Video gaming comes of age as players get lucrative deals

Usiku Games CEO Jay Shapiro during the interview in Nairobi on October 4, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

The gaming industry has grown. From being seen as an addictive game causing mental disorders, to one where parents are forced to spend a lot of money buying expensive games which are then loaded into even more expensive game machines, to one that has benefits.

Now hundreds of Kenyans are earning from online games and teachers are using e-sports to sharpen the mental faculties of children, and teach teamwork, communication, creative thinking, and digital literacy.

Jay Shapiro, the founder, and CEO of Usiku Games says that gaming has always had positive aspects, but the challenge has been misconceptions. He talks, for instance, about the #GamingForGood campaign which has created a positive social impact.

“Usiku Games are fun to play, but they also have positive messages around financial inclusion, women's empowerment, and climate change.”

Gaming also plays a big role in education.

“There is an old saying: "tell me and I will forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn. That is the foundation of educational games. Students learn from games by doing, they solve fun challenges in the games by demonstrating their understanding of the educational concepts. Games are now played in Kenya classrooms, but also by farmers learning about the effects of climate change,” adds Mr Shapiro.

Part of the benefits of gaming is employing youth passionate about technology, which remains unexploited. “Creating new industries like bus manufacturing requires billions of shillings in investment in factories and equipment. Whereas gaming is a part of the knowledge-based economy. Give a talented Kenyan a laptop, tools, training, and a job, and they can produce world-class games as good as any where in the West,” says Mr Shapiro.

“With the right government support and external investment, this industry can create one million new jobs and billions in value,” he adds.

One of the Kenyans that have found lucrative opportunities in electronic sports (e-sports) is professional gamer Sylvia Gathoni, a 24-year-old. Others have securedcontracts to work with tech brands and earn up to Sh50,000.

Ms Gathoni plays Tekken under the name Queen Arrow and was the first Kenyan gamer to be signed by an international team.

“I used to enjoy playing video games. Though I was a student, I would still squeeze time in my busy class schedule and play,” Ms Gathoni says, adding that right now she views video games as a profession and not just a pastime.

Gaming has also enabled her to travel to France, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Botswana among other countries to compete with other gamers.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) in the International Classification of Diseases has included gaming addiction as a mental disorder, but others see it as a stress reliever.

Vincent Okoth, 34, plays video games for relaxation.

“There was a time in my life when I was so stressed. I started playing video games and my stress levels have somewhat reduced,” he says.

How do the game developers protect against addiction? How long should a person should be online playing is part of a broader question about screen time in general, argues Mr Shapiro.

“How much time should a child spend watching Netflix? TikTok? The answer to that question varies based on every child, the realities of how present their parents are, and the nature of the content they are consuming."

"In my own family, we always had the policy that if my child are watching documentaries, or playing educational games, then they could spend as much time as they like. Other media that may not be as positive, had limits,” says Mr Shapiro, the founder of Usiku Games which has more than 200 games with millions of players.

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