All right, so let's start this. My name is Yousif Alroumi, and I'm from Kuwait. I'm the founder of a company called Fikra, which is an event management company dedicated to doing videogame-related events in Kuwait and the Middle East. I'm 35 years old.
Okay, well, so, you had sent over those YouTube links. There was a 17-minute -- I guess you called it a mini-documentary.
Yeah, I know the one you're talking about.
It's about KBR 2016, and what I noticed watching it was that almost everyone says they were impressed or surprised by the nerd and geek culture in Kuwait.
Some of them are even surprised about what Kuwait looks like. What do you think they mean and what do you think they're expecting?
Well, that's actually a simple question to answer. There was a large group of people -- I mean, not just that interview, but people that who came to Kuwait before I even shot that interview. They all had this idea that, like, a very stereotypical idea of what an Arab country would look like. So, some of them literally thought we're gonna make them sleep in tents and ride camels to the tournament or the convention. And they literally meant that. [Laughs.] They really thought that that's what's gonna happen. I mean, one of them even said he thought he was gonna go to a mini Aladdin or something, you know?
Is that people from the U.S., or where in the world? Is it overall people have that?
Overall. I mean, each -- we've had people come from Japan, from the U.S., from Canada, from Europe, Singapore, and various other different countries. They all had -- I mean, except for one person, every single one of them had some kind of stereotypical idea of what Kuwait would look like. It was obviously nothing like what they expected and that's why they were shocked.
You told me that game companies have told you that they feel the Middle East -- I'm quoting directly from your email -- "doesn't have electricity. That we all ride camels. That we don't have internet." I know that that's been a big push that you're trying to do with the conference, is to try to get the country and the culture on the radar of the industry. But what sort of perceptions and rejections have you gotten from game industry as far as why they shouldn't help bolster your efforts?
Well, I'm just gonna talk about a specific experience I had a few years back. There was a big AAA game publisher that I was talking to and this was about five years ago. This was at the time of doing the first KBR. So, KBR just for reference, is Kuwait Battle Royale, which is the largest fighting game tournament in the Middle East. So, I approached this company and one of the games that they're famous for is famous games. I approached their regional manager. They actually had an office in the Emirates. In Dubai. So, I said to myself, "Okay, wow. This is gonna be easy. I don't have to really convince them much. This should be a 10-minute meeting or something."
We were supposed to have a famous French pro player -- she's a female, she's a girl -- that was gonna come to Kuwait. And she's famous for one of their games. I thought to myself, "If I tell this company that this girl is coming and we have a big community in Kuwait and all of that stuff, it should be an easy sell."
And immediately, the guy said, "Woah, woah, woah. Wait. You have a girl coming?"
And I'm like, "Yeah?"
He's like, "Is that allowed?"
And I'm like, "What are you talking about? Of course it's allowed."
He was like, "But she's a girl."
And I'm like, "Yeah, so what?"
He's like, "Yeah, doesn't she have to be covered up?"
I'm like, “No.”
And then he's like, "Doesn't she have to have permission to come to the country?"
And I was like, "No?"
He just kept asking similar questions to that.
And, you know, I mean, you can feel like the atmosphere in the room just change the more stupid questions he kept asking.
I'm sensing you're not going to name the company, but could you name the post of the person you were meeting with? Was it a PR person? Was it a marketing person? Was it someone in the C-suite?
Well, this was like six or five years ago.
I know he was a regional marketing or PR guy for that company in the Middle East.
And to make things worse, although he is not Arab, he was Indian and he was a Muslim and he has lived in the GCC -- the gulf region -- for 10 years. I was shocked when I found out that information, that he was so -- had such a stereotypical idea of what Kuwait is like even though he has lived in the region for 10 years.
I want to talk to you about my interaction with Square-Enix.
Actually, I actually told the people I talked with at Square-Enix this and they were surprised that I was talking about this in a positive way rather than a negative way. So, my first interaction with Square-Enix, I talked to the director of business development and she was a nice person and everything, but, you know, she had her doubts. Like, "How is censorship in Kuwait like? Is it fine if a female visits?" That kind of stuff.
Which is really not unique to her. It's what most foreign females think about the Middle East.
Like, it didn't bother me. The reason it didn't bother me was because she respectful. Like, I don't expect everyone to know everything. There's things I don't know. There's things you don't know. How you bring it up is what matters. Like, don't be -- I don't know. [Pause.] Just be honest and truthful, like, "Hey, I really don't know if such and such happens or can you please give me more information or enlighten me?"
So, anyways, I had no issues with her and I loved talking to her and giving her examples and everything and all that stuff. You know, one thing led to another and then we had a few calls after that and then we had another meeting and then about a year after our first meeting, they actually decided to come and visit Kuwait. Do you know Mr. Hashimoto? He's the executive producer for the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series. His name is Shinji Hashimoto and he's basically one of the executives for Square-Enix. Him and that lady I talked about came and visited me in Kuwait for a tour.
They became a believer of the Middle East market after they visited Kuwait. You know, they thanked me for showing them around and taking them around and all that stuff but I got put into a weird situation with them. [Laughs.] It's very much a Japanese thing.
So, I told you that they were happy with what they saw and they saw, yes, there's a lot of games stores, there's a lot of games being sold, there's a lot of gamers. So, do you know the one thing that's stopping them from coming?
The reason is because their games -- and this is what they told me -- are not translated into Arabic. And I told them, "Guys, listen. We've been playing games for 30-plus years all in English. We never had Arabic in our games. Like, it's not gonna make a difference."
