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I vividly remember the first time I took my first uncertain steps into Yerba Buena park almost a decade ago, looking for direction and guidance in the early steps of my industry career. I equally vividly remember arriving at San Francisco International Airport, dazed and confused from the long flight, and uncertain of how to navigate this new country. I vividly remember sitting at a small diner alone late at night, wondering what I’d gotten myself into, halfway across the planet. But hey, at least the French Toast Croissant was pretty good.
Almost a decade later, I arrive for my eighth GDC in Emeryville by train, at the tail end of Train Jam 2018. My wife, fellow game developer and event organizer Adriel Wallick, had spent the better half of the year prior organizing the event. The jam was pretty much as perfect as one could hope for – carrying approximately 350 game developers the full 2,500 miles or 4,000 kilometers from Chicago Union Station to the Game Developers Conference. During those 50-ish hours, more than 80 games were created, several documentary crews shot video, and countless friendships were formed or strengthened. Above all, the gorgeous views and lovely Amtrak crew were a welcome introduction to what would be an incredibly hectic week – something that was emphasized when my job as official Train Jam Group Photo photographer went less than smoothly. As the group has grown to more than 300 people, the only way to capture everybody in a single shot is through a drone – and I happen to carry one with me on most trips. My DJI Mavic Air sadly had issues getting a compass reading with the rails and trains around, and it took me several comical minutes to find a interference-free take-off spot.
The results, however, were worth it:
During this years’ Game Developers’ Conference, I had the honor of receiving the industry’s Ambassador Award, and the privilege of assisting a group of eight developers with coming to the conference from all around the world – six of whom would speak at the #1reasontobe panel, and meeting, consulting, and advising dozens -if not hundreds- of my peers, heroes, and fans.
#1reasontobe was my immediate focus, as the visa issues that have been extensively documented meant that my final speaker was only confirmed two days before the conference started, and I am extremely thankful for GDC’s financial support, for UBM allowing me to use some of their resources, and for Irina Moraru’s and Lual Mayen’s willingness to prepare a presentation despite being back-up-back-up speakers. The panel was on Thursday, which meant the first few days were focused on my other immediate goals for the weeks, as I was pretty certain between the award ceremony and the panel, my Wednesday and Thursday would be exhausting, and my Friday would be recovery.
I spent most of the early days of the event working to consolidate some of my projects and moving them away from myself to create time and opportunity to work on new projects myself. Maintenance of distribute() – my key distribution service – will be handed over to a capable team that is aligned in keeping it free, effective, and updated. It is likely presskit() will see integrations into more platforms beyond IndieDB, and the project will be receiving more common updates from those partners thanks to that.
The other focus was a resurrection of gamedev.world as a new project – something I hope to talk about somewhere in the near future. In short, the new project will require some sponsorships, and almost every single one of my meetings has left me extremely hopeful. I’m also extremely happy to have spoken to Global Game Jam, Gabriel Del Santo, Leaf Corcoran, and Sarah Elmaleh about the new and exciting future of the project.
Finally, some of my GDC was focused on re-introducing Vlambeer to the powers that be. While I sincerely hope the studio hasn’t faded from the collective memory of the games world, it seemed like a good idea to talk to platforms, engine creators, and press about the immediate plans for our future. As my co-founder Jan Willem wraps up work on Kitty Calis’ title Minit, we are excited to get back to making some good ol’ games together.
In the dozens of meetings that I did take, I learned about many new and exciting things, and I look forward to seeing where they end up. I spent considerable time talking to individual developers about their issues and projects as I ran around San Francisco, and it never ceases to amaze me just how much imagination, creativity, and determination this industry produces. Each and every developer I spoke to is a force to be reckoned with in some way, and while I wish I had time to talk to way more of you, I was already overbooked to the point of any delay causing a cascade throughout the day. I sincerely apologize to those of you whose meetings with me fell through, and my schedule for this week, the week after GDC, is filled with calls to make up for those.
On Tuesday, I took a little stop to watch Adriel present at the Indie Soapbox, and was proud of her strong talk about re-evaluating plans, and not getting stuck in the expectations you set for yourself years ago.
Wednesday was award day, and the day mostly started with me learning that my trusty travel suit steamer had broken. After a short panic, my dear friend Lisa Brown found me a new one, and after some long overdue meetings I ran to Moscone center for the first full #1reasontobe panel rehearsal. After personally meeting my speakers, we spent an hour watching each others’ talks, finding places to improve, trim, and focus each message according to the speakers’ wishes. After that, we discussed the optimal flow for the panel, and placed the talks in a specific order.
Preparing the panel with the final speakers was delightful, as each brought a message that perfectly encapsulated themselves, their local challenges and opportunities, and their communities. One of the biggest delights of the year is working on the talks with the speakers, finding the essence, cutting out distractions, and helping them deliver a talk that they’re proud of. While most of the talks had minor modifications, some of the talks had entire segments rewritten on that very last day.
