Why you should care

She was sexually assaulted, but fought back in an unconventional way that might also help other survivors.

It’s common for game designers to get fanboys, people who upvote them on Reddit and high-five them in the street. But Soha Kareem’s work provokes a more sinister response. Child porn. GIF-formatted images of animal torture. She received this disturbing media from an anonymous troll, after publicizing her work with Plz Diversify Your Panel, an organization founded to encourage gaming discussion to include diverse voices.

And you really can’t get more “diverse” than 26-year-old Kareem.

She’s fragile-looking, barely 5 feet 3 inches, with huge brown eyes framed by oversized black spectacles. Her thick brown hair is streaked with blond — and sometimes doubles as a curtain against the world. But it’s not her gender that has provoked the extreme responses. At least not only her gender.

Kareem is half Iraqi, half Palestinian, and vocal about her heritage. She creates mesmerizingly troubling interactive games that revolve around kink and mental health. And she writes openly about gender problems in the game industry, which topped $93 billion in revenue in 2013, research firm Gartner estimates. That’s a whole lot of trouble right there, especially considering GamerGate, a rumpus that kicked off in August. It originally focused on ethics in game journalism but quickly descended into misogynistic threats toward female video gamers and critics. Kareem was so overwhelmed by hate mail that she decided to change her last name, from El-Sabaawi to Kareem. It’s still Arabic, but lacks the same Google juice. “I wanted to keep my ethnicity visible but not be as easy to find,” she tells OZY.

Playing through makes users address their own issues and challenge their understanding of BDSM relationships.

Based in Toronto, she started designing narrative games two years ago, after earning a master’s degree in photographic preservation. Both of her games are free online, with interactive stories about kink and sexuality, mixed up with identity issues, and Kareem’s reputation has been growing — not just among her more than 6,000 followers on Twitter, but thanks to appearances at industry panels and conferences such as one presented by the NYU School of Engineering’s Integrated Digital Media Program. Her browser-based, text-driven games are interwoven with images. It’s a point-and-click, choose-your-own-adventure style, eschewing traditional gaming movements and controls. Take her game “reProgram,” which explores kink. It’s undeniably dark but offers a level of therapy at the same time; playing through makes users address their own issues and challenge their understanding of bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) relationships.

Kareem is half Iraqi, half Palestinian, and vocal about her heritage.

Kareem is half Iraqi, half Palestinian, and vocal about her heritage.

Kareem’s voice is authentic as her personal experience shapes the story. She says she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing sexual assault and an abusive relationship. “The game is a way to reflect on the progress that I’ve made psychologically,” says Kareem, who designs her own games when she’s not working her day job at a mobile gaming company. (She was first intrigued by this space after attending a gaming festival and workshop.) In a world that stigmatizes mental health problems, Kareem refuses to be shy about struggling. “I like challenging people and making them uncomfortable.”

Jennie Faber, co-founder of Dames Making Games, a Toronto-based nonprofit that encourages the presence of women in gaming, thinks Kareem’s work is so important that she showcases her games — with an adult-content warning — at her monthly workshops as an example of empathetic games. “Soha’s work as an artist and developer makes other women realize they, too, can tell their important stories and can value their desire to create rather than bow to a culture that ignores it,” she says. Faber provides a community action plan for members to support them if they’re targeted.

Faber met Kareem in 2013 at a workshop for her nonprofit. Kareem had grown up loving video games — “Ocarina of Time” is a particular favorite — but it wasn’t till she played “Silent Hill 2” that she realized that games could be more than entertainment — they could be smart. She says the psychological elements of the game chilled her and inspired her to tell her own stories. Faber’s workshops teach women how to use Twine — an open source storytelling tool — and Kareem became hooked on the idea that she could create a meaningful story without having a technical background. “I find it a wonderful power trip; in a sense I’m creating my own world and I’m in charge of it,” Kareem says. She prefers the experimental side of gaming, creating stories that resonate and provoke emotions.

Some might dismiss her text-based stories as “pseudo-games,” but Faber is quick to dispel that idea. “There is a lot of room for experimentation and growth in independent game design,” she says. “Expanding our notions of what games are serves to develop games as an artistic form.”

The way romance and kink weave together and support higher self-esteem is really the way it works for many people.

— Carol Queen, founder of the Center for Sex and Culture

Sam Brown, a computer programmer who lives in London and practices BDSM, was surprised at how compelling playing “reProgram” was. “The game said things to me that I’ve struggled to express to myself,” he says. “It’s insanely beautiful and subtle.” He says he asked his submissive girlfriend, Amanda, to play and it sparked six hours of discussion. (Amanda chimed in, agreeing. “The game relates to where I am in life,” she says. “I could look into the past and see myself in the bad relationship choices, the brokenness, and I can look to the future and hope I can have that kind of beautiful, painful relationship.”)

Kareem has also created the game “Penalties,” which addresses her identity as a Palestinian immigrant. Players experience the isolation and controversy of Islamophobia through constructed scenes of torture and abuse. “I’m rewriting my own story and rewiring the things that have been pent up over the years,” she says.

Growing up she was acutely aware that she was different, the brown-skinned girl in the Canadian classroom (she emigrated from Saudi Arabia at 5), and that people reacted negatively to conversation about Palestine. She spent years repressing that part of her heritage, until she finally said f**k it and started to speak up. But it does get her in trouble. “I get more backlash about tweets about my Palestinian identity and Gaza than kink or BDSM or gender,” she says.

But are her games really helpful to people interested in exploring BDSM? San Francisco-based sexologist Carol Queen, who founded the Center for Sex and Culture educational nonprofit, says she loved Kareem’s creativity but has concerns about “reProgram.” “It seems to link BDSM desires with abuse, which is likely to be misleading to people who are unfamiliar with the scene,” she says. But she also thinks that those who are educated can learn a lot here. “The way romance and kink weave together and support higher self-esteem is really the way it works for many people,” she explains.

For now, Kareem is battling against the idea that her existence is some sort of message in itself. “A lot of women in games aren’t doing it as a statement, it’s what they love,” she says. “Sometimes you just want to be left alone to work and not receive this weird tension and analysis of why we do things we do.” And she’s going to keep fighting and writing and creating, she says, until that becomes reality.

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