But they can't understand that. Like, to them -- it's a Japanese thing. They think it's disrespecting us if they release a Final Fantasy game that doesn't have Arabic in it. I mean, I see their point of view. It kind of makes sense. But when you think about it, for three-plus decades we've been playing games in English or even Japanese. So, it's not gonna make a difference to us --
Do you think they were being truthful in that? Do you think that's a cover story for another reason, not wanting to spend money on localization?
No, no, no. It was not a cover story. They even released a video and gave it to me from the producer of one of the Final Fantasy games, like, a message to the Middle East saying that they care about the Middle East market and blah, blah, blah. It was translated into Arabic.
No, they do care. To them, it's very important. But the thing is, I'm trying to convince that you guys don't have any of your games in Arabic so why -- what's making you stop right now? I'm not saying don't make it into Arabic. Obviously -- you know what my advice is? Like, some companies ask me, "Should we translate our games into Arabic?"
I tell them, "Yes, but it's not necessary. The only thing is Arab gamers are just gonna respect you or support your game just because it has Arabic." But gamers will default to the English language.
For example, my mother, she's from a totally different generation. But when she uses her phone, all the settings, all the menus have to be in English because we grew up with these things, using them in English and they only added Arabic 10, 15, 20 years after we used them. To us, even though we're Arabs and we speak fluent Arabic and we can read and write Arabic, looking at these words, these menus in Arabic, it's weird. It's foreign.
Like, for example, let's say I'm talking to my mom. By the way, this is a typical conversation. Not just between me and my mom but anyone and their mom in Kuwait. Let's say there's something you have to change in your settings: "Hey, something is with my phone. What should I do?" You would say to go to the settings or whatever and change it. I literally use the word -- even though I'm talking the whole sentence in Arabic, I literally say the whole thing in Arabic as I say, "Go to the settings." I actually say the word "settings" in English rather than in Arabic because that's what we're used to.
So, for example, the PlayStation 4. They added a firmware update last year that changed the whole menu into Arabic. I don't know any of my friends that have their PlayStation 4 in Arabic. Like, I use the Arabic. Do you know why? Just to see how it looks like and then I change it back after one minute.
So, does that surprise you that the game industry isn't savvy in that way? Or do you find that that's true of most industries when it comes to the Middle East?
Well, obviously other than the oil industry, the oil people know us very very very well. for, like, 100 years now.
But for the most part, I don't think it's just a videogame thing. I think it's just -- it's not even an industry thing. It's just people are not informed very well about the Middle East just in general, regardless of what industry you're in.
Yeah. Are you hoping to establish a gaming identity for the Middle East in general or Kuwait specifically?
Well, it's Middle East in general, but I would like Kuwait to be, like, the center of it. Kind of like how in Europe, you know, you have big markets in the U.K., in Germany, in France, but Germany is kinda looked at as the main one where all the main European headquarters are for gaming companies. They're in Germany rather than the U.K.
Right. I mean, if I understand correctly that has something to do with labor laws there?
You might be right, but that's the approach I'm taking, though. It's covering the Middle East, but I want the center to be in Kuwait.
Last year I was reading about Saudi Arabia making its intentions known to become the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. Are your efforts similar to that? Are you trying to learn from that?
[Pause.] Not exactly, because the thing is there's a big difference between what I do and what any other company or organization or government is doing. I'm basically self-funded. As much as I would like to do a lot of different projects, I'm very limited with the financial means. So, basically, it takes me almost a year just to gather the year just to do this one big event per year.
Another problem that I'm facing -- and honestly, this is a problem in almost every country, it's just depending on which country you're in it's more or less.This problem of videogames not being taken seriously as a job.
Yeah. You mentioned some of that --
I think it's kind of like that in the U.S. still. It's gotten so that it's very segmented in the U.S., where either you grew up with videogames or you didn't.
And if you didn't, it's not really clear what the industry, what the culture is like. They've only heard really bad things and they think all videogames are about war.
I know a person who's the CEO of a gaming company. He has, actually, now, multiple hit games. He told me that his mom kind of makes fun of him for his job. [Laughs.]
How come? Is it seen as immature?
Well, no, and by the way, this is not someone in Kuwait. This is, like, in Europe. So, yeah, I mean, honestly, it's not something that's only in the Middle East. Everywhere I travel, any person I meet, regardless of their nationality and age, usually when I told them my hobby is videogames or I work in the game industry or something along those lines, they kind of give me a weird look. Like, "Really? Why are you wasting your time with this stuff?"
You had told me in our emails about how Kuwait feels neglected by the game industry. I found it really interesting when you told me how everyone there has to decide whether to have a U.S. or PAL account on their consoles.
So, I mean, do gamers in Kuwait identify with one region and gaming culture over the other?
Yes. For accounts, it's primarily U.S. And that's an easy reason why. Before there was such a thing as accounts and online and downloading games and such, typically games would come out in Japan first and then the first English translation would be in the U.S., and then, like, a year later or two years later it would come out in Europe. So, we as gamers in Kuwait, basically any game shop in -- Kuwait is basically like one big imports country when it comes to videogames. The shops, they just buy whatever is released first and that usually was the U.S. So, historically, we've had U.S. systems sold in Kuwait with U.S. games and because back then when -- and obviously, the Middle East, is PlayStation land. It's like Sony land, basically. And Nintendo. Xbox is, like, a very distant third. It's Sony and then Nintendo and Microsoft, basically, when it comes to popularity of the consoles. This is, like, historic. This is from 20 years ago that it's been like that. The PS3 was the first real console with DLC and online gaming accounts, like, PSN and stuff. And it was region-locked, if you remember.
Yeah, no, I do.
So people here in Kuwait, and not just in Kuwait and the Middle East in general, they said, "Well, historically, we've always bought U.S. stuff and we're not gonna wait." Obviously, now, everything is worldwide release. And "worldwide" means everywhere except the Middle East.