After the rehearsals, I sped back to the indie hostel that I’ve stayed in every visit to GDC so far, steamed my tux, and learned that I do not know how to tie a bowtie. After fruitless attempts at help from several friends, Ryan Greene managed to help me out on the streets of San Francisco. I showed up at the Independent Games Festival awards just minutes late, and was happy to celebrate the many winners there. While my exhausting with Americana mythology is reaching a peak, I was incredibly happy and thankful to see Night In The Woods win the Seumas McNally Grand Prize – the game reflects an incredible range of important standards in the independent games scene, both in terms of sincerity, vulnerability, and quality of vision. The fact that the execution was way up there didn’t hurt, either.
At the Game Developers Choice Awards, I was awarded the Ambassador Award from the hands of my dear friend Poria Torkan. An Iranian-born who lived most of his life in the Netherlands, he – like me – is a child of two cultures, and non-white. His career in games started at Guerrilla Games in Amsterdam, and eventually took him to Bungie, out in the Pacific Northwest. During his time at Bungie, he was contacted by my now-wife, Adriel, who asked him to implement a little surprise for me in the original Destiny. Poria’s work ethic, his tenacity, and his kindness are an inspiration, and I am incredibly thankful for his kind words.
I was incredibly fortunate and thankful that my parents and sister could make it out to the ceremony, and although my brother was not able to attend, he was watching the ceremony live, and his presence was no lesser for it. I cannot overstate my appreciation for the award. I will carry the overwhelming thankfulness walking onto the stage for decades to come.
My full statement for the ceremony was:
My name is Rami Ismail, one half of Dutch independent studio Vlambeer, and I am thankful.
I am thankful to my parents, who have -each in their own way- inspired me to be driven, humble, and curious. Their presence here tonight means the world to me.
I am thankful for my siblings, who have instilled in me playfulness, a sense of responsibility, and a kindness towards others. I am thankful towards my family and friends, who -despite many not understanding what it is I do- have always supported me following my passions.
I am thankful for those who created and worked in this medium and industry long before I was part of it, for creating a medium that I fell in love with decades ago, for nurturing a culture of sharing and self-improvement, and for working on improving this industry tiny step by tiny step. I will try to uphold those values, and I will try to improve upon that which you would not, or could not.
I am thankful to everyone who took a chance on me, and there are many of you from my early childhood until just today. I am fully aware that I am very far from perfect, and that many of you have worked hard to support me, teach me, correct me, work around -or with- my idiosyncrasies, and help me do what I do.
I am thankful to my co-founder, Jan Willem, who -despite our well-documented differences- has always been a person I’m thankful to work with, and who has without exception and reservation supported me using Vlambeer’s time, brand, and resources to help other developers, and pushes me to stand up for what I believe is right.
I am thankful to my wife, Adriel, who I met through games, who proposed to me through games, and who has through support and example shown me what it means to be a gracious, considerate, and inspiring human first, and a hard-working, generous, and responsible creator second. Her generosity and thoughtfulness are a daily inspiration.
I am thankful for the passionate players around the world – those that support this medium with their passion, their kindness, their constructive criticism, their curiosity, and their love for this medium and its creators. Your enthusiasm is an inspiration, a goal to work towards, and a reward all at once.
I am thankful for the designers, programmers, artists, musicians, actors, sound designers, writers, QA, localizers, platforms, publishers, press, critics, content creators, marketeers, investors, producers, and other people that touch games on their way from the tiniest concept to the curious input and hearts of a player. You are all part of what allows this medium to flourish, and this medium is better for having you be part of it.
I am thankful for the event organizers, community organizers, teachers and professors, government employees, archivists, activists, researchers, and other passionate people sacrificing a part of their life towards helping this industry and community connect and grow. Without your passion and efforts, I would not be able to visit your communities, or learn from your cities, cultures, and countries unique stories, challenges, and opportunities.
I am thankful for those that work and fight to democratize this medium, to stand against toxicity and injustice, despite the hatred, anger, and lack of support they so often face. Your belief that this medium can be more makes our medium safer, more representative, more accessible, and more inclusive to those of any sex, race, gender, sexuality, ideology, heritage, history, language, country, culture, disability, socio-economic reality, age, or situation.
I am thankful to those of you who participate in this medium despite feeling or being treated as different, or out-of-place. I am thankful to those of you who participate in this medium and would want to be here in this room, but could not be here due to their financial, geographical, or political realities. Your work adds perspective to our medium, and your work will continue to make our medium stronger, richer, and more representative.
