By Kalkidan (Qal) Fessehaye

Picture courtesy of Horniman Museum and Gardens

Gaming as a societal practice dates back thousands of years. Not only was it a recreational experience, but the conceptual construct behind it has also become a capsule that transfers and preserves ideologies and customs across generations. Some contemporary gamers view ancient illusionists, magicians and storytellers as forebears of gaming as we know it today. Because they represented a deep understanding of human psychology and how it can be influenced.

Presently, the global gaming industry is the biggest sector in the entertainment industry. Not only is it the highest grossing, it’s also the category developing the fastest, changing course quickly to fit how we think and live.

“We play games all the time. Card games are common in our community, even in mourning spaces. People don’t realize even social media is a game,” says Dagmawi Bedilu, Co-Founder of Efuyegela, Chewata Awaqi and the Ethiopian Games Association; a set up of game service providers, game designers, start-up aggregators and an overall gaming community in Ethiopia. He stands on the belief that the gaming industry continues on the fast rise and Ethiopia, or rather Africa in general, is playing a big role in The Information Age. He says, everything will probably be gamified and social media is leading the immersion experience.

Picture by Ezra Million

In a world where globalization is the ultimate measure of success for any product, it might be difficult for latecomers to break in let alone excel. For Dagmawi, “There are over four million apps on the App Store. Putting an African Game in there is like a drop in the ocean. The industry is already too big,” he says, “But we have the latecomers’ advantage. We know what they missed. Most creators today learn what they know online so they learn things the Western way. But the West has a twisted understanding of who we are; our customs, our cultures, and our ways of life are different from theirs. For this reason, a game with a completely Western understanding will never make it on a global scale coming from Africa.” But there are positive signs that there is space and need for African games.

In 2019, 15 African countries participated in creating a card game called Busara. The creators of this game inverted the game design philosophy and started their design based on culture. They identified what set Africa apart from the rest of the world and created an experience based on our distinct cultures and narratives. This congregation of game thinkers turned the most important and existential aspects of their respective countries into superpowers and problem-solving tools.

From Ethiopia which was experiencing ethnic wars came the card that allows the bearer to sift through identities, from Burkina Faso whose history tells of a woman whose war tactic was a strong defence, came the dome card that neutralizes all attacks, from Kenya whose people live by the ideology of coming together in humanity came the Ubuntu card, from Ghana who suffers as a dump for electronic waste from western countries came a mutated creature that defends itself, so on so forth. Not only is Busara a game, it became a congregation of African storytelling and design thinking.

“A game isn’t like traditional artwork,” says Dagmawi, “most artwork is an expression to be passively experienced by consumers. Games are co-created with the consumers. We try to make our approach as community-centric as possible, involving members of our community to co-create with us on each project.”

The entire gaming industry we see in Ethiopia developed over the past decade. If we look back as close as seven years ago, there was no one else in the field. “Even then, what we called game developers were techies, software engineers,” says Dagmawi. When Efuyegela came in, they mapped the gaming ecosystem and realised the industry in Ethiopia had developers and consumers.

Picture by Yoseph Abate

But it was lacking two more crucial players in the middle: enablers and facilitators. Just because someone can create a game, it doesn’t mean they are going to reach the consumer. To understand the community better, they hosted a workshop session where different thinkers, creators and storytellers came together to play within narratives. The results indicated while there is space for it, you have to play the long game. Impact over profits.

The games that are produced by Efuyegela and its startups operate like indie games. They aren’t games for profit as they stand but instead, they are games for impact. “We are not trying to break into the global economy. We can’t beat the global economy. What we are doing is creating a small but strong niche of games where different groups of gamers cross-pollinate and become part of a growing community. The only way this would work is if we continue to create lots of content within this niche. Otherwise, putting our games into the global platforms as they are now will be no more than an agenda for diversity politics.”

Picture by Eric Lafforgue

For African games to be accepted worldwide on the same level as Western or Asian (mainly China and Japan) games, they’ll have to be on the same level of notoriety within their territories. It’s probably for this reason that at every event, music festival, and concert in Addis Ababa, the gaming community secures a spot. The likes of Chewata- Awaqi come intending to make play a part of the problem-solving mindset in every aspect.

It’s hard to predict where this niche industry is going but they do one thing more efficiently than others. According to Dagmawi, “Games do what any other art form can not, they let you experience regret first-hand and therefore teach you empathy.” Perhaps, a cathartic medium such as this can be a tool to change the world by changing how people see and interact with their environment. The industry needs to be acknowledged for what it can do and not the perceived challenge it might face.

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