x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sword dancing enters a new medium to inspire youths

A new video game pioneered by the Crown Prince of Fujairah, and inspired by the emirate's annual Al Saif sword championships, is hoped to revive interest in the Emirati tradition.

A player in brown challenges Hamad, in white, in the Al Saif sword-dancing video game. Courtesy Al Saif championship
A player in brown challenges Hamad, in white, in the Al Saif sword-dancing video game. Courtesy Al Saif championship

FUJAIRAH // Against a catchy Emirati song and drumbeat, a cocky swordsman named Hamad challenges a newcomer.

Clad in the national dress of white kandura and hamdaniya on his head, Hamad pulls out all his best moves, dancing and jumping away with a sword in a circular arena. Your swordsman, a twin of Hamad in a beige kandura, just hops along - until you figure out how to press the right buttons at the right time.

A hint: the space button on the keyboard makes him jump.

Welcome to the internet video game Al Saif.

"Yala yala!" cries out 12-year-old Ahmed Mohammed, slamming the keyboard hard, trying to make his swordsman jump as high as possible.

The young Emirati tried out the video game after watching the live competition between real swordsmen in Fujairah last month as part of the annual Al Saif sword championships.

This year's Al Saif championships saw the soft launch of the video game, pioneered by the Crown Prince of Fujairah, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad, that aims to reach "young generations from all backgrounds".

"His Highness thought up the idea of a video game, based on this competition, where the players will have to learn the rules of this tradition in order to play it," says Ali Yaeesh, head of the new media committee of the sword competition. "It is taking a traditional sport and making it accessible to everyone to learn and participate in it."

Early reviews suggest the game, while intriguing, still has some kinks to work out.

"I keep forgetting the rules," young Ahmed says. "It is actually pretty annoying."

The rules of the game, which is in English, are among the available options when you load Al Saif onto your computer screen. Character movements are defined by keyboard buttons. The swordsman can be made to jump or "ghali", throw the sword high and catch it, perform the "luqiya" or the meeting, and do the various moves that go into the actual Al Mazafen, which is also known as sword dancing.

When he throws and catches his sword properly, Ahmed's player gets a shower of clapping and whistling, and the words "well done" pop up on the screen from the invisible audience in the game.

But Ahmed says the game could be a bit more realistic.

"They need to add more options and some blood," he says. "For in real life, the swordsmen get injured."

Experts studying the virtual world and its effect on culture and society say these kinds of games and initiatives are important.

"It looks interesting," said Dr Sara de Freitas, a professor of virtual environments and the director of research at UK-based The Serious Games Institute.

"Games such as these can inform, teach, and effect upon behavioural changes," she said.

"Whether used for connecting communities up with their heritage or awareness raising of particular issues, serious games are at the cutting edge of new innovative technologies and have the power to change the way we live, play, work and learn."

Four months in the making, the Al Saif game is available for free online at http://www.saif.mhm.ae/. Its developers are still working on making it compatible with all platforms, particularly the hand-held smartphones such as iPhones, BlackBerrys and Androids.

"We are still working on making it better and hope it will be the beginning of reviving traditional games from real life into timeless virtual ones," Mr Yaeesh said.

Players compete against the champion Hamad to see who can do the sword dance Al Mazafen better, including hopping and sword throwing, with a meter that measures the height of the throws. (You can cheat by pressing 'R' to reset the sword for a second chance at a toss.)

Hamad wasn't the only virtual character born of the sword championships. There was also an animated Saif welcoming visitors to the heritage village at Fujairah Fort where the real competition took place.

This virtual Saif extended greetings, provided information about the competition and the heritage village, and gave visitors a virtual tour of Fujairah's hot spots.

Some who have played the video game complained that when too many buttons were pressed at the same time, the screen went fuzzy.

One of the players who tried out the game is a real-life, reigning swords champion.

"It is way too simple," says Saif Al Yammahi, 21, who won second place in the 2011 championships. "The actual sport is far more difficult and complicated."

Mr Al Yammahi is from the mountainous area of Al Tawain. The tribesmen of Al Yammahi took home a silver-plated sword and Dh60,000 in prize money last year.

"I think they need to add more levels and variety to the game itself so people keep playing it," says Mr Al Yammahi, who has been injured many times during practice.

Looking at the video game's Hamad, who sports a slight beard, Mr Al Yammahi laughs and says, "He looks a bit like me, right?"

The game's creators won't say after who the character was modelled on, but living and breathing swordsmen say they still prefer the real deal.

"Nothing beats actually throwing the sword in real life," Mr Al Yammahi says.

rghazal@thenational.ae