Has that always been the case?
Yeah. I mean, we don't have any official launches in Kuwait or in the Middle East in general. It's extremely rare. A few happened in the last maybe 18 months. But it's usually for games that, you know, for example, like FIFA, which has Arabic commentary in the game -- but that's because it's soccer. It's the most popular sport in the world. The only thing I want to add about the accounts is even back then during the PS3 days, there were delays. You know, like, the PS3 came out in November of 2006 in the U.S. But it came out in February or March 2007 in Europe. So we were like, "Okay, screw it. We're not gonna wait four months when Sony officially neglects us. Like, there's no reason for us to wait."
Historically, we've always gotten American stuff. So, everybody bought a U.S. PlayStation and made a U.S. account, and even though now there is PlayStation Middle East -- it's about four years old now -- the majority of accounts are still American.
Well, something else that has changed in that time -- we talk about that perception that people think videogames are just about war and about violence.
We've gone in those types of games from shooting at space aliens to now, increasingly, shooting at generic versions of people in the Middle East.
How is that received over there? How is it thought of?
Honestly, as gamers? We don't care.
To us, it's just a game. I mean, honestly -- I'm gonna talk about me personally now.
Sure. Of course.
Me, personally -- and by the way, as a gamer I play almost everything. Like, I play all genres. So, I play Call of Duty, and the thing that bothers me with games like Call of Duty or any game that portrays Arabs is just, again, the stereotypes. That we live in shanty towns and deserts and stuff like that. [Laughs.] The thing that really, you know, bothers me the most though is when they write Arabic text on the side of a building or something. It's so wrong. Like, that's not even how Arabic is written. Arabic is a cursive language. Like, it's written in cursive.
When they write Arabic text in games -- I mean, now, it's kinda some games or most games now kind of fix that issue. But they would write it in English, like each letter by itself. Which, to us, as Arabs is unreadable because it doesn't make sense. [Laughs.] And also, just one more thing to add about the Arabs thing: In Arabic, we write from right to left and in English, it's from left to right. Sometimes they would put a word, and it would be backwards. [Laughs.]
I know who he is, but I don't know about the skit you're talking about.
Oh, I'll send it to you. You would probably laugh because it's talking about exactly what you're talking about.
But I remember playing Spec Ops: The Line a few months ago -- I don't know if you've played it. Have you played it?
I didn't play it but I know the game.
Yeah, no. It seems so weird to me just the way that they were showing Dubai and trying to convey that this is what an entire area or region or city is like.
It's just very bizarre. But, I guess, while I have you, when you're talking about trying to help make Kuwait be a center for gaming culture and gaming industry and that they do need to have these accounts through either U.S. or Europe -- as you look at what exists elsewhere, what do you make of American gaming culture? Is there baggage from game culture out here that people out in Kuwait try to avoid or try not to emulate?
Not that I can think of. I mean, it would help if you were maybe a little bit more specific. Gaming culture is shared. Look, there is one thing I like about gaming culture in Kuwait. Because historically we've never had official support from the game industry, so we took pieces of gaming culture from the U.S., Europe, and Japan. It's kind of all intersected in Kuwait.
So, I like that because you get a taste of the different gaming cultures all in one place. But that's -- I mean, unless you give me something specific I can't think of anything negative.
Yeah, one thing I think that comes to mind and is fairly obvious is there can be a toxicity to Western gaming culture.
Oh, that. That's not a gaming thing. That's not a Western thing. [Laughs.] I think that happens in any culture in any country. I think it's just being teenagers and hiding behind the internet.
Well, I mean, given the toxicity that can occur in gaming and, like we said, the skewed perceptions of the Middle East in the West, is there anything you're doing proactively to prevent your own Gamergate or your own version of it?
Well, the closest thing I have for the example that you gave, and it's probably not a 1:1 example but it's the best one I can think of right now --
-- is actually in my events. So, I chose fighting games to start my path, the FGC, the fighting game community. And the FGC is known to be toxic at times. And it sometimes has a really bad reputation. But at the same time, they do have a family feel. Like, I don't know how to explain it but it's different than other communities. Even though I'm not really a fighting game player, like, I play the occasional fighting game and stuff. But I'm not actually a pro or competitive player in that regards. But I chose fighting games because they kinda had a strong sense of community.
And what happened was I started, obviously, small. Each event just kept growing and growing and growing. And what I noticed was -- I'll give you one specific example about something the community did. In Kuwait, smoking is almost like a given. Like, you don't even have to ask, "Do you smoke?" It's like, almost guaranteed that he's a smoker. And it's very normal to see people in Kuwait smoking under a no-smoking sign. [Laughs.]
So, and I'm very sensitive to smoke, by the way. I'm anti-smoke and all that stuff. And I was doing this event one time and it was like the first event I really did and the location asked us, you know, no smoking and no littering, etc. And we told that to the community and since this was the first time something major happened for gaming in general in Kuwait, I was surprised that everybody obeyed the rules and didn't smoke inside and they all smoked outside, which is -- as stupid as it sounds, it's unheard of to find something like that happening in Kuwait.
Like, you know, people listening about not smoking inside a convention center or a hole or wherever we were at the time. And when I saw that, I was like, "You know what? These guys are worth doing an event for because they really wanna see something like this grow into something even bigger and better." Over time, the same people would keep showing up. So, you know, people start knowing each other. And let's say someone is saying a dirty chant or screaming some nonsense as a fan, cheering whoever's playing on the stage. You would see, oftentimes -- I mean, this doesn't happen anymore. Like, this was only in the beginning. Seven, eight years ago. You would see the community itself stop those guys instead of, like, me or my staff going to them and saying, "Hey, please, could you keep it down or whatever?"
