttar. "The Eastern region is more metropolitan and open towards neighboring countries, thus more relaxed religiously. Plus, it has a higher percentage of foreign and Western population."
IMGA's involvement in Saudi Arabia is only a couple of months old, since they've only entered the MENA region this year. "They partnered with an established game dev community in Jordan "Gaming Labs", but they needed to promote their activities in the GCC countries. Gaming Labs contacted me to help spread the word through my connections and offered partnership with IMGA," Mukhttar says.
Mukhttar hopes the IGMA's involvement in the region will bring more attention to their game development scene and promote the best of what they have to offer. "This would help change tired old attitudes towards game dev from a childish hobbyist activity to a serious career option," he says. "It would accelerate skill development by facilitating knowledge and expertise exchange."
This is the first year that Mukhttar has been involved in organizing the Pan-Arabian Zanga Game Jam (PAZGJ), though he has participated in it and other game jams before. "I was approached by a friend (one of the founders of the Moroccan Gamedev Community and former Ubisoft developer) who was an organizer and on the judging panel," says Mukhttar. "It was very timely, as I had just gotten involved with the local government GCAM (General Commission for A/V Media) and had their backing to develop the local game dev scene, so the PAZGJ was an obvious choice and I jumped at it."
The PAZGJ is a three-day event with the theme announced at the beginning. People can participate locally or remotely and the winners are chosen via a combination of public voting and jury selection. Its popularity exploded this year, showing a record-breaking 30% growth.
"This year was different in that we gained government interest, which brought media coverage and real sponsors. It really helped portray PAZGJ as a serious and respectable international competition and helped change attitudes towards it from being a 'game' to a 'development'," Mukhttar says.
"But the biggest challenge here is getting the girls to join due to segregation issues we locally have. We're very happy we officially managed to provide females their own official gathering places. GCAM and the local, reputable University of Dammam stepped in to provide us said female facilities," he continues.
Mukhttar says that regulations require the organizers of the PAZGJ to offer gender-segregated locations for participants. Usually, there is a section for males and one for families, with the latter doubling as a space for female participants.
The backing of the government and the university were instrumental in creating a safe space for females to participate. "We have girls here who win international arts and animation competitions... and yet they remain nameless and faceless for fear of breaking society norms," Mukhttar says. "They risk family backlash, and society calling them out. Now, as someone who organizes events, and who sees the huge potential and remarkable skills girls have, I have the difficult challenge of reaching out to them and getting them to participate.
"Anyone who has participated in a Game Jam knows the best part of the jam is being on site with other devs for long hours. Getting girls to leave their homes and participate here is especially challenging for a variety of reasons," explains Mukhttar. "Indie game dev and game jam culture is still seen as wasteful 'playing'. As a result, PAZGJ is yet to be widely recognized here as a respectable competition. Parents don't understand the game dev hobby for boys, let alone girls! And in a society where girls are expected to stay home, spending long jam hours outside is frowned upon."
"That is why it was so important to get the backing of, and the involvement of the Academic establishment, and an official government body. It immediately lends you credibility, respect, and trust, which is very important if girls are to convince their families of participating for long hours outside their homes," Mukhttar says. "That is why a respectable university graciously hosted the event for the girls. It is acceptable here for a girl to spend long days at a university. So it was a natural extension to that acceptance that the PAZGJ be sponsored, labeled, painted as an extra-curricular activity."
"And here's something to consider," suggests Mukhttar. "Neighboring Bahrain hosts the GCC Game Jam. Last year the percentage of girls to boys were the highest of any game jam in the world. So of all the places in the world where you'd expect girls have a powerful presence, it had to be the... Arab countries!"
When asked how religious law impacts game development and marketing in Saudi Arabia in particular and the MENA region in general, Mukhttar responds, "Specifically, for Saudi Arabia I wouldn't call it religious law. It would be more accurate to just call it the law of the land, which is based heavily on accepted interpretation of commandments, and laws found in scripture. So straight off the bat obscenities and lewdness is off the table as far religious laws go. Then you have nationalism concerns. You don't create content that undermines or defames the country."
He continues with an example, prefacing it with a spoiler alert. "The recent Rise of Tomb Raider saw Lara's adventure begins with her finding a tomb of a prophet. The mere mention of the word 'prophet' immediately brings to mind the depiction of religious icons, those men closest to God. This caused a momentary ban of the game here till the content was extensively researched. The uproar from local gamers is what forced the censorship body to take a closer a look and eventually unban the game. Had a developer of Tomb Raider been local, I'd imagine there would've been some serious implications for them.
"As for the rest of the MENA region," says Mukhttar, "while we speak a common tongue, our cultures and religious observance vastly differ. Other MENA countries wouldn't even bat an eye at some of content that we here find extremely offensive."