As a Muslim video-game developer, I no longer feel the US is open for business
When I was a kid dreaming of being a game developer, I hoped that in the future I’d be joining a large studio and working on a blockbuster title. Things didn’t quite pan out that way. After leaving university with a fellow student, I am now the co-founder of my own company, Vlambeer, renowned for successful game releases such as Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing.
I was born in the Netherlands, the son of an Egyptian immigrant and a Dutch mother, and was raised as a proud Muslim. For the past years, much of my travel to the United States has led to secondary selection, investigation, or interrogation. For all 100 flights I took in 2014, I jokingly created a website that kept track of whether my boarding passes were marked for “random checks” before even reaching airport security. For many of the 1.6 billion Muslims across the world, whether they’re born in the western world or not, this is a recognisable issue with air travel. Many of my Muslim friends calculate an extra 30 minute delay for boarding and transfers.
The video game industry is one of the world’s most important creative sectors, generating $90bn a year in revenue, more than either movies and music – and it is strongly US-centric. While large game development pockets exist in the UK, north-western Europe and Asia, most of the largest companies, industry events, and industry press are centred around the coasts of the United States. For most developers around the world, their shot at success lays at the yearly Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, by far the largest gathering of industry professionals and knowledge in the world.
My studio has diverted significant resources towards helping fellow and aspiring game developers in emergent territories around the world. I often travel to speak to students, help coordinate communities, and guide opportunities for developers with potential. I spent a few days in 2015 researching what the relative costs to visit the Game Developers Conference would be. The results were shocking – for an Iranian game developer, going to GDC was the equivalent of £4,000. For someone from the Central African Republic with an average salary, the costs were the Western equivalent a staggering £120,000. For many enthusiasts around the world, visiting the Game Developers Conference is something they can afford maybe once or twice in their life – if at all.
When Donald Trump signed the executive order effectively banning Muslims from seven countries without any prior warning, the scene at many US airports was one of chaos and confusion. Muslims who boarded their plane in their country of departure with a valid visa and no reason to be turned back landed in violation of an order that didn’t exist when they boarded. Many Muslims were unnecessarily and illegally detained, or coerced to sign away their green cards. Muslims from countries not even on the list were turned away.
As one of the few visible Muslims in the games industry, I frequently talk about my experiences on the road with fellow Muslim developers who are flying to the US for the first time. In the wake of the executive order, many that spent years of their savings on the trip to San Francisco have learned that they won’t be allowed into the country any more. Even if they’d be allowed into the US, many are afraid of anti-Muslim sentiment from a population that can elect a president like Donald Trump, especially in the country with the highest homicide rate with guns in the Western world.
Many other Muslim game developers that live in the US – or even non-Muslims who only hold dual citizenship with a majority-Muslim country they’ve rarely if ever visited – are now stuck in the United States with no way to visit family or friends abroad. With many highly talented engineers coming from Middle Eastern countries, this not only limits the available talent pool, but also effectively prohibits travel for many workers in the US games industry.
Some game companies have started to speak up, with smaller studios taking the lead over the weekend. Mobile games company Dots placed a message at the start of its popular Dots games that allows players to donate to the ACLU for their opposition of the Muslim Ban. Other independent developers, including my own studio, donated parts or all of their revenue to the ACLU for a specific amount of time, raising tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Just today, larger studios and game developers have started to release statements criticising the executive order, reminding gamers around the world (and there are 1.2 billion of them) that the games that they love are made by people of all races, religions, and nationalities – including Libyans, Somalians, Yemenites, Iraqi’s, Iranians, Sudanese, and Syrians.
When I started travelling on my own back in 2010, my mother would frequently check in to see whether I was safe. After many years of travel, she stopped doing that unless I visited countries the Dutch government had a negative travel advisory for, often countries that are unstable, at war, or at risk of terrorist attacks. For the first time in years, she messaged me last week to check in whether I was safe, because I was in the US.