Off the Map: The promising future of games in Africa

For a long while now, software development and information technology in general have tended to maintain a geographic bias primarily focused on North America, East Asia and Europe. Fortunately, that’s been changing rapidly over the past couple of decades, with a growing emphasis being placed on rapidly-growing regions such as Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

And yet despite all the recent focus on emerging markets, the continent of Africa has largely been left as an afterthought in the IT industry and thus to a degree in localization. We’re talking about a region that comprises over one billion people in over 3,000 unique cultures contained in over 50 countries. Even today, the common perception is that Africa is rife with conflict, economic challenges and insufficient infrastructure. The reality is that while these conditions do still exist in certain locales, the situation on the ground is improving significantly. Consider this summary assessment issued in the “Economic Report on Africa 2013” issued by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa:

“Given its remarkable growth since 2000, the continent has been hailed as the next frontier for opportunity and a potential growth pole. Political conflicts have declined, economic growth is robust and economic management, governance and political stability have improved. All have contributed to a market shift in global perception of the continent, from pessimism to enormous potential, with both traditional and new economic powers clamoring to offer their partnership.”

The outlook for Africa is certainly optimistic, as some countries have already been aggressive in their diplomacy and desire to leverage the great, untapped resources of the continent. For example, China has established economic cooperation agreements with over 45 African countries and the China-African trade value has easily surpassed $100 billion a year, most of which is concentrated in resource development projects. However, despite the optimism for Africa, the region certainly has real challenges, such as some ongoing geopolitical conflict as well as being able to create policies that can generate sustained and equitable growth, as opposed to being concentrated in just a few countries, and/or just a small group of stakeholders in a country.

Many people can probably name the more well-established hubs in Africa, such as South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria, yet over the 2008-2012 period, the same 2013 United Nations report shows that Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Libya, Ghana and Rwanda actually comprised the top five countries for annual economic growth — definitely not the countries many might guess. What this means is that for various socioeconomic reasons, the rise of Africa as a viable market isn’t being driven by the “usual” countries, and thus our expectations for what kind of content might be desired and appropriate need to be adjusted.

When it comes to the IT capabilities of the continent, there are more well-established hubs but the ever-decreasing cost barriers to implementing cellular networks and internet infrastructure have allowed for an explosion of mobile phone usage. According to a 2012 Goldman Sachs report, Africa is experiencing a 20% per year growth in smartphone penetration, which is projected to be 30% of the continent by 2014. And Africa has already seen $61 billion in mobile phone-based payments, compared to North America’s $30.5 billion; mobile devices are clearly a key technological entry point for many Africans.

If we were to look only at the video games component of the IT industry, Africa is swiftly becoming a viable business venture as both a source of game development and game consumption. At the 2013 Game Localization Summit at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Wesley Kirinya and Eyram Tawia presented on the state of African game development. They demonstrated many eye-opening facts about the growth of games, as a sign of continued economic improvements. Some of the key markets for game consumption include South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Senegal.

Interestingly, the top genres for games played are definitely not the same as established markets such as North America and Europe, where first-person shooters and role-playing games strongly prevail. In order of preference, the top four genres in Africa are serious games (games intended more for education than entertainment), platformer games, casual games (also a strong category in North America, Europe and Asia) and puzzle games. The fact that serious games rank so highly is surprising, possibly indicating that the value of games as an educational tool outweighs the value of simple entertainment.

New regions, of course, require new considerations about language and culture, which is where Africa provides both great opportunities and challenges alike. But choosing the appropriate languages for localization can be quite a challenge as the continent has more than 3,000 languages within six broad linguistic families. Governments maintain official languages that reflect the region’s colonial past, with the top languages being Afrikaans, Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili. Generally speaking, the use of Arabic, English, French and Swahili are considered most widespread when considering both native speakers and use as a secondary language. Given the linguistic diversity, this can make language selection for content pretty challenging, but as usual it starts with defining the target locales for distribution.

From a cultural perspective, Africa is just as diverse culturally as it is linguistically — and of course the two are closely intertwined. The most fundamental distinction can be made between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, where the north is dominated by Arabic and Berber people and south of the Sahara Desert is primarily inhabited by people of the Niger-Congo ethnographic group, with Bantu being a large component. Naturally, this fundamental cultural split as well as the great variation on a local basis also adds to the challenge of designing content that will achieve widespread appeal.

But as has been experienced in developing content for Asia, there is a lot of power in appropriately leveraging ideas and concepts that are deeply ingrained with local relevance. To return to the game industry example, some of the most popular game titles in Africa are ones that are inspired by local history, legend and myth. Games have been produced around key historical figures such as Pharaohs (Egypt), Shaka Zulu (South Africa), Sundiata (Mali) and Yaa Asantewaa (Ghana; see Figure 1 for a glimpse of a comic book crossover for this personage). Some of the more popular games have again included themes of local relevance, including titles such as the Adventures of Nyangi, iWarrior and Matatu.

While the industrial and resource sectors are already forging relationships with the continent, Africa holds a lot of promise as a new frontier for information use and content developers. But as with any new territory, it requires a strong degree of research and understanding of the landscape. How one develops, targets and delivers content will be critical. As with such a large tapestry of diversity, the potential for the perception of cultural inclusion and exclusion is significant. Thus, the importance of creating ties with local experts and representative viewpoints cannot be overstated.