In Spermania, the début game from PinchPoint Inc., players assume the role of a plucky sperm that must navigate the kinks and curves of an undulating fallopian tube. It is, as the trailer drolly states, a race “for the prize of a lifetime.” Peril abounds. Your character wags its tail, its eyes clenched shut as it streaks through the vaginal passage, dodging viruses, white blood cells, and acid pools, seeking to confound the human immune system and achieve its life-seeding goal. This simple racing game is ideally suited to two-minute bursts of play during your daily commute, or during a prolonged visit to the bathroom (the two unglamorous yet broadly favored venues for-mobile phone video games). Moreover, it’s a good joke that’s well told.
Spermania’s four-man development team is based in the West Bank city of Ramallah. PinchPoint is, according to the company’s co-founder and C.E.O., Khaled Abu Al Kheir, the first venture-capital-backed Palestinian video-game studio. Despite recent efforts to grow the I.T. sector in the Palestinian territories with incubators, accelerators, and venture-capital firms, there are only a handful of video-game developers in the area. Partly, this is due to the unique challenges of establishing a startup in a turbulent region. “Local events here definitely affect our focus and stress us out,” Basel Nasr, one of the game’s developers, told me. “We have no airport or control over our land borders, so travel costs extra time and money. This makes it more challenging to plan overseas trips, as well as to connect with foreign video-game studios around the world in order to learn and share our experiences.” Likewise, the lack of a vibrant industry in the region makes expanding the studio a tremendous challenge. “There’s an almost non-existent talent pool in Palestine for video-game development,” Kheir said.
Kheir’s love of video games was sown early. When he was six, his parents bought him a bootlegged Chinese version of a Japanese video-game system. His hobby didn’t become an obsession until the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation that began in December, 1987. “The irony is that I played more video games thereafter because I had so much more free time,” Kheir said. “School was often shut, and there were widespread curfews. It kept me indoors, and I became a much more dedicated game player.”
For Tareq Doufish, PinchPoint’s head of development, video games offered an escape from the stress and uncertainty of his environment. “It was a hard and unstable life. No wonder we spent so much time playing video games in front of the television,” he told me. Doufish graduated as an electrical engineer from Birzeit University, near Ramallah, but during his studies decided to teach himself how to program in order to broaden his employment options. “I would sneak into the computer lab whenever I could,” he said. “The draw to learn how to make video games was strong; it was something I’d dreamed of doing since I was a child.” An opportunity arose when Doufish left college for a freelance position on an interactive art project. “We made a game called Save the World, in which players had to find ways to address global issues of pollution and poverty by engaging virtual characters in conversation in order to gather clues,” he said.
Around this time, Apple opened the App Store for developers around the world to self-publish their games. In early 2008, Kheir joined Apple’s developer program, where, for a small fee, a person is able to submit games and apps to be sold by the App Store. He was one of the first people in the Middle East to register. His first project was a hangman game, iHang, but Kheir was unable to sell it because Apple did not recognize the Palestinian territories on its registration system. “Apple could not send me payments,” Kheir said. “Palestinian banks are not listed under Israel. I tried to open a bank account in Israel or Jordan, but I wasn’t able to. In the end, the game was never published.”
Kheir then decided to found a mobile-video-game studio with Doufish and two of his friends: Nasr, who holds an M.F.A. in animation from U.C.L.A., and a talented programmer, Ammar Tazami. The friends rented a small office in Ramallah in the spring of 2013. “We were brainstorming game ideas in a local coffee shop when Ammar wondered out loud why nobody has ever made a video game about sperm,” Kheir said. While researching the idea, the team found a BBC documentary on YouTube that explores a sperm’s journey. “We immediately felt the journey of a sperm was perfect for a video game,” Kheir said. “The various challenges and difficulties sperm encounters could translate perfectly.”
Contrary to the team members’ expectations, most of their friends and families supported Spermania’s subject matter. “The theme itself might be a bit controversial,” Nasr, who designed the game’s cartoonish aesthetic, said. “But the art style gives the game a light and humorous feel. Most people laugh about the idea, and we haven’t received any threats. My two sons, who are five and two, enjoy the game, although they don’t know what it’s really about.” Not everyone shares his sons’ enthusiasm. “One girl told us that the game is disgusting and that she didn’t want to know any more about it,” Kheir said. “But people’s reactions seem to be random, regardless of gender or religious belief. My mom thinks I’m wasting my time, but most people giggle when they hear about the game.”
While the game’s theme may be universal, Spermania follows Western trends in art and style. Nevertheless, the team believes that the unique experiences and viewpoints of Palestinian game-makers could result in video games that reflect something of the culture in which they are written. “I truly believe that Palestinians are very innovative and out-of-the-box thinkers,” Kheir said. “It’s something that is required in our day-to-day life, and I’m certain that, when given the chance, this makes our games different.” Doufish agreed. “Our society is immensely colorful,” he said. “We are used to daily struggles and have a keen awareness of life’s fragility. That brings with it a resolution to make things work in the face of adversity, to persevere and triumph, even against the most overwhelming odds.”
NewYorker – Simon Parkin