Like, the guys themselves, they care so much about this that they kinda -- kinda like how you have a neighborhood watch. It's something like that. I really like that sense in the fighting game community that they care about these events so much that they take it upon themselves to kind of regulate if things go out of hand.
So, but what you're saying is there isn't as much misogyny as we have out here? Or have had?
No. See, there can't be misogyny because when it comes to playing games in public, girls are extremely shy here in Kuwait. I mean, like, KBR this year, I think I had only one girl sign up. [Laughs.]
But it doesn't happen online or anything, even?
No. Honestly, I mean, I'm sure it does happen. But I don't think it happens as much as in the West.
Yeah. How do you feel the media in general could do a better job -- whether it's enthusiast media or more mainstream media -- of covering the game industry and game culture out by you or in other parts of the world that aren't written about as much?
Well, actually, first thing is one of the responsibilities is on people like me. We do events so the press can do coverage on. But, at the same time, I think if a journalist would come, whether enthusiast or mainstream or whatever, if they were to come to Kuwait and kind of do a report or a documentary, I personally believe that there's so much content here for writing about gaming in the Middle East that they would be in shock at how much information there is about gaming here even though we have no official stats or numbers for game sales and revenue and stuff like that.
Something I've wondered and noticed is you'll see sometimes on the enthusiast sites, stories that'll be like -- the headline is basically, "The Game Industry in Brazil: It Exists." [Laughs.]
I mean, definitely. I mean, there's a lot of stupid articles written everyday about gaming in general that either shouldn't be written or shouldn't be focused on too much.
Like, what do you feel are the less nourishing sorts of articles?
[Pause.] I mean, honestly, it's not that I'm afraid of saying something specific. It's just that there's so much stupid stuff. I don't know. I can't remember off the top of my head really specific that shouldn't be focused on too much, but -- oh gosh. I don't really know. Let's see. [Pause.] Honestly, I'm not trying to avoid the question. I just genuinely don't know something to reply with. [Laughs.]
That's okay. But you're basically saying that you do get that sense that it's shortchanging you guys?
Yeah, but at the same time, those press sites, those journalists, I mean, I can't blame them too much because most of them are unaware of the market here. So, it's not like they're trying to avoid us on purpose. It's just they're not really aware.
By the way, the Middle East has been talked about on the press every now and then for the last decade or so. But it would be, like, one article a year and it would be forgotten pretty quickly. But at the same time, I think it's also on people like me to do events for the press to cover. But then it's like a Catch-22 because I can't really do more stuff without official support from the gaming companies, and then why would the journalists cover the Middle East if there's no official representation? So, it's like, I'm kinda stuck in the middle. [Laughs.]
Yeah. I don't know to what extent this is true and impacts what you're trying to do, but Hugh had told me about when he came over there, a little bit about experiencing your censorship in media. Can you talk a little bit about that? Can you talk about the history of banning violent media over in Kuwait?
[Pause.] Okay, well, it's not really banning violence, to be honest. It's -- well, what do you want me to talk about? Censorship in videogames or censorship in Kuwait in general?
Honestly, both, if you're comfortable explaining it.
No, I don't mind. I just wanted to know what you wanted me to focus on.
Being able to compare between the two would be helpful. I just don't want you to feel like I'm assigning you to give a history lesson. [Laughs.]
Well, I'm just more comfortable talking about videogames because it's something I'm more aware of. But I can compare it to other censorship in Kuwait.
So, basically, in general, there's really no -- there is a censorship board, but there is no guidelines, though. So, it's not like -- you know how the ESRB in the states rates games?
They kinda have a guideline, like, what would be rated T, what would be rated E, what would be rated M, etc. In Kuwait, first of all, we have no ratings. [Laughs.] I told you, we buy our games American, so we have actual American labels on the games. But, it's more about what that specific person thinks is okay or not.
You often see things that normally would be censored that aren't. Then sometimes, you know, another game comes out with even worse stuff but it's not censored but something tamer got censored because there's no guidelines. Whatever that guy felt like, he gives it. Not gives it, but just says "banned" or "not banned."
I had seen recently that the new Beauty and the Beast movie was flagged over there.
Yeah. Look, anything dealing with sex, it'll be censored. Anything that -- I don't want to say anti-religion, but critical of religion, would be censored. [Pause.] Actually, let me give you an example of how censorship can be kind of stupid.
Transformers 2 came out, right?
And I went to the movie with a friend of mine for the midnight launch or release, whatever. And I saw the movie and, you know, there were some scenes with Megan Fox that were cut. It was brief stuff but it annoys me. Even a second that's cut bothers me.
I was in Kuwait, I knew what I was getting myself into and I just accepted it. But at the same time, we always had an IMAX theater in Kuwait, but it was more for documentary than science stuff. Not for movies. But the day that Transformers 2 came out, a new IMAX theater opened in Kuwait just for movies. So, one of my friends didn't see the movie and I wanted to see it in IMAX. I just wanted to see how good the screen was here in Kuwait.
And, by the way, it was better than any screen I've seen in any other country when it comes to IMAX.
What's funny is -- by the way, I watched Transformers 2 within five days of seeing it the first time and the second time. So, it was still kinda fresh in my head. I swear to God, there were scenes that were cut in the IMAX version that were available in the non-IMAX version and vice versa even though the people who cut -- the censors are the same people.
Like, the same entity.
Well, this goes to what you were saying about there's no standards for that sort of thing.
Yeah, exactly. There's no standards.
