ABU DHABI // One of the world's largest video-game publishers has opted to withhold its latest title from the region to avoid offending the local population, especially Muslims. The decision this week by Electronic Arts (EA) to pre-emptively call off the sale of Dante's Inferno in the Middle East followed a recent spate of bans by government censors in the region targeting releases deemed inappropriate to the country's cultural and religious values.
The controversial game, inspired by Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, features a protagonist battling demons for a soul through nine "Circles of Hell". It was released last week in Europe and on Tuesday in the US. The company confirmed yesterday that the decision not to sell Dante's Inferno in the Middle East was based on market research of local consumers' tastes. However, EA's move raised the spectre of other publishers also avoiding the release of games into this region, despite estimates that the gaming industry in the Middle East exceeds US$1 billion (Dh3.67 billion), made up mostly of youth in the Emirates.
Local game distributors wondered whether other companies might follow EA's example, prohibiting games themselves rather than taking the risk their titles would be banned by government censors. "This has never, never happened. This is the first time," said Rabeeh Zakaria, the unit manager for the Pluto game distributor in Dubai, remarking on the Electronic Arts decision to self-censor. "I think - the publisher decided to avoid all the hassle. There's some effort to get the game into the market, and then to have to pull it, so they just saved themselves some hassle and some money."
Even if the game was released, he said, "the scenario would have been the same. The theme was not appropriate and the game would have been banned anyway." The distributors of Dante's Inferno in the UAE, Red Entertainment, said the company alerted EA "late in development" of the game that its content might warrant a ban. "We found that some of the content in the game before release would have proven offensive to Muslims," said Nitin Mathew, marketing manager for Red Entertainment.
"Our policy is if it's going to offend any people in the region, we will seriously consider not releasing it here. We made EA aware." Kishan Palija, the managing director for the Geekay Games chain of stores in Dubai, suggested that publishers might actually be doing themselves a favour by opting not to release risque titles in certain regions. "They have to take care of their images as well, because they don't want to look bad in front of the National Media Council," Mr Palija said.
Although he would rather not have any games banned at all, he applauded EA's move not to release Dante's Inferno to the region for commercial and competition reasons. "It's a brave decision," he said. "If it came but was banned by the National Media Council, you might still find it in the duty free shops and sales would still be happening. This way, nobody's going to get to sell it, but I'm not happy because if it's banned I'll lose business."
Mr Palija added that customers have for several days asked to buy Dante's Inferno. "People are looking for it. I keep getting inquiries from the stores about whether it's being released," he said. "It's rather popular and it would have done well if it was released, but there's no chance it would have passed [censors]." Abbas Ali, an Emirati gamer who runs the consumer tech website Tbreak.com, agreed it was a smart move for EA not to sell the game in this region.
"I saw the game about eight months back at an EA event in London and immediately knew that this game will not make it in the Middle East," said Mr Ali, 37. He doubted that this would have much of an impact on the industry, however, noting that "grey imports for almost every single game that has been banned are available." Grey imports are legitimate copies that have been imported illegally. Mr Zakarias, with the Pluto distribution company, said his company was also responsible for THQ's Darksiders, which had its imports cancelled last month after the NMC learned of its content.
The popular title God of War, released by Sony in 2005, was also banned in the UAE for offensive content. However, the game and its sequel, God of War II, found their way to the streets. It is widely believed that the forthcoming God of War III will also be banned here. A spokesman for Sony Gulf said yesterday that Sony Computer Entertainment Europe has never held back a title for launch, "but of course we will abide by NMC decisions not to release a title in the UAE".
The NMC did not return requests for a comment. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Kareem Shaheen