Pakistani gamers want to take a seat at the table

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AT Call of Duty tournament in Islamabad, Pakistan, an annoyed gamer gets up from his computer and demands that the player, who keeps shooting at him, speak. “Who is ‘[email protected]’?” he snaps, referring to the player’s in-game name, his eyes sweeping the room in furious anticipation, but what happens next turns his anger into embarrassment as the petite young woman raises her hand nervously.

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Now, more than 15 years later, Sadia Bashir, 33, recalls the encounter with a twinkle in her eye. “I was the only girl in a room full of guys and the moment he saw me he just sat back down. I think the idea that a girl will kill him will hurt his ego a lot.

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At the time, Bashir was just a computer scientist and dreamed that she could somehow make a living in the mysterious world of video games. She is now a game developer with her own studio in Islamabad, as well as the founder and CEO Pixel Arts Game Academya technology incubator that gathers gaming talent from around the world to mentor a new generation of Pakistani game developers who want to create more diverse products for the international market.

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But Bashir’s journey into the world of video game development was far from easy. She grew up in a family where money was always tight, which meant limited access to video games. There were no game consoles at home, and for the first 14 years of her life, her family did not have a computer.

By the time she actually started playing the video game…Mario Kart on a friend’s Nintendo – she was already in eighth grade. “It was like my brain had been blown,” she says, gesturing with a gun to her head. “From that moment, I realized that there is something magical about video games. Everything else was so boring to me that I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

In conservative Pakistan, where the female literacy rate is 48 percent, Bashir’s decision to go to university was a milestone in itself. But the stigma of wanting to become a video game developer in a country where gaming is still largely considered a frivolous pastime was such that she didn’t have the courage to tell her parents about it at first. “All they knew was that I was a software engineer,” she tells WIRED. “It’s really hard for people here to understand the concept of a career in video games. Even now, people will think that I am doing this just for fun and wasting my time.”

Avais Iftikhar one of the best in the world Tekken players. In an interview, he talks about the Pakistani public’s antipathy towards video games as a career. “My family never supported me when I started getting serious about gaming. In fact, even my peers who dabbled in video games thought I was ruining my future by devoting so much time to it. The point is that in Pakistan they don’t realize how important platform games are for people like us.”

But thanks to the international success of Pakistani players like Awais Iftikhar and Evo champion Arslan Siddik, which may well be on the verge of change. Last October, the eSports giant from the UAE galaxy racer, which is valued at $1.5 billion and has over 400 million subscribers worldwide, has announced that it is expanding its investment portfolio to include the South Asian market. Fakhr Alam, who heads Galaxy operations in Pakistan, tells WIRED that video game stigma needs to be removed. “One of the main things we’re trying to do here is to encourage parents to think about gaming as something other than a frivolous pastime,” he says. “We want people to know that esports is by far the biggest sports industry in the world and that if you take it seriously, this is something that can be considered as a potential career.”

As part of the planned expansion, Galaxy Racer will allocate money to build gaming infrastructure, including servers and tournaments, so that Pakistani gamers can showcase their skills and compete for real money both at home and abroad. In the long term, Alam also envisions the company investing in Pakistani game studios to ensure future games don’t get bogged down in Orientalist visions of the East. “We need to have localized games – games that people can identify with, because I’m starting to feel that a lot of games today are involved in alienating and vilifying Muslims and people from this part of the world,” he says. “I mean, there are games on the market that say something wrong in their mission statement. You know, just things like ‘Go get whoever’s in the hold of al-Qaeda’ and if games become part of the storytelling in the future, there will be problems.”

But, according to Sadia Bashir, in order to diversify the gaming landscape, the industry must first understand the economic realities of video games in developing countries. In Pakistan, where nearly 65 percent of the population is under 30, the video game market is potentially huge, but with a GDP per capita of around $1,200, console and high-end PC gaming is out of reach for all but the richest part of society. “The video game industry didn’t really understand that there was a huge economic gulf between them and us,” she says. “Buying one game can cost 10 percent of someone’s salary, but that’s just not possible.”

In fact, even if there is money, it is difficult to buy games. Playstation, for example, does not have a store region for Pakistan, so Pakistani credit cards cannot be used to purchase games online. Instead, gamers are forced to create accounts in the US and buy exorbitantly priced gift cards imported from America and sold at a premium by local merchants. The same goes for Xbox – Pakistan is not among the countries supported by the platform.

The solution, from Bashir’s point of view, is to adopt a Netflix-style model in which the annual subscription fee takes into account the purchasing power of a given country, rather than applying a single price tier for all regions. “We have to pay Rs 800 ($4.29) a month to use Netflix and it’s so cheap that people are actually buying it.”

Of the projects currently in development, Bashir is most passionate about the educational video game that empowers new mothers to tackle the challenges of breastfeeding their babies, but increasingly her focus is on giving local creators the skills they need to develop. products that will appeal to the global market. “My goal is to grow and maintain the ecosystem,” she says. “I want to create a program where people can learn how to create original games instead of copying existing products.”


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