When I saw that with my own eye -- by the way, while we continue our talk, I'm gonna keep saying, "There's no standards. There's no regulations over here, etc." You're gonna find some very weird stuff. But yeah, when I saw that with my own eyes, that's when -- I mean, I never took them seriously, but that's when I really stopped caring about the censorship board here in Kuwait because I just knew it was --
More of an art than a science?
Yeah, they just do whatever they -- I'll give you an example of how a game can be banned in Kuwait.
This is a recent example. So, God of War, the first one that came on the PS2? I actually bought that game when I was in the states.
So, a few months later, I came back to Kuwait for vacation. It's been awhile since I was back in Kuwait, so I went to the game section that I frequent. I was like, "Hey, what's up? What are some good sellers here in Kuwait now? What are the popular games?" Just chit-chatting. Just talking.
And I forgot how God of War came up but I think he said that God of War sold well and stuff. I was like, "Yeah, yeah, you're right. God of War is a pretty popular game in the U.S. as well and worldwide."
And then I don't know how the subject came up. I think I said, "But I don't see any copies in the store."
And he was like, "Oh yeah. It's banned."
I was like, "Really? Why?"
He's like, "What? You don't know?"
I was, like, thinking. And I was like, "Oh yeah! For that sex scene in the beginning of the game?"
Yeah, that's exactly what I was going to guess.
No, but I was actually wrong. [Laughs.]
That's where my mind went. Because I was, like, thinking. The way he said it, he's like, "What do you think?"
So, I was, like, thinking and I was like, "Oh yeah! The sex scene."
He actually looked at me and was like, "What sex scene?"
I was like, "Okay, um, if it's not banned for the sex scene then why is it banned?"
He's like, "Because of the name."
The title. Yeah. Let me tell you how fucked up it gets. So, the reason it got banned? It was actually -- by the way, games in Kuwait get banned after they're released, just so you know. [Laughs.]
Okay. So, they "caught" it at some point?
It's not about getting caught.
I just mean they get "caught" and then they get flagged?
Yeah, yeah. Basically.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
So, basically, the game came out and after a few months or something, in one of the largest newspapers here in Kuwait, an article was written about the game. And basically the article was complete fabrication. They said -- I mean, I'm sure you've played God of War, right?
Okay. So, they described a game that's not God of War. They said, "This game is anti-God, anti-Islam. It teaches our kids to hate God and kill God and they curse our prophets." Like, nothing of what they said was in the game.
They just looked at a title and they looked at the words "God" and "war" and they just made an assumption.
That's why -- they didn't even know about the sex scene. [Laughs.] They didn't even play the game. They literally judged a book by its cover.
So, it's not even necessarily about the violence in the game.
No, no, it was literally the title. And that's how the game is banned, although it's sold in Kuwait. You just gotta, you know, know where to look. [Laughs.]
Yeah. I had a question about that. I mean, Hugh told me a little bit about that. But that was a question I had, too: How is the intense violence of games seen in a country where people do have so much lived history of war?
Well, I just wanna go back a little bit and just say that except for the Gulf War, our region really has not experienced war at least to our close neighbors. Except for Iraq. [Pause.] So, but anyways, you have the typical parent that says, oh, you know, "This is too violent, blah blah blah blah blah." But I've never -- I'm not personally aware of a game that was banned just because it was violent. It's usually sex-related. That's the reason for it being banned. Not the violence.
Like you alluded to -- I don't know if you want to or can talk about it, but Hugh told me a little about these dead drops to buy videogames?
No, it's just that specific store. I know what he's talking about. It's a specific story I told him and I can say. It's no problem.
Okay. No, I wanted to be sensitive about because I wasn't sure what he told me I should know or shouldn't know. He called me and talked for hours and hours about everything that he saw and learned.
So, I wasn't sure what I was supposed to know or not supposed to know. [Laughs.]
No, I mean, look, there is things -- if there's something I don't want to talk about, it's not because I don't want to talk about it. You know, like, there are certain things you can only understand once you see it with your own eyes. So, yes, some things I try not to explain because it's gonna be a hassle just for me to explain it.
I'll talk about this specific story. I know what he's talking about. By the way, thank you for being respectful and considerate. But don't worry.
When I go into an interview, I pretty much tell myself I'm gonna answer as much as I possibly can.
I appreciate it.
So, this was in 2013. I was gonna do a charity gaming event. And at that time, in 2013, I started to have a name. You know, a reputation.
So, I wanted to use that reputation and put a good light on gaming in Kuwait. So, I said, "Let me do a charity event." I mean, I've done charity events in the past related to videogames, but this was the biggest one yet. One of the games I chose to be in the tournament was Dead or Alive. [Laughs.] And I don't need to explain why that game would be banned in Kuwait. [Laughs.]
So, the community was vocal. There was a small but vocal Dead or Alive community in Kuwait and they wanted me to do a Dead or Alive tournament. So, I was like, "Okay, I'm going to use Dead or Alive for a charity event.”
So, now I knew that this -- I didn't know exactly how this was going to happen, but I had an idea that something weird was gonna happen. So I went to one of the stores to buy the discs because I don't need to buy one disc. I need to buy six for all the setups that I had. It's not like my tournaments are just one console.
So, I said, "I want six copies of Dead or Alive."
He's like, "Okay."
And he told me the price and I paid. He's like, "Okay, listen. I want you to go downstairs and go to the entrance and wait there for two minutes. There's this guy who's gonna walk past you with a black bag."
It's kinda like a drug deal. [Laughs.]
Yeah. It’s almost like a dead drop. Well, were these games really expensive to get that way?
No, no, no, no, no. At most -- I mean, by the way, when I did this, Dead or Alive had already been out for a year or something. So, the price wasn't an issue. But if a game is banned and they do stuff like that, it will only be more expensive by $5, $7 at most.
