For Young Saudi Women, Video Games Offer Self-Expression : Parallels Saudi women gamers gather at an annual convention, dressing as their favorite characters and exercising freedoms they want to see more of in their lives.
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For Young Saudi Women, Video Games Offer Self-Expression

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For Young Saudi Women, Video Games Offer Self-Expression

For Young Saudi Women, Video Games Offer Self-Expression

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's just say it - you would not expect this scene in a conservative Muslim country. We're going to an annual convention for women video gamers in Saudi Arabia. The woman there are dressed as action heroes. Some consider this a more important step than the country's upcoming elections. Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: For young Saudis, life is conducted online, on phones and on gaming platforms. Here in a hotel ballroom, virtual reality meets real-life. This is GCON, an annual convention for young women who love video games and grew up playing them with their siblings. Some 3,000 showed up over the two-day event. Tasneem Salim is a cofounder of GCON. And she says games offer more than just play.

TASNEEM SALIM: We definitely do learn a lot from games. You'd be surprised how many people have picked up, you know, English and other languages just by playing games, languages as hard as Japanese.

AMOS: This is not the Saudi Arabia that most people know.

SALIM: No, it's not. It's definitely not. It's a side of Saudi Arabia that people rarely get to see, but it's real, and it exists. And here we are.

AMOS: There are more than two dozen PlayStations, and women are gathered around the consoles, furiously playing in pairs, sometimes singles. There's "Assassin's Creed." There's "Uncharted." There's "Need For Speed." All of these young women are dedicated gamers.

FELWA AL-SWAILEM: They call themselves geeks, so - (laughter) it's not...

AMOS: It's no embarrassment.

AL-SWAILEM: There's no embarrassment. Actually, I call myself a geek, too. I don't think it's a terrible thing.

AMOS: That self-described geek is Felwa al-Swailem, another cofounder of an event that encourages girls to aim for careers in science and computer programming. Here, many female college students outperform males in math, technology and engineering. And video games, the blockbusters from the U.S., Europe and Japan, opens young woman to a wider world.

AL-SWAILEM: You know, being a person like that, you're open to many things. You're open to a lot of cultures. And I think that's a positive thing.

AMOS: It's a striking thing to see an event that encourages such open self-expression. Some come dressed as their favorite game characters and creatures. The costumes are creative and elaborate. Silver wings, helmets, wigs of platinum cartoon hair. Behind closed doors in this all-female event, it's a stunning transformation from the traditional all-black cover ups that Saudi women must wear.

So you have on a black hat, big glasses, a mustache. Who are you?

NADA EL-MATBOLI: I'm Charlie Chaplin.

AMOS: And why?

EL-MATBOLI: Because I think he speaks with his actions more than words can do.

AMOS: Nada el-Matboli is a 26-year-old kindergarten teacher. She says she comes up for the cosplay - short for costume play - popular in the West, now embraced by female Saudi gamers, who don't have many outlets for creativity.

EL-MATBOLI: If you really like a character, you want to be that character. You want to feel that character. It's nice to be someone else for a day.

AMOS: This convention is a sign of dramatic change for a wired generation with soaring expectations. But technology only goes so far in a society that lacks political rights. Saudi Arabia is making a cautious first step this week, allowing women to campaign and vote in local municipal elections. By coincidence, the GCON convention opened on the day that campaigns began. But only a handful here said they registered to vote. Leila Abdulrathman is a 26-year-old game developer.

LEILA ABDULRATHMAN: It's a huge step. I'm not saying it's not. And I'm very happy for it. But the women's participation, I don't think it will be as much as we wanted. It will be restricted.

AMOS: But doesn't somebody have to take a first step?

ABDULRATHMAN: Yes. Yes, I believe in that. And when I believe that this first step is something, I will join.

AMOS: For her and the young women here, this gathering, this community is as important as the vote. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh.

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