The new smartphone game terrifying people in S. Arabia

Screengrab from the game "Mariam's Game", which is generating a buzz in Saudi Arabia.
Screengrab from the game "Mariam's Game", which is generating a buzz in Saudi Arabia.

A new game for smartphones, launched at the end of July by a young Saudi developer, is causing concern amongst people in Saudi Arabia. The game's narrative could almost be the script to a horror film. The premise is a little girl lost in the forest who asks the player to help her find her way home. Strangely, the questions she asks suddenly start to change in tone, becoming more personal — and, more than anything, politically charged.

"Mariam's game" was developed by Salman al-Harbi, a young Saudi researcher specialising in artificial intelligence. The game is only available on the Apple Store, and according to its creator, has been downloaded by more than 400,000 users since it was made available online on July 25. Of the people who downloaded it, 320,000 are based in Saudi Arabia.

In the game, the player is thrown into a creepy, horror-film-style atmosphere, with a little girl resembling an evil doll guiding you through the narrative (calling to mind the 2014 horror film Annabelle), and sound effects like creaking doors and whispering.

At the beginning of the game, the little girl asks for the player's help and poses him various anodyne questions such as, "Can you come with me?" or "Do you want to meet my parents?" Then, the questions start to become more and more personal: "What's your real name?", "What's your address?"

The little girl is apparently also well-versed in contemporary politics, as she goes so far as to ask the user their opinion on Saudi Arabia's boycott of Qatar. If you're Saudi, this is the kind of question to make you break out in a cold sweat: since July this year, any display of support towards Qatar can be punished by up to 15 years of prison.

In this screengrab, the girl asks, "Is Malek your real name or do you want to change it?"

"I heard that the Gulf countries punished Qatar," says the little girl. The user then has the option of responding, "Qatar is innocent" or "Yes, and they deserve it".    

Under the hashtag #حظر_لعبة_مريم ("Ban_Mariams_game"), lots of Internet users have demanded that the application be banned.

Translation: "Be careful! The game ends really badly. Threats, fears, murders (...) This is just another version of Blue Whale [a 'game' that incited teenagers to commit suicide]."

Translation: "Let everyone know. It [Mariam's game] violates people's private lives by asking personal questions. The answers are recorded, for whose interest?"

Some users have noted the similarity between this game and the "Blue Whale" game that encouraged lots of Russian teenagers to kill themselves over the past few months. Just like 'Blue Whale', 'Mariam's game' happens in several stages. When each stage is finished, the user has to wait a few days to be able to get to the next stage. So far, users have only been able to complete the first two stages as the next is not yet available, but already people are clamouring for the app to be banned.

Translation: "This game is very ambiguous and we're worried about the next few stages. We don't yet know what it's all about."

"The game uses the same methods as hackers"

Several Saudi and Kuwaiti experts in IT security also called for the application to be banned. Raed al-Roomi is a Kuwaiti expert in cybercrime. He is suggesting that certain problematic aspects of the game be altered.

The game is causing a lot of fear in Saudi Arabia and in other Gulf countries, because it uses the same tactics as hackers and other Internet con artists. It knows how to exploit the naivety of the user in order to manipulate them and get access to their personal information. This is what we call "social engineering".

The first stage involves the game earning your trust by presenting itself as an acquaintance, a friend. In the game, you meet a little frightened girl. You pity her because she's alone and lost. And then bit by bit, she builds an affectionate relationship with you. And out of nowhere she starts to ask you personal questions. Sometimes she even asks you to open up an internet page to listen to music, just like when a hacker sends you an email pretending to be a friend and asks you to open a link that contains a virus.

"The game's creator has agreed to take out the question about Qatar"

The spooky atmosphere in the game also caught my attention. On the Apple Store, it is open to players 9-years-old and upwards. I don't think that this horror film atmosphere in the game would be good for a 9-year-old child. Parents have told me that they're scared that at the end of the game the little girl will ask users to do things like cut themselves or even kill themselves, like what happened with the "Blue Whale" game.

As the game has only just come out, I haven't had a chance to really explore it yet. The creator maybe has good intentions behind it, but the tone of the game is already making people uncomfortable and making them scared of what's to come. What is al-Harbi going to do with the personal information he's gathered? Names, addresses, social media accounts, political opinions? I've asked him several times on Twitter, and on Wednesday, August 9, he agreed to delete the question about the boycott of Qatar.

Salman al-Harbi also said on Twitter that he won't record the personal information supplied by users. Personally, I'm not satisfied with that. There are so many grey areas around this game. We have to keep being vigilant. 

The FRANCE 24 Observers team has tried to get in contacted with Salman al-Harbi to know more about the game. At the time of publishing, we had not received a response.