It's not gonna be like, you know --
They're not gonna gouge you?
It's only gonna be about $70 at most. So anyway, yeah, he's like, "You're gonna pass by and throw you the bag and then he's gonna walk away." [Laughs.]
And my friend was with me and I told him, "Expect weird stuff." I just didn't know exactly what was gonna happen.
He's like, "What the hell is going on?"
So, that's what Hugh was, I think, talking about. He was probably telling you the story that I told him. Because, actually, I was -- I took him to the location where that story happened and I think that's why I told him the story.
But that's an unusual thing? Or is that a thing people commonly do to buy games even still today?
The dead drop thing is unusual. Normally they wouldn't do that because -- the reason they did that with me specifically was because I was buying multiple copies. So, if I was just to buy one copy of Dead or Alive, the only thing is they would put it in a black bag instead of a clear bag or a white bag or whatever. They would put it in that black bag. And I think now that I actually think about it, almost all game stores, all their bags are black by default just to avoid any issues in the future.
What would the penalty be for getting caught?
[Pause.] Usually there really isn't. I mean, especially if it's the first time that you're caught. But it's usually like some kind of fine. But usually -- like, now, these stores have been doing this for 20-plus years. They know exactly what to do and how to do it not to get caught.
No stores have got caught in the last five or seven years or something.
Why are people so compelled to get access to games with those restrictions? It might be a dumb question, but are games just entertainment to people or does it represent something bigger?
No, no, it's just entertainment. It's just fun.
Are there elements of that that remind you of the moral panics that the U.S. had in the early '90s around videogames? Do you know what I'm talking about?
Yeah, Night Trap and Mortal Kombat.
Yeah, and Lieberman.
Lieberman. The formation of the -- by the way, I'm a videogame historian. [Laughs.]
I can tell.
I know my stuff.
But does it feel like that over there at all?
I mean, the thing is there's no such thing as ratings in Kuwait. I mean, not just for games. For anything else.
Yeah. We had parental concern and governmental -- you know, senate hearings about what to do about videogames because they were destroying our generation. But does it feel like that at all with the attitudes against videogames over there?
I mean, of course. If we're gonna talk about the older generation that don't understand videogames, they're gonna say it's corrupting our youth and blah, blah, blah and whatever. But the thing is -- and I think this is something that is important for you to know: We don't have ratings for anything, when it comes to media. It's basically, like, either everyone watches it or no one watches it. That's how it's done. So, let's say -- by the way, obviously, a game like Grand Theft Auto is also banned in Kuwait. But that doesn't mean it's not sold significantly in Kuwait. [Laughs.]
So, basically, because the older people, the parents, they think that games is for kids, so any game that their kid buys should be appropriate. Which is not true. And then they make a big deal about, "Why did you sell this game to my kid?" I mean, it's just kinda like the U.S. The parents should also have some responsibility. You can't just buy anything. You have to use your brain a little bit.
Well, yeah, you should have some level of involvement.
I think that still persists over here. In the U.S. we have a lot of parents who act like they have no influence or say over the things that their children are exposed to and experience. [Laughs.]
No, no, you're right. This is every parent everywhere. I mean, you're always gonna have parents that just want to take things the easy way and --
Blame someone else for their mistakes?
Blame someone else for their faults, basically. For their lack of overlooking what their child or kid does. This is an international thing. But yeah, because there's no ratings and the stigma of games is for kids, sometimes a parent will make a big deal, like, "My kid bought XYZ game and he shouldn't be able to play a game like that."
I keep telling people an easy solution is just to have ratings and that problems would be solved. They don't want to have ratings. I don't know why. [Laughs.]
Hugh had told me -- and I don't know to what extent this might still be true -- that you work with the government there to help some games get unbanned for the duration and only in the vicinity of KBR? Is that true?
Yeah, this happened just recently.
Just for this year?
Yeah. Officially, it was just this year.
How does that even work, working with the government on that?
Here's the thing. I was actually gonna bring it up eventually.
So, basically, it's a long chain of events. I'm not gonna go through the whole thing, but one thing led to another thing. The Ministry of Information, which is basically the people that control the media and the censorship and stuff like that, they contacted me. We got into a resolution on unbanning certain games specifically for KBR, which was Street Fighter.
Street Fighter is banned, Mortal Kombat was banned, and Dead or Alive is banned, and I got them unbanned.
Why is Street Fighter banned?
[Laughs.] Oh my God. Actually, I was --
Is it because of Zangief and he's a terrible character?
[Laughs.] So, actually, I was involved in how it got banned in the first place.
Oh, okay. So you also don't like Zangief?
[Laughs.] No, so, this was -- remember I mentioned earlier the story about the fighting game community and the smokers?
So, that event was the first time we do a Street Fighter event. Or rather, a big gaming event in Kuwait in general, regardless of what the game is. Just so you know, the Street Fighter IV was released on consoles in February of 2009. We did our tournament on June 30th. The game was banned July 2nd. [Laughs.]
So, for, like, what, four months the game was sold fine in Kuwait with no issue until we did our tournament. What happened was we did that tournament and basically the largest network in Kuwait came and they did coverage. Since everybody watches -- it wasn't just like it was the largest TV network. It was put on the most viewed show in Kuwait. There was a guy that saw the report. It was a two-minute report. You know you have in news just a small clip of what happened locally or something? This guy, I guess he works for the ministry or I don't know, or he knows people there or something. He threw a fit of how young male Kuwaitis -- not because the game had Chun Li with her huge thighs and revealing outfits like Cammy and stuff, but how males are playing female characters. Like, seriously? That's why you got angry? Because I play as Chun Li or something? Seriously? So then, obviously, that wasn't the only reason they gave and they said because of Cammy and other female characters for revealing outfits.
