As a frequent public speaker in the games industry, I recently had the honor of presenting at the lovely XOXO Festival in Portland. As a game developer that cares a great deal about the economical and technological democratizing game development, I tend to speak about the practicalities of the creative process and the commercial aspects of game development. XOXO’s venue challenged me to speak about something more personal, so while I normally focus my talks on empowering anyone to express themselves creatively through games development, I decided to discuss a part of me that I normally avoid in public speaking.
I might be one of the most visible half-Arab and Muslim game developers in the world. I say that with pride and with sadness, because it is a situation I would love to remedy as quickly as possible. A large part of my activities, outside of running an Forbes 30-under-30 award-winning independent games studio, are focused on supporting developer communities and game creators in emergent territories by visiting them – almost always without receiving speaking fee and frequently at personal expense. I strongly believe in the medium of games, but I also believe that diversity is central to it reaching its full potential.
One of the many remaining invisible barriers to the actual and full democratisation of the games industry is cultural democratisation. As you might have noticed during the tumultuous last few years in gaming, gender diversity is currently the main focus of that discussion. Rightfully so, considering 52% of all people playing games are female, versus only 22% of creators. The struggle for racial diversity has thankfully slowly been gaining more mainstream visibility, as slow but hopeful progress is being made regarding gender diversity.
The America- and Eurocentrism of Game Development
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The notion that the games industry is entrenched in Western culture is often overlooked. When we discuss diversity, it (unintentionally) almost always discusses the Western notion of diversity. This is, as many of these issues are, exacerbated by the cultural entrenchment and history of computing and the technology sector in general.At the core of these concerns one tends to find the issue of the language barrier. For example, as Aditya Mukerjee remarks in a fantastic piece on the issue, “you can text a pile of poo”, while most languages still do not enjoy full support in modern computers even in 2016. Conceptual artist Ramsey Nasser created a conceptual art piece called ‘Qlb’, a programming language in Arabic –that sadly remains a conceptual art piece to this day – simply because the technical hurdles of implenting it on devices that were meant to process English are staggering.
This means that creatives in non-Western countries have to deal with a ridiculous plethora of additional obstacles on their journey to game development: most if not all game creation tools are provided in English only, programming languages only support primarily English, their language might not properly display on computer devices, information and documentation on game development primarily exists in English, the mainstream games press is almost exclusively English, and in many cases they face a political and geographical distance from trade events, conferences and games press. If you dare to ask a (support) question in any gaming forum in any language but English, you’ll get reminded that this is an English-speaking forum, and then probably made fun off for making a typo.
If any person outside of the Western world is creating games, I can’t but conclude that they’re exceptionally determined to be making games.
Did Rami Get Random Checked?
After the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, the United States have implemented increasingly draconian security measures in all sorts of parts in life. Getting access to the United States can be a troublesome chore for many around the world, and sometimes requires intervention from ‘Western’ friends or embassies to broker at all. Every time a major Islamic terrorist attack happens, every muslim is held accountable. After the Paris terrorist attacks, anti-muslim sentiment and violence in the West surged.
Not that that’s particularly new: I’m used to the United States overreaching on their security. My advocacy for diversity takes me around the world, and I often fly up to ten times a month. In 2013, I noticed that I got additional checks for an extremely high percentage of my 70+ flights that year. These checks are presented as ‘randomly assigned additional checks’, usually simple procedures that sometimes include interrogation rooms or other delays. As I started talking about these checks with fellow game developers, the notion that they were actually ‘randomly assigned’ quickly became less and less probable.
— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) February 2, 2015
A fellow Arab pointed out to me that the checks weren’t random after all. My boarding passes had a mark on them that I hadn’t noticed before as being out of the ordinary, since it showed up on quite a lot of my boarding passes.
I am fortunate enough to avoid most of that in my daily life, living in the generally progressive Netherlands. But I’m reminded that I’m “undesirable” every now and then. In 2014, I flew approximately one hundred flights. For the entire year, I publicly kept track of how often I was random checked and where I was random checked. Where most fellow game developers – even those that travel frequently – mentioned having been checked once or twice in their life, I got random checked on one out of five flights. The majority of the checks I received were on flights to the United States, under their Secondary Security Screening Selection program.
