In April 2012, three college juniors — Felwa, Tasnim, and Najla — waited anxiously on the campus of Prince Sultan University in Riyadh. For the previous six months, their lives had been consumed by the pursuit of a single, radical idea: frustrated that women, year after year, were barred from the annual Gamers’ Day convention, the largest annual gaming convention in Saudi Arabia, they had decided to launch the first-ever gamers’ convention for women in the kingdom. As the organizers hurried around counting consoles and hanging posters near stalls, they wondered whether anyone would show up.

Over the past decade, Saudi Arabia’s gaming scene has dramatically evolved, especially for women. In the early 2000s, the country had strict moral regulations on entertainment, and games were mostly sold in a gray market or through unofficial channels. Areej, a 23-year-old university graduate, picked up her interest in gaming from her father, who once frequented the informal neighborhood stores that sold pirated copies of popular games for 10 riyals ($2). “He played Japanese and English games, even though he didn’t even understand English back then,” she recalled. “He would keep dictionaries around while playing. That’s actually how he learned the language.” Areej hopes to become a “localizer,” a job that entails translating English-language games into Arabic. A decade ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. 

After Sony’s 2007 release of the PlayStation 3 in the kingdom, the gaming industry began to take shape in Saudi Arabia. The first Gamers’ Day took place in 2008, and it now draws upward of 60,000 male visitors over the course of four days. The convention presents video game companies with a lucrative opportunity to demo their latest equipment and products; devoted players, in turn, get to try out highly anticipated games that have not yet been released. In 2012, as the three girls were setting up Girls Con (or GCON as it would come to be known), the industry was estimated to have a global revenue stream of $70 billion.

In the months prior to GCON, Tasnim, the only one in the group with work experience, took the lead pitching sponsorship proposals to the all-male staffs at Nintendo and PlayStation Arabia. Without any real data on female gamers in the Middle East, and with barely any on girl gamers in North America, she had pitched on the assumption that the gender ratio for gamers in Saudi Arabia was likely the same as in the United States: 47%. But there was no way to prove this. Until then, the world of female gaming in Saudi Arabia was a private one, usually set in the intimacy of people’s bedrooms.

“You could find girls who played video games, just for fun or on their mobile phone, but I had no idea how many girls were into hardcore gaming,” Felwa said. While mobile games like Angry Birds and Candy Crush were popular — the Kingdom boasts a 90% cell phone penetration rate — Felwa was curious to see how many girls had grown up like her playing Tomb Raider, Tekken, and League of Legends.

When the hall flooded with nearly 3,000 women, some as young as 13 and others in their 50s, it was a shock. “I definitely did not expect moms to come,” Felwa said. Back then, it was mandatory for women to wear the traditional black abaya, and often a headscarf, while in public. It was only when the women walked through the doors into the all-female space that their abayas slipped off to reveal an array of cosplay costumes.

Inside the hallway, girls who were expected to behave discreetly at all times rushed around trying to play as many PlayStation- and Nintendo-sponsored games as they could. On one side of the hall, first-time cosplayers shared a rare opportunity to express their fandom. On the other, 150 people stood in a rowdy line waiting their turn in a Call of Duty tournament.

While the Middle East represents only a small portion of the international gaming industry, it is a rapidly expanding market. In 2017, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council accounted for around $693 million of gaming revenue, most related to esports. By 2021, that number is expected to exceed $821 million, boosted in part by the pandemic-induced lockdown. 

Saudi Arabia expects to be at the forefront of that expansion. In a country where roughly 50% of the population is under 30, gaming has become an emblem for a generation of young Saudis. 

In recent years, Prince Faisal bin Bandar, a young member of the royal family raised on Atari consoles, set out to make Saudi Arabia the Middle East’s hub for the $160 billion gaming industry. Under his leadership, the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports (SAFEIS) aims for esports revenue to amount to 1% of the country’s GDP (approximately $22 billion) by 2030.

While Saudi Arabia was a late arrival to esports, its male players have already made their mark. Since 2017, Prince Faisal and the federation have been scouting, coaching, and sending professional esports players to competitions across the world. Mossad Al-Dossary, then 18, made headlines in 2018 after winning first place at the FIFA eWorld Cup in London, taking home a $250,000 cash prize. 

Female gamers, however, are still finding their way. Women in Felwa, Tasnim, and Najla’s generation grew up under the watch of religious police, in a time when public spaces were segregated by gender. While women still do not have the same rights as men, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has relaxed male-guardianship rules and mandatory dress codes and legalized certain forms of entertainment for women. “I still struggle to convey what Saudi Arabia was like at that time to those that haven’t had that experience,” Tess said. There were no theaters, and sports facilities for girls were limited, “So, mostly, we had to stay inside and make do with what we had — and games were all that we had.”

Raghad, 23, currently works for a mining company, but she dreams of becoming a voice actor for video games. Although she’s never lived anywhere but Saudi Arabia, she has a distinctly squeaky American accent — a curious trait she picked up from a fifth-grade teacher who had lived in the U.S. and a torrent of YouTube videos. She is considering taking voice-acting classes online, assuming she can find any, because she’s not allowed to travel abroad alone to study until after she’s married. It’s still common to meet women who come to gaming as a result of these kinds of restrictions, as Felwa, Tasnim, and Najla did years ago. This is why going to GCON can be such a powerful experience. 

Ben Hoskins/FIFA via Getty Images

In 2018, Felwa, Tasnim, and Najla handed GCON over to Ghada Al-Moqbel, who attended her first GCON in 2013 at the age of 18. Now she leads Saudi Arabia’s women’s gaming community. This occurred right after bin Salman took control and began dismantling the country’s gender segregation. For Ghada and the wider community of female gamers, these changes forced them to decide whether they wanted to stay on the fringes of the gaming community or take a more central role. In 2018, GCON organizers met regularly to discuss whether there was still value in creating an exclusively female space for gaming.

“We had to stay inside and make do with what we had — and games were all that we had.”

For Ghada, the answer was yes. While attitudes toward female gamers have improved, parts of Saudi society remain uncomfortable with this burgeoning culture. When GCON first launched, participants were criticized for indulging in supposedly immoral behavior, and social media accounts of female gamers were routinely hacked. Likewise, after the first Comic Con in Jeddah, in 2017, a hashtag accusing participants of being Satan worshippers flooded social media along with pictures of women who had dressed up for cosplay. Thanks in part to the continuing fear of societal backlash, many Saudi women still advocate for all-female events. 

But like the kingdom, GCON is also evolving. “We’re not just entertainment anymore,” Ghada said. “It’s about empowering and enabling women to be serious in the gaming and esports industry.” In mid-August, Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, the largest women-only university in the world, announced that it would be creating a degree program for animation.

Since Ghada took over, the organization has expanded, hosting regular skill-development workshops as well as the annual convention. While she has maintained GCON’s focus on female gamers, she has been open to collaborating with their male peers. In 2017, organizers from Gamer’s Day worked with GCON to arrange their first mixed-gender gaming event. While 2020 was supposed to be a big year for Ghada and GCON, Covid-19 disrupted their plans. Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that GCON — a force that arose in far more challenging terrain — will be going away anytime soon.