So that's how the game got banned. Although, I've been doing events with Street Fighter almost every year since 2009. [Laughs.]
Right. And maybe all if not most fighting games offer that as a possibility or opportunity for players.
Yeah. And, by the way, just so you know? Me personally, I think the game industry overdoes it with the oversexualization of female characters in games. But it actually does bother me. Sometimes I can be put off a game just because of how oversexualized a female character is portrayed. It's not like -- I'm a guy. I want to look at beautiful girls. But there's a point where it's like, "Okay, it's too much."
Well, sometimes it just gets embarrassing.
But for you, collaborating with government. You don't have to walk me through all the bureaucracy of it, but how does that process work?
Here's the good news. So, I talk to -- like I said, one thing lead to another thing lead to another thing and I ended up going to the guy that kind of oversees the censorship for media in Kuwait. He was actually a very nice man. He actually told me that he agrees with me on most points like how ridiculous some of the ratings for -- like some games being banned and stuff like that. I totally understood what he was trying to say. It's not really the rules or the law. It's the culture that he has to fight against. We agreed that in the near future to sit down and talk about loosening up some of the restrictions on games in Kuwait, basically. Because, like I said, the games are not banned from guidelines. They're banned just because someone thinks they should be banned. There's no -- it's so random. And the games get banned after they get launched. Not before they release. So, yeah. That's basically my involvement with the government. It'll grow from there and I opened their eyes to this. I mean, you know how I was able to convince them to unban Street Fighter?
[Laughs.] DLC. I told them I can just buy DLC costumes and cover up the girls.
[Laughs.] That satisfied them?
Yeah. They're like, "Okay, let's do it." They actually didn't even know that such a function exists.
I told them, "Yeah."
They're like, "You can change their costume?"
I'm like, "Yeah, you can change their costume."
They're like, "Oh. Go ahead."
They approved it in, like, less than two minutes. No joke. In less than two minutes it got approved.
I can't believe you can get anything done in government in two minutes. That's amazing.
Especially in Kuwait. [Laughs.]
We talked about this a little bit from the other side when we started, but are you pushing a bigger picture angle around this? Are you trying to frame more freedom around videogames as a step towards bringing in business from new industries? Is Kuwait onboard with that? Because I know you mentioned other parts of the world not being receptive, but how does your own country feel about your efforts?
Well, they make fun of me, basically. [Laughs.]
Because it's videogames?
Because it's videogames, yeah. I mean, until maybe a year ago, I was just the laughing stock of people, companies, sponsors, you name it, family members, for doing what I do.
So, what changed?
I mean, it's still bad. But what changes is once these guys come to my events, they realize, "Oh, it's much bigger than what we thought." Like, there's people enjoying themselves, they're having fun. By the way, I'm the first person who did cosplay contests in Kuwait and they're now a huge part of our events. They bring huge, huge crowds. Like, it's crazy.
Well, that's the interesting thing to me, is that you get these games unbanned and I know that in that 17-minute video you sent along, people talk about how they don't just get dressed up in costumes. They have entire routines that they're doing.
So, it seems to me, at least on the surface, even though these things are officially banned or there's no official platform, these are things that people are doing anyway.
Yeah, actually, because I talk about cosplay and other things, there's actually one thing I would like to mention to you to kind of put things into perspective.
It's something that I'm doing with you right now and I think you're gonna find it extremely weird and interesting. So, right now talking to you over Skype, right?
Okay, do you know that Skype is banned in Kuwait?
That doesn't surprise me, but I did not know that.
No, but do you know the reason why, though?
I have not been right on any of these so far so I'm not even gonna -- [Laughs.]
By the way, just so you know -- you're gonna notice a pattern. There's things banned in Kuwait but they're not for the reason that you think it would be banned. [Laughs.]
Right. So, why is it banned over there?
So, it's banned -- I mean, it's just banned. There's no reason. But unofficially, we know why. It's because the telecom companies lost a lot of money when people switched to Skype in Kuwait. [Laughs.]
Because Kuwait is roughly three and a half, four million people, okay? Of those four million people, only one million are local Kuwaitis. The rest are expats. These guys, you know, they call their families, whatever, whether their family's in India or Europe or America or Africa or whatever part of the world they're at. Why pay intentional calling fees when they can do it for free over Skype? So that's why -- so here's the funny thing. The government knows that Skype is very popular in Kuwait. So, this is so ridiculous. It's such a Kuwaiti thing. So, they ban you from downloading the program on your computer. But if you happen to have the program downloaded from a third-party website, you can use Skype. [Laughs.]
Do you see how the reasoning is so crazy, how they go around doing things? That's how things are done in Kuwait. Like, there's reasons why things are banned or censored, but it's not really for the reason you think it is.
Do you think there's some sort of lesson in that?
No. I mean, by the way, this is the first time I use Skype in a computer in almost 10 years. [Laughs.] Like, when I actually logged in on the computer -- it's funny, because you can download Skype on your phone, whether on iOS or Android, no issues. But the Skype website is blocked in Kuwait. My point with this whole story is things get censored and banned, but for ridiculous reasons. [Laughs.]
In our emails, you mentioned that videogames have been in Kuwait since the '70s. Do you know when and why they started showing up?
I mean, I don't know why. The why I guess is just entertainment. I mean, there's no specific reason for bringing videogames to any country other than to play and have fun. But since I can personally remember, like, in the early '80s there has always been videogames in households in Kuwait -- I mean, the person who got me into games is actually my mom. She was the one who was playing, not me. [Laughs.] You know, obviously, she doesn't play anymore. But she was the one who used to play a lot on the PC Engine, which is the MSX.
