To an observer, the matatu minibuses darting through Nairobi’s congested streets seem like a grave threat to public safety. But to Kenya’s developers, these death-defying taxis look like a smartphone game just waiting to be created. In Ma3Racer, developed by Kenya’s Planet Ruckus, gamers must dodge pedestrians, bikes and trucks, all while driving a rickety matatu bus. The app has proven a hit with virtual daredevils, having been downloaded by nearly a quarter million people from 169 countries just one month after its release.
By Steven Blum
Africa’s mobile gaming world is booming, driven by cheap phones, an influx of new telecom subscribers and increasingly ambitious developers. There are currently 635 million subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa and the number is expected to climb to 930 million by the end of 2019, according to a report by Ericsson. Meanwhile, smartphone prices continue to plummet – a Chinese-made Android phone like the Tecno M3 handset can be bought for around $80 in Nairobi.
While crazy taxi rides and animal attacks are recurring motifs in African games, many developers have larger ambitions. Coming from a continent that contains 54 countries, 3,000 cultures and myriad languages, developers there want to challenge Western perceptions and expose players to uniquely African themes.
Kuluya Games, based in Nigeria, takes distinctly African characters and makes them the centerpieces of their games. In Afro Fighters, one of the studio’s most popular apps, you can play as Safari the Warrior and attempt to defeat the Dark Lord of Oti.
Meanwhile, Ghana’s Leti Arts combines comic strips and gameplay in titles like Ananse: The Origin, based on a character from West African folklore.
“There are lots of African stories that haven’t been told. With Ananse, you have a very cunning character with spider-like powers from the days of ancient Africa … before Spiderman existed,” co-founder Wesley Kirinya said in an interview with Reuters.
Other apps aim to improve literacy. In Zword, by Nigerian start-up Matutu, players must spell a word correctly within a short time frame or risk being eaten alive by zombies. “The faster you type, the faster they die,” reads the website’s slogan.
Many of the continent’s mobile apps and games are being developed at co-working spaces and incubators like iHub in Kenya, Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria and IceAddis in Ethiopia.
Mobile infrastructure still doesn’t allow for Africa’s app developers to make a lot of money from in-app purchases. According to Ovum, a telecoms research company, the average African spends about $6 a month on their phone, compared with $48 in North America.
But as Africa’s middle class grows, things are beginning to change.
“[The] perception of gaming is changing,” said Kirinya in an interview with Polygon. “People are taking it more seriously, and it’s actually looking like a viable business now. And also we’re seeing inroads in terms of government support and recognition for game development growth over the last couple of years.”
Anne Shongwe, who founded the South African based company Afroes after working in international development for over 20 years, says that things have started to change in just the past few years.
“When I started the company three years ago there was a global market for this, but there wasn’t an African market,” she said in an interview with CNN. “The skill set was here, but companies didn’t believe it was worth investing. For us we are prioritising content for Africa.”
Afroes now employs nine people in South Africa and Kenya, focusing on games that raise awareness of social issues.
“Our focus is games for change,” said Shongwe. “We have developed a game called Moraba. It’s part of a partnership with UN Women and its aim is to end violence against women. As you play the games you answer questions related to gender-based violence.”
Kinyua also sees games as agents for social change. “Most games give you an environment where you have to tackle a problem by yourself,” he said. “No mob to back you up, no peers to cheer you on, just you and your limited lives. Maybe we should start taking the idea of solving societal issues with gaming more seriously.”
Whatever the theme, African developers are still waiting on a breakout hit to take the continent’s gaming to the next level. “Our challenge is to be able to do that with a really small budget,” said Kirinya. “[We] just need maybe one success which proves the point. And then probably we can get bigger funding to create — to do even better.”