Iraqis find escape and success on a virtual battlefield

Bashar Abo Khalil’s PUBG character scurries around a wall in a pink robe and samurai helmet, hitting an enemy with a frying pan – standard fare in the mobile game causing a stir in Iraq.

The online star, known as G2G, is one of many Iraqis hooked on PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – a Battle Royale first-person shooter reminiscent of ‘The Hunger Games’ book and film series. “.

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The mobile version of the game has become so popular in Iraq, where 60% of the 40 million people are under the age of 25, that the country’s youth have been dubbed the “PUBG generation”.

Iraqis across the country spend hours every day on the game’s virtual battlefield, socialize via its live chat, play competitively, or even fall in love.

Abo Khalil, 31, said he used to play for hours to “stop thinking about problems”.

“When you play the game, you can shut yourself off from the rest of the world. It can be like a drug,” he added.

Now based in Turkey, he earns his living broadcasting games and making videos.

Fan Dalya Waheed said she plays PUBG for an hour or two a day with friends she met on the game and even set up a game hub at the electronics dealer where she works.

“It’s really easy to meet people on PUBG,” said the woman in her 30s, who lives in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq.

Some Iraqi parents have criticized the game as a waste of time or worried about the violence it depicts, with guns aplenty and explosives spattering blood.

But Reshar Ibrahim, who plays PUBG Mobile competitively, said the game would never be as bad as many Iraqis have experienced in real life during the decades of conflict that have devastated the country.

“It’s just a game,” said the 19-year-old Iraqi Kurd, who has lived in Sweden for three years.

In 2019, the country’s parliament banned PUBG amid local reports that it was leading to bankruptcy, suicide and divorce.

This decision, easily circumvented, has been criticized as being out of touch with the real challenges facing Iraqis.

Nearly 40% of young Iraqis are unemployed, according to the World Bank, and the country’s poverty rate has doubled to 40% during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Later that year, thousands of young Iraqis – some dressed in PUBG outfits – took to the streets to protest rampant corruption and unemployment. In the months that followed, some 600 protesters were killed in protest-related violence.

Abo Khalil and Ibrahim are just two of many successful Iraqi players outside the country, far removed from the added challenges of poor internet and unreliable electricity that players face at home.

Ibrahim, aka Freak, recently won the PUBG Mobile Star Arabia Challenge Most Valuable Player award which gave away $100,000 in total prizes.

His team, GunZ Esports, won the competition despite one player losing power in Iraq mid-match and another having to travel from southern Najaf to the northern Kurdistan region – where internet connectivity “is slightly better. “Ibrahim said.

Helmat Shiar, 23, who took part in the tournament with Iraqi team iKurd E-Sports, said it’s not just Iraqis “playing against teams overseas who have a much stronger internet “.

There was also “no support” from private or government sponsors, he lamented.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, governments and major sponsors are pumping money into esports.

In the Gulf, the gaming market is expected to reach $821 million this year, according to consultancy firm Strategy&.

Hayder Jaafar said he struggled for 10 years to register his non-governmental Iraqi Electronic Sports Federation as a full member of the international gaming body before succeeding in 2020.

“The structure of the Ministry of Youth for eSports was last changed in 2009, and a lot has changed in eSports since then,” the 38-year-old told AFP.

Iraq suffers from war-ravaged infrastructure and poor electricity – most households only have a few hours of state-supplied electricity per day.

But there are 40 million mobile phone connections in the country and 30 million internet users, according to a 2021 DataReportal study.

Last year, PUBG was the 11th most searched term in Iraq on Google, and variants of the game’s name also held several top spots in YouTube searches.

PUBG’s widespread popularity is partly due to the launch of a free mobile version by Chinese tech giant Tencent, which said in March that more than a billion people had downloaded the app since 2018.

iKurd player Jiner Hekmat, 18, said he was addicted to the mobile version but did not pin all his hopes on being a competitive player, saying he wanted to focus on his studies.

But, he added, “I will also do everything to keep my level in PUBG, and continue to play as long as the game exists”.

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