Life is conducted on gaming platforms, on phones or online for young Saudis. The country is still young. The fastest-growing portion of the population is under the age of 30. In the seriously conservative Saudi Arabia, with its strict gender segregation and moral codes of behaviour, several young Saudis turn to technology and social media to express and entertain themselves.
It’s a social revolution, particularly for Saudi women.
Virtual reality meets real life in a Riyadh hotel ballroom at GCON, an annual convention for young women who enjoy playing video games and grew up playing video games with their siblings.
Following the banning of female gamers from an all-male convention in 2011, GCON was born. GCON co-founders Felwa al-Swailem and Tasneem Salim convinced big video game brands to support an all-female convention by making them believe there was a large market among Saudi females.
This year’s event was GCON’s fourth and was the largest ever in the capital and spread to a second city as well. GCON is a victory for Saudi women in this gender-segregated society, and the women mirror an international video game audience where almost 50% are female.
About 3,000 women attended during the two-day GCON event in late November. Salim states that video games provide more than just play. She says that you really do learn a lot from games and that you’d be surprised how many people are learning English and other languages simply from playing video games, even languages as hard as Japanese.
She adds that this is definitely not the Saudi Arabia most people know. People rarely get to see this side of Saudi Arabia, but it’s real and exists.
There are over two dozen PlayStations and women are grouped around, seriously playing in singles or teams. There’s Need for Speed, Unchartered, Assassin’s Creed, even Call of Duty – known for its military-style, fast-paced violence and popularity among male gamers.
The young women here are committed to video games and state that they play for hours every day.
More than Gaming
Aside from the fun of gaming, GCON inspires girls to aim for careers in computer programming and science. Several female college students in Saudi Arabia outshine males in engineering, technology and math. Video games also expose young women to a wider world.
In a closed society, it is remarkable to see an event that incites such open self-expression. Some Saudi women come dressed as their favourite video games characters. The costumes are elaborate and creative, with wigs of platinum cartoon hair, helmets and silver wings. It’s an amazing transformation from the traditional all-black cover-ups that Saudi women are obliged to wear.
GCON is a symbol of dramatic change for a wired generation with increasing expectations. However, technology only goes so far in a country that lacks political rights. In that domain, Saudi Arabia is taking a cautious first step, permitting women to vote and campaign for the first time in local municipal elections this month.
Coincidentally, the GCON convention opened on the same day that election campaigns started. But only a few here stated they registered to vote.