A sexist and his hostages: why you see ads for Game of Sultans everywhere

The Bell

Ads for the video game Game of Sultans, in which an all-powerful sultan takes female hostages, forces them to lose weight and asks them discriminatory questions, have captivated Facebook, Instagram and YouTube since mid-September 2018 and have even spawned memes, despite complaints from users about the game’s openly sexist content. For example, the sultan can say to one of his female hostages, “You gave birth to an ugly creature, I don’t love you anymore, what should I do?” or “You father sold you, what should I do with you now?”.

The Bell discovered who invented the game about the sultan and how much he made from it, and also why the game’s ads are seemingly omnipresent.

Revenues from the sultan. Criticism on social media didn’t stop Game of Sultans from ranking among the top 5 best selling games in 22 countries in the AppStore and in 14 countries in Google Play (source: AppAnnie). Revenues from game downloads are estimated to be approximately $10 million per month, or 7 billion rubles annually (per SensorTower data). Since the beginning of September 2018, the average player spend in the game rose from $2.40 to $5.40, according to Nekki estimates.  

The game’s owner. Game of Sultans is produced by a Chinese studio, Mechanist Games, which has an office in the port city of Xiamen. The company believes the competitive advantage of its games to be the combination of “familiar stylistics of eastern cultures with typical western features” and has set a goal for itself to “make Chinese games known around the globe”. The founder of Jewei Games and Mechanist Games is named on LinkedIn as David Lindsay, who did not respond to The Bell’s request for comment. One of Lindsay’s acquaintances described him as “a quiet guy and a pianist”.

Lindsay calls himself an “industry pioneer” with a decade of experience developing games in China. He is originally from New Zealand, and from 1999-2003 studied at the University of Auckland where he received bachelor’s degrees in physics and music, specializing in composition. He then left for China and decided to stay there because he “fell in love with the ancient culture” of the country.

  • After moving to China, Lindsay translated Chinese studios’ games into English, and in 2009 became a game designer with the Chinese game development company, TQ Digital (games such as Eudemons Online, Conquer Online, etc). Next, Lindsay opened his own small studio, Jewei Games, and began to develop the game City of Steam. In 2011, the game was transferred to the portfolio of another company also founded by Lindsay, Mechanist Games (the company also published the games Spirit Guardian, Heroes of Skyrealm and War Clash).
  • David Lindsay’s wife played a major role in attracting investors to create Mechanist Games, according to Mark Charters, the owner an English language school in the city of Fuzhou, where Lindsay taught English, who spoke with The Bell. “Dave was a quiet guy and an excellent pianist,” Charters said. “He never seemed ambitious. I think his Chinese wife pushed him to pursue that path”.  

Is that ok for everyone? The first versions of Game of Sultans for mobile phones were launched in March and May 2018 and were subsequently deleted. The reason was not made public, but usually removals are related to complaints or not meeting standards. The game is now again accessible in both app stores, but now Game of Sultans writes that female hostages and their daughters are all 18 years old. Ads for the game continue to appear on all platforms.

  • In response to the question of whether or not Facebook finds the sexist publications of Game of Sultans concerning, the company’s press service advised The Bell to refer to its advertising policyThere Facebook writes that there should be no content which “discriminates against, harasses, provoke or disparages people who use Facebook or Instagram”.
  • The press services of Apple and Google did not respond to The Bell’s requests for comment. But in their guides for app owners, it is written that apps with descriptions of rape or mistreatment of children are forbidden.

Who are the sexist ads targeting?

  • The publications are targeted at Russia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The choice is understandable: the topic and format of a multiuser roleplay game and strategy is the favourite genre of male gamers in these regions, therefore it is convenient to test similar products out on them. In North and Latin America, and in the Asia Pacific region, the game wasn’t a success, Nekki explains
  • “You can stand up against harassment as much as you want, but as long as people click on these kinds of ads, they will continue to work,” a developer of online games at Nekki (with more than 250 million players), Alexander Lyubenko, explained. The hype around the unpleasant and at times sexist ads only causes them to go more viral. In addition, the ads, it would appear, accurately reflect the gaming experience.

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