The new video game Call of Duty: Black Ops is available in PS3, Xbox and PC formats. Photo courtesy of ActivisionThe Dubai mall was transformed into a battleground as hundreds of fans queued for the latest instalment in the blockbuster video game series. The popularity of video games is rising in the Emirates, but is that necessarily a good thing?
Hundreds of gamers answer Call of Duty at Oasis Mall
DUBAI // When the clock struck midnight on Monday, soldiers took position in Oasis Mall as a heavily protected 4x4 rolled up, transporting a game of mass destruction.
Hundreds of fans of one of the most anticipated video games in the world had been queueing at the mall since 8pm to mark the global launch of Call of Duty: Black Ops, a highly successful shoot-em-up game.
At least 655 people pre-registered for the event - organised by Emax in partnership with Activision, MEC Access and Red Entertainment - to be among the first to get their hands on a copy of the multimillion-dollar earning game, now in its seventh series.
The game, developed by Treyarch, is set between 1960 and 2010 in various locations including Vietnam and Cuba, and comes in PS3, Xbox and PC formats.
Although the UAE gaming industry is not as developed as markets like the UK and the US, signs of growth are evident, according to Vija Chandrapota, a category manager at Emax electronics store.
"The average monthly sales resulting from gaming total Dh900,000 to Dh1.1 million in Emax stores across the GCC," said Mr Chandrapota.
To celebrate the financial boost this new game version will provide, the mall was transformed in true Call of Duty style: scenes and characters from the game were recreated, and abseilers dressed in military gear descended from the third floor and paraded around the event. A gaming station and DJ helped maintain a lively atmosphere, while others tried out the climbing wall.
Fans of all ages turned out, with some coming from other emirates especially to buy one of the first copies of the game.
Two men in their 40s declined to give their names because they thought they were "too old to get so excited about a game", and one joked that "my wife has already disowned me for being here".
In the end, it was 25-year-old Emirati Amin Abbas, the Arabic editor for the gaming website tbreak.com, who was the first to buy the game. He drove from Abu Dhabi and could not hide his glee as he held the game aloft like a trophy, to cheers from the crowd.
"This game is amazing," said Mr Abbas. "I am so excited, there are so many new features. The gaming industry in the UAE, as you can see, is getting bigger because people truly enjoy them."
Girish Bala, 15, from India, admitted to being a true gaming fanatic since the age of six.
"I saw the advertisement on Facebook and I think I was lucky to get in. I'm excited because I have been waiting for a long time, since the previous game release last year. I think I am pretty good at playing!" said Girish. "Half of the day I am on the computer."
While games like Black Ops often get a bad rap for promoting anti-social behaviour, Dubai-based psychologist Devika Singh, a media literacy specialist, said the game was not usually to blame.
"[For my clients], the video games are at times a safe place to turn to. Some of my clients suffer from depression, and playing is a way of seeking human connection," she said. "The games themselves are not necessarily the problem - it is how the player manages their time that's key."
Mrs Singh said some of her clients were as young as 10, and seeking counselling to treat an addiction or dependency on computer and video games. But she added that the majority of people she treated were already prone to seeking isolation.
Davinder Rao, who now lives in Dubai, provides a chilling example of just how quickly that isolation can take hold. Mr Rao once shared a house with two friends in Canada. Each of them had an Xbox in their bedroom, and a fourth was set up in the living room. After work and on weekends, their time was spent either playing individually or against each other in tournaments.
"We were hooked," said Mr Rao. "Our friends and partners would come and visit but we would be concentrating on our game. We became so anti-social outside our little game group that [our friends] had to finally take control of the situation because it became so excessive." Since cutting down on the video games, he said he had more time for outdoor activities.
For Amin Abbas, the first man to get his hands on the game in the UAE, cutting back is out of the question. "I'm driving back to Abu Dhabi now," he said, "and I don't think I'll be getting much sleep."
'Ditch the couch for the pitch'
DUBAI // Amid the excitement of the Black Ops launch, most gamers will be planning a weekend in front of a screen, but one organisation aims to lure youngsters off their couches.
The founders of Ahdaaf Sports Club, which opened in Dubai last year, believe everything should be taken in moderation.
"I don't want to say don't watch TV or play computer games, but if you have the right entertainment and activity balance, you will lead a happier life," said Anas Bukhash, a managing partner at Ahdaaf.
Yousif al Hashimi, also a partner, said he felt it was their responsibility to provide a service that helps people get fitter, although it can be hard to compete with technology. "Unfortunately in the UAE we have one of the highest obesity, cholesterol and diabetes levels in the world because of our diet and sedentary lifestyle," he said.
The club, located in Al Quoz, opened the first air-conditioned indoor artificial turf football field. They opened a second in Al Quoz and plan to open a third in Al Warqa.
Tracey Kheir brings her 8-year-old son to the club to play football and has already seen the benefits. "The club has improved his confidence and ability in the game," she said.