So sure, I’m reminded that everybody thinks I might be a terrorist twice a week during a pat-down or interrogation, but that’s “just an inconvenience” to anyone who doesn’t have to deal with that kind of thing. I am scared of checking at what time I can eat during the fasting month of Ramadan aboard an airplane, because doing that often looks like this on a laptop screen.
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When I was younger, I learned to avoid mentioning I’m partially Arab or Muslim, even when it was relevant. Then I unlearned it again. My name is Rami Ismail, and I’m half-Dutch, half-Egyptian and raised as a muslim. I am also a game developer.
Let’s look at what Muslims, people from the Arab world, and people from the Middle East look like in games.
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That sign on the left? Not Arabic.
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I’ve gotten so used to people pushing back on the idea that there are barely any ‘good Arabs protagonists’ in games that I’ve developed a metric I call ‘time to Prince’, the amount of time in seconds between asking the question about ‘good Arabs in games’ and someone mentioning the 1989 classic game ‘Prince of Persia’. The prince is Persian, not Arabic. There’s a hint in the name somewhere.
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The few Arabic playable characters that do exist have either been thinly veiled terrorist metaphors such as ‘the opposing force’, or whitewashed to the point of not being recognized as such, or are made to seem as non-threatening as possible. The one example I can think of is 2007 Ubisoft title Assassin’s Creed, which placed you in the shoes of a flawlessly English-speaking Christian and potential Syrian.
Named ‘Altaïr Ibn La’Ahad’, the ‘Ibn La’Ahad’ meaning ‘son of no-one’ and referring to Altaïr being orphaned at a young age. His father was later said to be named ‘Umar’, which would’ve meant Altaïr’s name would’ve been ‘Altaïr Ibn-Umar”. His father’s full name is later revealed to be ‘Umar Ibn La’Ahad’, meaning either his father was also orphanaged at a young age and only passed on the name ‘Ibn La’Ahad’ by sheer ironic accident, or it’s some sort of horrible joke the entire family is playing on everybody they know.
While a lot of the Arabic in the game is spot-on, the voice acting tend to have some rather cringeworthy accent to it. That’s still far better than most games, in which Arabs and Arabic are seemingly considered barely relevant beyond making sure they ‘look like terrorists’ – which, as we’ve all learned from TV Series Homeland, just means you’ve got to play into the bearded men in a desert street stereotype. The budget is going to explosion effects for abandoned cars and IED’s and ragdolls for dead terrorists, so that they fly away properly when shot.
It seems that Western media has agreed that adding some of that “Arabic singing in the background” makes something Arabic. It sounds Eastern to me. And maybe some rituals. I saw Morgan Freeman doing something that looks Muslim to me somewhere in a movie.
Come to think of it, I’ve rarely heard proper Arabic in Western movies or on TV, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an flawless authentic Muslim prayer in any mainstream production, ever. It’s a pretty solid reminder we’re the “others”, and it sure seems to suggest that the games industry tends to think of us primarily as ragdolls.
My name is Khan
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In spite of a culture in which their culture continuously being ridiculed and antagonized, the games industry is a dream for many Arabs, Muslim or not, and for many Muslims, Arab or not. In 2015, the Global Game Jam, a simultaneous game making competition around the world, had one of its best attended locations in Cairo, Egypt. To become part of the games industry, they have to face antagonism towards and ridicule of their culture and politics, stereotyping, a language barrier, geographic distance, reduced access to resources and marketing, and yet they’re here.
I’ve met many aspiring developers like them around the world, and in many places people face similar problems. Whereever I go, access to funding, tools, documentation, marketing, trade events and language support are mentioned too. Russian developers lamented the one-sided and poor representation of their country, history and language in “historic” games. South American developers discussed the “South American threat” trope in modern shooters with me. They don’t feel taken seriously in the medium, and they want to make a difference. They want to make games. So they decide to download one of the most popular game development tools in the world.
— Zakir Khan (@Muzzakh) January 10, 2016
The screenshot, posted by Zakir Khan, shows up when registering an account for the Epic Games website. While they were signing up for access to the Paragon beta, the Epic Games website does not only include games but also one of the most well-known and powerful game creation tools on the planet. Apparently the combination of one of the, if not the most popular first name in the world, and one of the most common last names in Asia, prohibits you from downloading the development tool at all. An imposing message notified Muhammed Khan, who was born with two of the most common names worldwide and literally has a movie named after this same type of confusion, that they’re blocked from creating an account because their first and last name is blocked by the United States of America’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, because they’re a Specially Designated National.
