At Abu Dhabi: The Rise of Arab Representation in Video Games

In News by Hannah Johnson

Video game experts at the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries explored how to translate Arabic culture into authentic gaming experiences.

‘Cross-Border Storytelling through Game Adaptations’ at the 2024 International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries. From left are Edward Nawotka of Publishers Weekly; Essam Bukhary, CEO of Manga Productions; Mohamed Zaher, Middle East and North Africa region analyst at Niko Partners; and Fawzi Mesmar, vice-president of editorial at Ubisoft. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Hannah Johnson

By Hannah Johnson | @HannahSJohnson

‘Proudly Producing and Exporting Our Original Content’
The Arab video game market is on the rise according to panelists at the 2024 International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries in Abu Dhabi, who explored how the region’s rich storytelling traditions are being adapted into compelling video-game narratives.

The panel Cross-Border Storytelling Through Game Adaptations featured Fawzi Mesmar, vice-president of editorial at Ubisoft; Essam Bukhary, CEO of Saudi animation studio Manga Productions; and Mohamed Zaher, Middle East and North Africa region analyst at the gaming-research firm Niko Partners. It was moderated by Edward Nawotka of Publishers Weekly.

Bukhary’s Manga Productions is a subsidiary of the Misk Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Saudi Arabia that supports entrepreneurship, education, and culture. He spoke about the studio’s work producing games and animation, as well as its program to train Saudi animators through internships in Japan since 2017.

“For a long time,” Bukhary said, “we were a country that consumed imported content. Now we’re proudly producing our original content and exporting it.”

Reflecting Arab culture in new content was a theme across many discussions at the congress, and it’s a topic of interest to both creators and businesses that support them.

Zaher of Niko Partners pointed out that the Middle East and North Africa region has become a lucrative US$1.9 billion gaming market with 86 million gamers, led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Looking at Niko’s surveys and research, Zaher said that 73 percent of Gulf Cooperation Council-area gamers want to see Arabic cultural representation in games.

Ubisoft‘s Mesmar pointed to Assassin’s Creed as an early example of a video game that incorporated both the Arabic language and culture, saying it was one of the few games available in Arabic from beginning to end. (Read our interview with Fawzi Mesmar to learn more about his mission to bring more Arab voices to video games.)

Mesmer challenged creators, however, to go beyond surface representations of “deserts and camels” to deeply explore iconic Arabic values, such as hospitality. “It’s not about creating something exotic, but something iconic,” he said.

The panelists said they agreed that going beyond mere localization to create original Arabic narratives and intellectual properties was crucial. Zaher said that this involves not only thinking about regional dialects and the diversity of the Arab world, but also integrating cultural details into gameplay.

The speakers reinforced the assessment that the creation of authentic Arabic game content is on the rise, as the industry diversifies and expands across the Middle East and North Africa region. “Gone are the days when I was the only Arabic game developer,” Mesmar said. “These people are adding their voices, and that’s showing in the output.”

The panel closed with a call for the next generation to take pride in lifting up Arabic language and culture. “You get support that other people in the world envy you for,” Bukhary told aspiring creators.

More About Congress PCI

At the 2024 International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries. Image: Congress PCI

Now in its third year, the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries is organized by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre and takes place the day before the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair opens. Organizers say they intend to continue expanding this conference event into “a knowledge-sharing hub for regional and global publishing and creative content developers in the Arab market.”

In addition to a full day of professional discussions, the program includes workshops and masterclasses for creative professionals and students, as well as an exhibition of technology and creative companies working in the Arab world and internationally.

Follow Publishing Perspectives for more coverage of this year’s “Congress PCI.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on the Abu Dhabi International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries is here, more on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here, more from us on book fairs and trade shows in world publishing is here, more on the creative industries is here, and more on Arabic in the publishing world is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, another program produced by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre.

About the Author

Hannah Johnson

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Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.