Ask a hardcore gamer what drives their habit, and they might say games give them a fix of fantasy, or a mind-expanding, pulse pumping, virtual escape. But Obi Hugo’s new game company is banking on the notion that people crave something else: a dose of African daily life.
You may know someone addicted to Farmville, a game that has opened up the “casual gaming” genre, giving players a taste of the mundane reality that Hugo envisions for his games. But Farmville comes from a Silicon Valley company, and last spring, Hugo, a Nigerian in the Diaspora, looked at the digital content in Africa and realized that everything came from Silicon Valley or Japan. None of his fellow Nigerians were starting software firms. Also, most video games about the African experience dealt with the continent’s problems: war, poverty, and AIDS — games that play a role, but don’t necessarily delve into the heart of what it is to be an African.
So Hugo and some of his friends made it their mission to change this. They “looked at the local culture, the local attitudes and trends, and tried to make games out of them.” And so began Maliyo, a Nigerian game company with an aim to make games for Africans, by Africans —games that locals can relate to and understand. They want to make games that the 6 million Nigerian refugees, the most educated immigrants in the world, can play to remind themselves of their abandoned homes and lifestyles. They want to inspire these refugees to contribute to entrepreneurship and help reflect their own experiences in the digital world. They want to make games that could inform a global audience about the universality of the human experience. “It was the missing piece,” Oluseye Soyode-Johnson, Hugo’s partner said.
In one of their games called “Okada Ride,” the player takes on the persona of Ali, an impoverished and “cheeky” motorbike rider that must navigate heavy traffic, potholes and police on the Lagos streets. Another game consists of swatting mosquitoes, not to make some grand statement about the prevalence of malaria, but simply to create common ground — most Africans, despite their differences, will attest to the pests’ annoying and ubiquitous presence. A Nigerian migrant in one of the big cities might play “My Village” or “The Tribes” to recall memories of rural life.
When the company does take on serious problems, it does so with a refreshingly light-hearted approach. For instance, the fact that Nigeria has a deep-rooted kidnapping culture is reflected in “Kidnapped,” in which the gamer must rescue a friendly neighborhood couple from abductors.
Even in their first few months as a start-up, Maliyo is succeeding. They have created six games so far, and they are working hard to satisfy demands and release others. Since Maliyo’s games are in the “casual” genre, the company hopes to be a good match for Facebook, where similar games, like Farmville, have thrived. Yet Maliyo gamers will find themselves doing more than tilling fake fields — they will be connecting with the “African narrative,” and, in doing so, pave the way for a future Africa of enterprise and innovation, and for a global community with a deeper understanding of the region.