Tue, Jul 7, 2020

An Iranian gamer’s battle against sanctions and sexism

IranSource by Sheida Hooshmandi

Politics & Diplomacy

The Iranian Video Games Championship in Tehran (Fars News Agency/Mehdi Bolourian)

27-year-old “Mia” says her all-time favorite game is ‘The Last of Us.’ She likes to cosplay as “Ellie,” the young protagonist of the video game, and even knows how to play the game’s theme music on the guitar. A video of Mia playing the song has generated more than fifty thousand views on YouTube.

Just like Ellie in the post-apocalyptic zombie video game, Mia seems calm and mature beyond her years and, in her own words, is also a “fighter.”

Mia plays the theme song from ‘The Last of Us’

Confident and comfortable with combat, from handling various weapons and movements, she survives and thrives through each video game. This confidence has made her stand out in the growing gaming community in Iran. With more than 55,000 subscribers on her Persian language YouTube channel and 378,000 followers on Instagram, Mia—real name Kimia Ravangar—is known to be one of the most famous gamers in Iran’s male-dominated gaming industry.

“I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘female’ or ‘girl’ gamer,” says the now Vancouver, Canada-based gamer, who has a degree in industrial design from Tehran University. Mia does not want to be viewed differently from other gamers based solely on gender. She believes in the cause of confronting discrimination and gender-biased views in gaming.

“I believe that female influencers in gaming and streaming—especially in the Middle East—could play a vital role in showing young girls how to follow any path they desire; whether it’s in fashion or in a male-dominated industry like gaming.”

Mia is best known as a ‘Fortnite Battle Royale’ champion amongst her followers. Fortnite is considered to be one of the world’s most popular online multiplayer games, with 350 million registered players around the world and a popular following in Iran.

‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds,’ the ‘Call of Duty’ series, and ‘Valorant,’ are also widely played amongst Iran’s gaming community.

According to Mia, in the past two or three years, there has been a huge increase in Persian-speaking gaming content on social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and even TikTok. “This was not the case a few years back,” Mia explains.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BqndMXwg6yu/

The online gaming space has become an area to socialize away from prying government eyes for many young Iranians. Just like social media platforms, it is a way for them to stay connected to the world and be part of the global community. This is the case for many countries in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The Middle East gaming market

The gaming market in the Middle East is fast expanding. Although revenue generated in this region is only 3 percent of global gaming revenue, it recorded a high growth rate of 11 percent during 2019. Many video game developers are currently opening offices in the Middle East.

In 2019, alone, the Middle East and Africa generated $5 billion in revenue from gaming. With $458 million in annual revenue, Iran is the third largest gaming market in the Middle East—larger than many of Europe’s counterpart markets.

The gaming market in Iran is unique from other thriving markets in the region in terms of culture, demographics, and particularly when it comes to the reality that businesses must operate under US sanctions.

According to a 2017 study from Iran Computer and Video Games Foundation, there are twenty-eight million Iranian gamers. Other statistics suggest that the official figure is an underestimate of the actual size of the market.

Cafe Bazaar—an Iranian app store—recently published a report stating that, forty-one million active users downloaded games and applications from its platform in 2019. It’s worth noting that the number doesn’t account for the many active gamers in Iran who download games from the black market rather than using legal sources. While Iran has joined the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), it is not a signatory to the WIPO Copyright Treaty.

Iranian gamers struggle

Despite the huge potential, certain hurdles make the Iranian gaming industry an onerous one to compete in for gamers.

Iranian gamers must deal with issues that might not necessarily be a concern for most gamers around the world. To access streaming servers, gamers in Iran must work around US sanctions restrictions using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).      

Online payment is another hurdle, as US sanctions prohibit international banking transactions with Iranian banks. As a result, Iranian video game streamers cannot access their income in foreign currency from the money they raised from streaming on platforms like YouTube and Twitch.

“Some video game companies will not let us make accounts with our Iranian addresses and phone numbers and will not respond to our feedback and problems online just because [someone is] from Iran,” says Mia.

In addition, the Iranian government tends to slow the internet such as in the lead up to presidential elections or even during major protests. In November 2019, when widespread protests erupted over a surprise increase in petrol prices, the government shut off the internet for a week.

“It can get really frustrating,” Mia says. “With Iran’s low internet speed and all the filters on different websites and keywords, it is not as easy to stream video games or upload high-quality content as it is in other countries.”

The Iranian government’s filtering of many websites, especially social media—such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—imposes a burden on not only Iranian gamers inside the country, but those abroad. Since January, Mia has lost 158,000 subscribers (319,000 in the lifetime of her channel) due to the blocking of YouTube in Iran. “Viewers have to use VPN to watch my videos and YouTube’s automated system detects them as spam,” she explains. 

Fighting sexism online

When it comes to gaming, sexism is also a major issue which targets women in the industry globally. This forces them to play incognito, pretend to be male, or not engage in conversations during live multiplayer games to avoid harassment.

“When I was younger, as a girl I wasn’t allowed in social game centers,” notes Mia. “Even now, me and a lot of female co-workers that I know of are going through a lot of unnecessary negativity for doing what we do, just because some people are not used to it!” Some believe this is the indirect result of wider discriminatory policies implemented by the Iranian government, such as banning females from game centers and tournaments.

Gaming and streaming in Iran come with risks of getting arrested, as well. “Back in Iran, my family and friends warned me of the risks, especially since I was not wearing a hijab [while streaming], but I was a fighter, you know,” Mia says.

Recently, Iranian cyber police arrested a number of social media influencers, describing them as “vulgar and norm-breaking.” This occurred while Iranians were sheltering at home in the midst of COVID-19. The pandemic had prompted Iranians and influencers alike to spend more time online.

Mia says she likes to keep streaming in Persian while making the most of the fast-growing gaming market and hopes that she can make a difference to Iranian society.

“More than being a pro-gamer, winning trophies and tournaments, it has always been my priority to use my platform as a place to show young boys and girls that they can do what they love and feel passionate about [it]; that there are always obstacles, people, sanctions and situations that may hold them back, but as long as they work hard and believe in themselves, they can make anything happen.”

Sheida Hooshmandi is a senior journalist working for the BBC World Service and a documentary filmmaker. Follow her on Twitter: @Sh_Hooshmandi.