By Kara Fitzgerald Elgarhy

The video game industry is booming across the Middle East and North Africa. Playing on a console, PC or smartphone, there were more than 65.3 million gamers in the region in 2021, with revenues reaching $1.76 billion in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt alone, according to a 2022 report by Niko Partners. As the industry continues to ascend the leader boards, more opportunities arise every day for local talent to find their place in the game.

There’s just one glitch in the code, observes Ahmad Saqfalhait, associate professor of practice and associate chair of AUC’s Department of the Arts. “Most game design professionals in the industry are self-taught,” he explains. “Because their training is primarily either technical or visual, they compensate for the design aspect of game development by wearing multiple hats.”

To support the development process, AUC introduced a new game design minor in Fall 2022, bringing together students from different disciplines to learn the role of a designer in game development. A collaboration between AUC’s graphic design program and Department of Computer Science and Engineering, the minor will equip students to join a flourishing industry that has surpassed three of the biggest entertainment-related industries combined: music, film and sports, according to Saqfalhait.

The perks don’t stop there. “In addition to their economic value, game applications have expanded and evolved to cover various purposes, from educational and social to medical and psychological — all playing on our need to have fun and engage,” Saqfalhait said.

Communicating Culture

Much like the industry, the program is fast on the rise. Saqfalhait and students are working to further spread awareness and interest by holding gaming activities on campus, such as hosting group Nintendo Switch sessions. “Not only do students enjoy playing, they also reflect on Nintendo’s success in the gaming industry,” Saqfalhait explained. “Nintendo is a school of design. It maintains a DNA and philosophy in its offerings. I want to channel this in the minor.”

Moreover, Saqfalhait believes that Nintendo’s work offers important lessons for AUC students about cultural expression and identity.

“If Nintendo, a Japanese company, borrows ideas from the outside, it reinterprets them and makes them its own, with mutual respect for both cultures,” he said. “This concept of thinking locally and regionally is emphasized throughout the semesters of the game design minor so that students are not just making copies of existing games.”

For instance, Nintendo’s famous Animal Crossing video game introduced many international players to Japanese culture. Originally developed for a limited audience in 2001, the playful village- building game now features an array of international flavors, from bamboo baskets and cherry blossoms to Arabian thobes and Moroccan dresses.

“Nintendo is a school of design. It maintains a DNA and philosophy in its offerings. I want to channel this in the minor.”

Sophomore Tarek Kassab, a longtime gamer and fan, was drawn to the minor for this very reason. “I started to notice that such a powerful entertainment tool can be used to push forward political and cultural messages,” he reflected. “For example, games made in Japan tend to portray Japanese society — traditions, food, celebrations and culture. And because video games are highly interactive, these small additions naturally resonate with players. I wanted to learn game design to create games that are entertaining while also spreading my Egyptian and Arab culture.”

The locally grounded character of game design at AUC was always intentional, according to Saqfalhait. However, one unexpected outcome has been the resulting buy-in and support from the Egyptian community. Outside of their coursework, game design students have had the opportunity to work directly with community and creative partners on the design and development of games for local impact.

Last semester, students worked with UNICEF and Karim Aboul-Enein of Largelabs game development studio on an arcade game prototype that makes children indirectly associate healthy snacks with fun activities through play. A separate student group has been working since July 2022 in collaboration with Megawra – BEC to create a game for children that will strengthen their sense of neighborhood ownership and connection to their communities by presenting them with their rich culture and history.

These extracurricular projects reflect a guiding principle of AUC’s approach to game design: integration within the industry. “It’s difficult to gain hands-on experience in game design in Egypt because the industry is not yet thriving here. AUC’s practical approach is a substitute source for direct experience in the field,” said Kassab.

Still, AUC’s game design project is far from final. The pioneering minor program, itself an organic result of feedback and learning from a smaller seed, is poised to blossom into a fully fledged major — addressing more skills, reaching more students, and building more industry and community connections.

“A few years from now, AUC will graduate students who are equipped and ready to join and reinforce game design in Egypt,” Saqfalhait affirmed.

Explore AUC’s Game Design minor.

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