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Fan conventions: the rise of nerd culture in Addis
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Fan conventions: the rise of nerd culture in Addis

Nerd culture is universal. Whether it starts at a young age or develops later in life, some take a hobby or simple interest and develop a lifestyle around it. Youths, usually between the ages of 15 and 30, connect and gather around to a common interest like comic books, superheroes or video games. Nerd Army is one such example.

The army is composed of avid fans passionate and deeply knowledgeable about a certain element of pop culture. From cult TV shows to obscure Japanese anime, from comic books to massive multiplayer online games (MMOG), the army is highly versed in all.

Gaining entry into the army is no easy task. One must pick a topic ranging from comics, books, or movies and then members intensively test the applicant’s knowledge.

Nerd Army collaborated with Eerie Inc., a collective of filmmakers, to produce eeriecon., a costume party event in Addis Ababa. Attendees enthusiastically dress as heroes or villains from comics, TV shows, or books. Pop culture references abound. The army also organizes exchange events where people bring external hard drives and exchange books, movies or video games.

Gaming days are another big day to congregate. Organized by D5, a division of Arma Advertising Company, these game days are where gamers all over the city gather for a few hours and play a game they enjoy like FIFA or Call Of Duty. The winning team gets a trophy and prize money of 5000 birr.

D5 has been a big name in gaming within the context of Ethiopia. Aside from organizing these game competitions, D5 also hosts workshops on game development. Kirubel Girma, one of the founders of D5, says they continue to represent Ethiopia in the regional gaming scene. Along with individuals interested in gaming and organizations like iceAddis and xHub willing to offer space for gamers to work and play, D5 can be credited with the budding gaming culture in Addis Ababa.

“The connection you have with people that you share a common passion with is amazing,” he adds enthusiastically. Sharing a single thing, these individuals being able to discuss for hours at a time is a treasure to them. Conversations had online while playing together or talking about a game often turn into friendships. This aspect of social interaction is important to Kirubel.

While gaming has become a billion dollar industry in the western world, Africa is far behind the trend. Poor internet infrastructure and local investors’ inability to see the market potential have held visionary developers and gamers behind.

D5 participates in East African, regional and international competitions and conventions depending on financing available.

They have participated in Global Game Jam, a 48-hour intensive game-designing event along with 157 countries worldwide, although there were only a handful of African countries were represented.

Game development, of course, cannot be done by a single programmer or coder. According to Dagmawi Bedilu from Enter Africa as well as Chewata Awaki, developing one game is a team effort that requires graphic designers/artists, fashion/costume designers, musicians, storytellers, and video artists. This combination of multiple disciplines creates a unique game and gaming experience for the player.

Enter Africa: Past, Present, Future is an initiative by Goethe Institute in 15 African cities designed to encourage young people to use games to change and transform their cities. Gamification is a method of creatively solving problems by changing the presentation of the issue, turning it into play. Teams of developers, architects, city planners, designers, artists and engineers develop location-based games in the context of their cities. The Addis Ababa team, supported by Dagmawi and Bethelhem Anteneh will ‘be one of the first ones to capture the essence of the fading city through a path less travelled’. Dagmawi collaborated in the development of  ‘Battle of the Times’  - a game that references historic Ethiopian battles showcased at the Gamescom event in Berlin. There are a few games developed in Ethiopia, one worth mentioning is Gebeya.net’s charming mobile game ‘Kukulu’.

Chewata Awaki is a joint initiative by the British Council’s Creative Futures and Goethe Institute that celebrates games and introduces gamification to a wide range of people in the city. It was memorably a part of Goethe Institute’s Tibeb Be-Adebabay, a weeklong art and creativity showcase in major areas of Addis Ababa.

“Chewata Awaki was a huge relief for us,” says Kirubel. “Their activities creating more awareness and changing mindsets about gaming has been really good.”

One of the biggest problems games encounter is the public perception of games as time wasters, says Kirubel. Even though international gaming champions receive hundreds of millions of dollars in prize money and the global eSports economy is expected to reach one billion dollars in 2018, public prejudice and disdain is persistent.

To Dagmawi, gaming is not just entertainment but another way of creating meaningful impact. “Games are the highest form of art for me. If you go to the Louvre and see paintings you are a spectator. If you go to a concert, you’re an audience member. But there’s no spectatorship in games. You are a player. You are part of the art. It is active and engaging.”

Dagmawi’s interests in games can be summed up as ‘games for change. He gives the example of science fiction and any fictitious representation of the future. “Stories of the future are not inclusive of Africa. Africans need to tell their own stories. In first person shooter games like Call of Duty (an MMORPG) the only African character is maybe an African dictator you have to kill. We have a waiting mindset. We are either waiting for western aid or waiting for God.”

Kirubel mentions the depiction of the Axumite Empire in the Microsoft owned real time strategy video game Edge of Empires, a connection only one familiar with the history can make. “We have 5000 years worth of Ethiopian history to explore and share ourselves.”

The issues that the Addis Ababa team has chosen to gamify for Enter Africa are transport: tourism and health. Dagmawi gives the example of Tenadam, the health initiative designed to keep doctors in touch with patients after patients have been cured. The project aims to help overworked doctors get perspective on how they are contributing to the continued health of a person, creating positive impact in their day-to-day activities and giving meaning to the emotionally tasking health care profession.

Dagmawi worked a nine to five government job, until gaming changed his life completely. “If we can change khat houses to game houses we are creating more proactive young people,” he says.

Enter Africa plans to launch the games created in January 2019 and then turn them into an international ‘analog and digital megagame’.

Games can clearly be used as a profitable financial venture as well as possible way to create social impact so why has it not caught on?

According to Kirubel, it’s hard to think of D5 as a business. In the 3 years since establishment it has not made them revenue but demanded quite a bit of expenditure when organizing gaming competitions, renting venue, expensive international travel costs to compete internationally or participate in conventions.

Countries like South Africa, Nigeria and even Kenya have growing investment in the industry. They host comicon and giant gaming conventions. Their governments are creating policy frameworks that support the gaming industry.

“The African market is wide open. There is place for us regionally but we have limitations at home,” says Kirubel. “The largest untapped market is the 75 percent of the youth in Ethiopia. The gaming community here is growing steadily. Our job is to direct this growing interest.”

D5’s regional activities have put Ethiopia on the African gaming map. D5 has participated in comicon Kenya and is preparing for Global Game Jam 2019. They frequently receive invitations from various African and international gaming conventions but the costs of travel are extravagant. The vexing thing about gaming conventions or meetings on African games for Kirubel is that these events are not held in African cities. Or if one country is doing well in the industry their work comes represents all of Africa.

There are many young people with the potential to create good games if given the opportunity. Failed investments, spending money out of their own pockets and foiled dreams are part of the story of gaming. Talented individuals are choosing to become programmers and graphic designers because game development has no money in it at the moment.

“We have been bruised but we are still going. It is hard but I love it. The passion is here,” Kirubel is confident about the future. “The market has potential. There will be return on investment in the next 5 years. I can guarantee that.”