And she actually used to play games like Gradius, if you know that game?
Of, of course. Yeah.
Yeah, she loved to play that as well. And other, actually, Konami classic games that came out on the MSX. And I kinda inherited the hobby from her. So, yeah. But, yeah, like almost everyone who grew up in the '80s grew up with videogames in Kuwait. They just didn't grow up with Nintendo, they grew up with MSX.
Oh, you had mentioned that.
You know how back in the '80s, the NES was so popular. It was something like one in every four households had one or something like that. There's a statistic probably similar to that in Kuwait, like, one out of every four households had an MSX. Like, I never went to someone's house that they didn't have an MSX, let me put it that way. I mean, at one point, the distributor for the MSX in Kuwait was such a large company until the Gulf War happened and then, you know, a lot of business went down at that time. I didn't even get exposed to Nintendo until after the Gulf War.
This is super-broad, but I think will be interesting to my readers. I mean, you talked a little about stories that tend to pop up in the news over there. Can you talk about the general artistic tradition in Kuwait? The sorts of stories that tend to come up in Kuwaiti books and movies and maybe even videogames that are made there?
[Pause.] Well, when it comes to music, it's pretty much the same as anywhere else. It's usually a love song or something. Movies, the Kuwait market, you know, there isn't a lot of movies. The most popular -- actually, in Kuwait, we're more famous for TV shows, not movies. And it's funny because -- I mentioned to you, right now we're in the month of Ramadan, and Ramadan is the holiest month of the year for Muslims. You know how -- basically Ramadan, they turned it into our version of Black Friday or Christmas holiday season. So, you know how in the U.S. advertisements ramp up way high during Black Friday and Christmas?
Yeah. My birthday is November 23rd, so --
Oh, so that sometimes falls on Black Friday. [Laughs.]
No, yeah. So, I've watched -- I'm 34 -- that whole advertising and marketing push get earlier and earlier and earlier. I think now it starts towards the end of October around Halloween.
No, but, that's what happens in Kuwait or in the Middle East, rather, in Ramadan. So, if you wanna have a TV show broadcast in Ramadan, you can guarantee yourself of millions of viewers for that show. And actually -- let me give you an example. So, and this is prices for this year. There is one TV show that's running on a fairly popular network here in Kuwait. The advertising package -- the lowest amount you can pay. You know, there's tiers? The lowest amount you can pay for a month of advertising is $60,000. And guess what? Most of the companies, they buy the highest tier, which is $150,000. And it's not just one company that buys it. There's ten companies that buy at the highest tier and then 20 companies -- so, like, that network from that one show they made, like, tens of millions of dollars.
And here's the kicker: So, Ramadan is supposed to be holy month, right? We're supposed to be goody two-shoes and all that stuff. But the shows -- and by the way, this is approved by the same people who banned God of War and Grand Theft Auto and Street Fighter -- and these are Kuwaiti shows with Kuwaiti actors and all that stuff. The show is about drug addiction, drug abuse, husbands cheating on their wives, wives cheating on their husbands, and stuff in that vein. And that's what gets played in Ramadan and that's what people love to watch during Ramadan in Kuwait. [Laughs.] Like, again, it doesn't make any sense. [Laughs.]
It's the same over here.
[Laughs.] You know, like, sometimes -- but I think, David, it's not that I don't want to talk about it. But I think we've focused a lot on the censorship parts of the interview because there's other things I'd really like to shine a light on more than censorships. I know the censorship stuff is interesting, but I don't want to give the people the wrong idea that there's oppression here or there's no freedom or anything like that. It's just that me as a gamer, I get over emotional when I talk about these things because it pisses me off personally. Like, you know, I can buy those games any time I want. I can download them any time I want. But just because I can bypass the system doesn't mean I can't critique the system. So that's why I kinda dwelled on this for a little while longer than I should have.
For what it's worth, at least from this end, I didn't get that impression that it is necessarily oppressive. I think there are things you're trying to shine a light on and with things like the conference that you do, to demonstrate more depth and let people know they may have the wrong idea. That's true everywhere. Here in the West, it's not exactly a utopia around videogames.
Yeah, I know. Trust me, I know that. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] No, no, so I mention that because I don't want you to feel self-conscious or that we overly dwelled on "negatives." Well, okay, so, this is another very broad question that I ask everyone: What do you think videogames have accomplished?
A lot. I mean, this is -- you're right. This is very broad. [Laughs.]
Well, is it what they accomplished in general or, like, for me personally? Like, what they accomplish for me?
It's intentionally open for interpretation.
Okay, well, I mean, what I say is really for both. It's for me and the industry in general. I think it's opened new ways of communication with others. You get to know people that share the same interest as you. I think it breaks down language barriers because you don't talk in language, you talk in button presses or just gameplay.
I mean, videogames shed a huge, huge light on Japanese culture in general because videogames -- you know, Japan is such an important part of videogame culture. I mean, a lot of people love Japan just because of videogames. I think that's a really good aspect of the videogame industry, that it makes people aware of things that they might not be aware of if it wasn't for videogames -- which is kind of like what I'm trying to do with my work, to shed a light through videogames in Kuwait and the Middle East.
It gives people access to living or reliving their dreams in a videogame, regardless of what setting or what genre or whatever it is.
But, yeah, the most important thing to me with videogames is communication. You know, getting to learn about others and getting to know others -- I mean, like, us. We would have never met if it wasn't for videogames. So, that is the No. 1 aspect that I think videogames gave back that is really important and people should take advantage of even more and communicate and learn about each other through videogames.