It sure would be a shame if something happened to your dreams of becoming a game develope
After some digging, it quickly became clear what happened: the US maintains a sanctions list called the OFAC SDN. The purpose of the SDN is to help US businesses identify people they’re prohibited from dealing with due to terrorism, narcotics, or economical sanctions. People included can be part of dozens of ‘sublists’, including Denied Entry lists, US PATRIOT Act lists and Sanctions list. The entire list is 1008 pages long.
So if your name happens to be in this 1008 page list, the USA suggests you maybe forget about your game dev dreams. https://t.co/N8taNcCnL9
— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) January 11, 2016
US businesses are to avoid doing business with any person or entity on the list, risking criminal penalties for willful violations including fines ranging up to $20 million and imprisonment of up to 30 years. Some civil violations can be fined over a million US dollars for each violation.
Proper implementation of the OFAC SDN list is as follows: if a probable match occurs, US entities are requested to take steps to ensure it is not an exact match, first by checking against the rest of the available information. Further steps often require manual intervention. To ensure no rules are broken, companies are encouraged to “freeze” any assets or transactions under “duediligence“, whether it’s service- or money-based, until further checks have been completed.
We need more diverse diversity
Two hours after the issue was reported, Epics’ Tim Sweeney offered this competent and genuine apology
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) January 10, 2016
With that, many would consider the issue resolved; but obviously I disagree. While the response itself was great and worthy of praise, I disagree that their handling is to be applauded, as in the meanwhile, the actual issue remains. Thesymptom was rapidly and perfectly dealt with, but one can’t help but wonder how many Arabic, Persian and Muslim developers without a visible social media account ran into this issue & gave up on UDK, or worse, discouraged from game development entirely. The issue is that nobody with proper understanding of the impact of this system was requested to look at it, or nobody with that knowledge was available at Epic.
Because how is it possible that engineers for a major coorporation in a global medium didn’t once think, ‘maybe implementing this list by names only is a bad idea’? Any person even remotely aware of the Middle East, the Arab world, or Islam, would’ve been able to tell you filtering by Muhammed would be a bad idea. Or someone simply didn’t give it any thought, despite literally withholding access to their product and service at the most basic level.
And if the only person touching this filtering system was an engineer, that’d be bad, because not only is it a bad implementation by the standards offered by the OFAC, it also involves a diversity problem that should be dealt with by someone versed in those issues. If a designer touched this filtering system, it’d be bad, because they clearly lacked the understanding that would’ve helped them realize that almost 2 billion people on the planet are at a relatively high risk to be negatively impacted by this.
Even though Epic Games seems to have not implemented it, it seems many implementations of the OFAC SDN list use fuzzy string search<, or approximate checks, to further reduce liability. And while it sure is a great way of reducing liability, using fuzzy string search for this is a bad idea. I’ve entered the names of every prominent Arab or Muslim developer I could think of into the official SDN Search Tool, and at 90% accuracy it return the majority of them as a positive. At 85% accuracy, it returned all but one developer. I was included as a positive in that list. The only developer that didn’t return a match is literally royalty.
The world is a big, complicated place, and we all make mistakes. One part of dealing with mistakes is acknowledging them, taking responsibility, and fixing them – as Tim Sweeney so eloquently did in less than 140 characters. Another part of dealing with mistakes is ensuring there’s a structure in place to ensure similar mistakes are less likely to occur again.
Part of improving, and diversifying the games industry is gaining an understanding of the challenges that exist in emergent territories, and understanding the challenges that exist simply because of the West’s primary position in the games industry.
We need to understand that, while our progress regarding visible diversity issues is extremely important, diversity cannot be limited to those things that are already visible as problems in our industry. Part of diversifying a medium is understanding that the invisible voices are those we need to be listening to most. Part of diversity efforts should be an understanding that diversity is a powerful word, and that any diversity effort itself will always fail to represent all that it means.
Muhammed Khan, whoever they may be, wanted to make an account on a website that contains games and game development tools. That website, and through it our industry, no matter our intent or goals or reasons, told them that they weren’t welcome.
We need to do much better than that.