Internet cafes: retreat into a virtual world

Thousands of teenagers are heading indoors to internet cafes to fight terrorists, sorcerers and the armies of the undead, but they insist it is not as anti-social as it looks.

United Arab Emirates - Dubai - July 09 - 2010 : Geeks playing videogames at Snooker Point. ( Jaime Puebla / The National )
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DUBAI // Mahmoud Ibrahim settles into an almost trance-like state as he stares at his screen surrounded by fellow gamers. Little moves in the darkened room except for the furious clicking of fingers as a battle of swords and sorcery plays out on the glowing monitors.

The peace and quiet is disturbed only by the occasional mutter of frustration. Someone didn't fire frost bolts fast enough, or failed to build enough MiG fighter jets. Mr Ibrahim, a 19-year-old business student at the American University of Dubai, is just one of tens of thousands of gamers in the UAE who shun the heat for a virtual, indoor retreat. Friends meet to compete in multiplayer games, build their character's armour in World of Warcraft, kill terrorists and counter-terrorists in Counter-Strike, beat rivals with a baseball bat in Team Fortress, or destroy waves of undead minions in Defence of the Ancients.

At Snooker Point, one of Dubai's oldest internet, gaming and billiards joints, gamers find camaraderie, entertainment and some freedom from family constraints during the evening hours. "You get used to the place, it's good in terms of atmosphere, you're with friends, and at home your dad will tell you to go to sleep and to only play for an hour," said Mohammed Saeed, 17, a Palestinian and a friend of Mr Ibrahim.

What he says does little to refute the stereotypes of gaming - that it is antisocial, addictive and of little ultimate value. Arabic newspapers, in particular, frequently run editorials decrying a lack of police enforcement to ensure that children do not leave their school grounds for gaming cafes. The video game business is a lucrative one in the UAE. Distributors and console makers such as Microsoft and Sony last year estimated the Middle Eastern market, which is made up primarily of gamers from the GCC, is worth up to Dh3.7 billion (US$1bn).

The figure is likely to be higher, since the estimates do not include sales of hand-held devices, Nintendo's Wii game console and online game sales. Mr Saeed, who has been a regular customer at Snooker Point for five years, believes he should probably cut down a bit on his gaming time. He visits internet cafes once or twice a week in winter, but during the summer he is there every day. Ahmed al Tahhan, co-owner of Snooker Point, believes that regulating how much time teenagers spend gaming is the joint responsibility of parents and his 12-year-old outfit, but that older customers have the right to decide for themselves.

He appears to be doing his part. The shop is fitted with 36 security cameras with a one-month backlog to track the clients' movements. He checks to make sure no one is using or dealing drugs or alcohol, and he won't allow players under 14, or anyone who looks like a student, during school hours. When Mr al Tahhan opened Snooker Point, he quickly realised there was massive interest among 16 to 20 year olds.

That interest exploded in the early years of the past decade, as youngsters increasingly took up games such as Counter-Strike, in which players' characters defuse or mount bombings, or take or rescue hostage. The language of the West's "war on terror" infused these games with a level of reality, said Mr al Tahhan. The summer poses a "golden opportunity" for the company, which sells 800 hours a day of gaming time on average and has six branches throughout the UAE.

Mr al Tahhan insists that computers are a "necessary evil" and that they cannot be thought of as harmful in his cafe if they are available in every home. Instead, police and parents should better monitor their children when they play games. "The level of lack of discipline is high. When I tell a kid not to smoke he takes off his headset and says, 'My dad doesn't tell me not to do it. Why do you tell me?'" he said.

Players claim their gaming does have its benefits during the summer such as greater social interaction, integration of nationalities and even language training. "Through the game itself, there is competition, an atmosphere, the place, friends," said Mr Ibrahim. "A lot of our friends even learned English through games." And the hours spent sitting in front of a computer screen may well be less expensive than that other popular teenage pursuit - shopping at the mall.