How Games, Piracy, and Religion Come Together in Saudi Arabia
How one player found solace—from religious discrimination and growing pains—in less-than-legal games.
When the doors of the Euromarche (a mall in downtown Riyadh) opened, the stench immediately hits me. This is a trip we took every Thursday, the start of the weekend at the time in Saudi Arabia. The stores are lined up in tight halls, with a supermarket in the middle, and a Burger King on the left corner, but every week, my family and I immediately went to the game shops, where the shelves are plastered with Playstation 2 games in cheap plastic DVD cases, the smell of which are toxic. All of them are pirated games.
Usually games in these shops sell for 20 Riyals (or even less), or around 5 U.S. dollars. (The catch is having them mod a console for around 100 Riyals (20 dollars), so the system could accept these pirated games). The game's don't feature their original covers: Some are badly photoshopped images, or even just taken from websites, still sporting the watermarks. But I don't care about all that: All I know is that I'm getting a whole bunch of new games.
None of piracy's ethical concerns mattered to me as a kid, they never really crossed my mind. I could get five new games every week, for only 5 dollars! People I knew rarely bought "original," non-pirated games, unless they were cartridge-based, because the technology of copying cartridge games was not reliable. I always looked forwards to weekend trip to the Euromarche, and then sharing my findings with my friends.
At school, before the first class of the day, my friends and I would talk about the games we bought over the weekend. Even as young kids of 10 or 11, we would talk about some awesome thing we did in a Grand Theft Auto game, or that weird scene in Metal Gear Solid 2 were Raiden is naked. I remember one of my friends coming in early to use the school's photocopier to print out GTA cheat codes and handing them out to everyone in our class. We bonded over games, letting each other borrow our favorites (sometimes with regrettable consequences).
Inevitably, the other big part of my life at that time was religion. Religion is ubiquitous in Saudi Arabian culture. We had three or four religion classes a day in school, each focusing a different aspect. Nothing is excluded. Religion even influenced the way we played video games.
In class we would chat about games, wrestling, and movies (High School Musical was surpassingly huge in my school), except in our religion classes. Most of my classmates would very intently pay attention and ask questions, unlike in the other classes. Religion teachers periodically took the opportunity to preach to us about their world view—and sometimes, that world view included video games.
Teachers would preach about the evils of Pokemon, which they found anti-Islamic. Clerics claimed that the different Pokemon were different names of the devil. We had to stop playing or watching Pokemon because of the religious ruling, or Fatwa. If we didn't, other students would judge us, and would spread rumors of our sinful ways.
Some games got banned from being sold, like God of War, and the more recent Bayonetta 2. These rulings were highly influential, especially because they were echoed in religion classes and enforced in non-pirated games stores.
Once, a teacher overheard me talking about Devil May Cry 3. He asked me to explain the game, apparently stunned by the word devil in the title. I said, rather nonchalantly: "It's a game about killing demons. The character is like a human and a demon." He seemed shocked and asked me to bring in the game tomorrow so we can break it in the name of religion. I wasn't into that idea. I didn't pay too much attention to religious stuff in school, partially because unlike my classmates and teachers, I was a Shi'ite.
Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Majority country. Sunni and Shia are sects of Islam, but have been in conflict since the Prophet's death. My family moved from the Eastern province, where the majority of Shias live, to Riyadh, a mostly Sunni Area.
Because my parents told me to keep it secret, I never told anyone that I was a Shi'ite. At first I didn't understand why I had to do this, but as I got older I started to get it. Teachers at my school gave lectures about Shi'ites, saying that we were worse than infidels, spreading half truths to make Shias look bad to impressionable kids.
This conflict surfaced in practically every facet of public life, work, and school, where social hierarchies and relationships were affected by this divide. This divide was influential for some of my friends as we got older. One day, my friends found out I was a Shi'ite because one of my classmates' dads knew of my dad at his work. I denied it when they confronted me, fearing that I would be rejected. After that my circle of friends shrunk, and classmates started avoiding me.
My world was unraveling. It a was hard time for me, having lost so many friends. The worst time was during 5th and 6th grade. I tried getting out of school in any way possible, faking being sick and faking injuries. I missed so many days of school just because I didn't want an outcast, I didn't want be singled out by students and teachers.
A teacher threatened to fail me in Quran class for no reason, just because I was a Shi'ite. Classmates threatened to fight me. When I reported these actions to the school administration, they told me not to instigate and provoke people. My grades slipped. I would go home to play games and then sleep till the next day, doing no homework. Thankfully, I maintained a small group of friends in this time—without them, it would've been so much harder.
Playing video games also helped me through those times. For me, games were a constant, something that didn't change, reject, or abandon me. Games helped my small group of friends understand other each others' sects and connect deeper as people by giving us common ground and a shared hobby.
Some of my happiest memories revolve around playing Counter-Strike together after school. (I don't know how it ran on our really crappy computers, or who installed it on the school machines, which used dialup connections). Our group was diverse, some were from respected families or even part of the royal family, some were from poorer families, and then there was me at the bottom of the school's social hierarchy. As we matured as people, things got better, and people started to accept me.
Maintaining these relationships helped me reconnect with some of the lost friends, but some still held a grudge. A major part of why we connected and the reconnected was out of our shared love of games.
Playing these games (no matter how we got them) let us live out fantasies and challenge conservative structures of our culture—especially when playing taboo games. I'm not saying that game piracy is morally in the clear, but it did allow us to engage much more deeply with games than we otherwise could have.
I would even argue that the piracy that allowed us to play so many different things actually enabled a different, more inclusive gaming culture, an inverse of the exclusive and discriminatory religious culture of Saudi Arabia. Piracy allowed almost anyone—no matter their family's income—in our school to get games on the cheap. Everyone, it seemed, played video games, so no one was excluded from group discussions.
Piracy also allowed room for experimentation: Convincing my friends to play "weird" games like Katamari Damacy was easier when it was 20 Riyals. Without piracy, I never would have gotten the (socially taboo) experience of playing a banned game like GTA. And yes, those pirated games helped me get through difficult times when I was younger, and allowed me to bond with my friends.
The last semester before moving to the United States, on one of the last days of school, I gathered my closest friends and we snuck into the school mosque during lunch. I told them the truth: that I was a Shi'ite.
I didn't know how they would react. I was afraid that we would leave our relationship on a negative tone. There was a long silence, I had second thoughts, my stomach started turning. I murmured the truth nervously, barely looking at my friends. There was a long gap of silence. After a moment, my friends said: "We know, we don't care," "We're are friends and that's what matters," and finally, "We are brothers."