Online games boost internet cafes

Surge in business as teenagers frequent venues to indulge their gaming passion

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"Online games are strictly prohibited" say the yellow posters around the computer areas of the American University of Sharjah library. These bans on online gaming at schools and libraries around the country have proven a boon to the owners of internet cafes. They are enjoying a surge in business as online gamers, mostly teenagers, flock to their venues to indulge their gaming passion.

Traditionally, the internet cafes have been places where travellers go to read their web mail, search the internet and take part in instant messaging. In the developing world, they provide the main source of internet access. In the UAE these days, the business model of the cafes is changing to one less reliant on those traditional users, as internet gamers get together to play. "We love the kids who play games here," says Abdul Aziz, a clerk at the Orchid Internet Cafe in Ajman. "We have 27 computer booths and normally we would have eight to 10 people in here at a time and a bit more in the evening. But with these kids, especially now that the schools are out, we get 20 to 25 people."

He says his cafe offers a number of packages ranging from Dh5 (US$1.36) for one hour to Dh50 for 23 hours. The players like the packages because their games can take some time to finish. "The most popular packages are the Dh10 for three hours and the Dh20 for eight hours," he says. Without giving figures, Mr Aziz says the online gamers have enabled the cafe to double its daily revenues. Hisban Chohan, a clerk at Al Bwadi Internet Cafe in Sharjah, says up to 50 people might gather at a time. Some will share computers with friends to play games while others wait for one of the 20 booths to become available.

"You see, schools are out and it's really hot out there so these kids come here to hang out and they play computer games," says Mr Chohan. The cafe brings in an average of between Dh250 and Dh300 a day, including between Dh150 and Dh200 from online gamers, he says. Razzak Yousuf, a 14-year-old from Ajman, says he sometimes spends up to Dh50 a week at cafes playing online games. "But on school days I would spend Dh10 to Dh15 a week," he says.

To accommodate the gamers without disturbing other users, some cafes have separated the gaming areas from the surfing section so those playing can cheer and share the excitement. "In our cafe, we have the surfing area downstairs and the gaming area up here to give surfers some privacy," says Khalid Omar, the owner of Acasa Cafe in Abu Dhabi. In addition to capitalising on online gaming to increase their revenues, the cafes are attracting customers by providing non-traditional services.

"In our cafe, we also offer calling services to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other parts of the world," says Mohammed Iqbal, a clerk at Al Raha Internet Cafe in Sharjah. A number of people come to his cafe to make calls using MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger and Google Talk. Whether they go online at home, in the office or at the cafes, the UAE leads the GCC with an estimated 888 internet users for each 1,000 residents, according to the market research company Euromonitor International. That puts it far ahead of Kuwait with 442 internet users per 1,000 people and Saudi Arabia with 321 users.

The total value of internet retailing in the country was estimated at $19.6 million last year, up from $5m in 2004, Euromonitor reported.