I am thankful for those of you who are now taking their first step into our medium, or who dream of one day being part of it. As a medium, as an industry, as a people, we have our challenges and problems. We have our disagreements and controversies. Throughout all of human history, certain people have created ways to be playful, ways to be curious, and ways to learn, and you well might choose to take that torch forward into the future. If you do, I hope you will try to improve upon that which we here today will not, or can not.
Being an ambassador of something can only be a point of pride if you believe that that which you represent is valuable. Throughout my life, I have seen games give people joy, wonder, curiosity, expression, education, friendship, and love through both play and creation. So the overwhelming pride I feel in receiving this award comes not from the award itself, or from the title implied in it. The pride I feel comes from the idea that I could be an ambassador for you, the work you do, and the value it adds to lives current, past, and future.
I am thankful for those who support you, for those who encourage you, and for those who believe in you, because I am thankful for you. All of you, you are why I am proud right now, and that pride I feel can only exist because I am proud of you.
After my speech, I watched Tim Schafer receive a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement award. Tim gave a powerful and vulnerable speech expressing a similar sentiment of thankfulness in the personable way that is so unique to Tim. I caught him backstage for a moment immediately after, and while he was clearly back to his usual jokes, he was also still clearly struck by the emotions of the moment. As the night crawled to a close, I switched back to my usual outfit style, and went straight to that.party.
On Thursday, my mother insisted on seeing the Walk Tall, My Friends: Giving Life to AI-Buddies in ‘Final Fantasy XV’ session. GDC was gracious enough to grant her access to this one panel, letting her learn some of the technicalities behind the first game she ever played.
This years’ #1reasontobe featured Columbian Carlos Rocha, Filipino Javi Almirante, Romanian Irina Moraru, Lebanese Lara Noujaim, Jordanian-Palestinian Samer Abbas, and Malagasy Matthieu Rabehaja. Most of the speakers were in one form or another a back-up for someone whose visa was rejected, which led to my opening statements being prepared in a file called AngryArabOnStage.docx. My frustration with, and disappointment in the American immigration services knows no bounds – and as an industry event with supposedly global reach, the current situation should at least register as highly problematic.
My statement focused on redefining the word global, and the often misguided view of the phrase Western people tend to have. Using a photograph of the GDC ‘where are you from’ map as a source, I filtered every color but the red of the stickers attendants could place to identify where they were visiting from. Without the context of the map, the red dots are difficult to recognize as a world map, immediately proving that the Game Developers’ Conference is far from global, and that the map is an indicator of from where developers can visit the event.
Welcome to #1reasontobe 2018, my name is Rami Ismail and I’m one half of Dutch independent studio Vlambeer, and it is my honor to be your host for this phenomenal panel.
#1reasontobe started originally as a hashtag called #1reasonwhy in 2012, a viral collection of women’s voices speaking up about why many women felt unwelcome in the industry. Also legendary writer Rhianna Pratchet then created #1reasontobe, to showcase why those women that are and remained in games stayed despite those realities
At every GDC after that, legendary designer Brenda Romero and equally legendary critic Leigh Alexander hosted the #1reasontobe panel – a panel featuring the voices of female creators. After a few years, they handed the panel to me, in the hopes that I would find a different focus for the panels’ idea of giving a voice to those not heard, ignored, or invisible.
For this panel, I try and select one speaker that has never been to GDC from each non-Western territory in the world: South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia & The Pacific, and the Middle East. GDC and Vlambeer cooperate to prepare a visa invitation letter, pay for the hotels and flights, and work with the speakers to ensure they feel comfortable and safe speaking their mind on this stage. Hearing the stories of the opportunities and friendships that have grown out of the visit to GDC is one of the most heartwarming moments I experience each year. Seeing the responses of the audience, your response to new knowledge and perspective, is heartwarming.
Not a single part of #1reasontobe has ever been a negative experience, except for one: a failure to secure a visa.
This year, I had three visas rejected, which led to having to assemble three back-up speakers. Of those three back-up speakers, two more visas were rejected, leading to two more back-up speakers. Of the six speakers here today, eleven were invited. In 2015, Brenda and Leigh placed an empty chair on the stage during the #1reasontobe panel, to symbolize every woman that has been silenced and harassed out of the industry. Just to represent every speaker that was invited here today, but could not be here due to this administrations’ policies, I would need a table.
Every year, I advice, support, and encourage many developers from developer associations and communities I collaborate through navigating the Western visa processes – for GDC, for PAX, and many more events and initiatives. Every year, there are a few rejections – it was four of them throughout 2016, six during 2017, and this year, I’ve already seen eleven rejections, and we haven’t even made it to the second quarter of the year.
In organizing this, I had the honor of inviting five amazing speakers, amazing developers with amazing stories, and I had the privilege seeing their excitement and hope at going to GDC, their worries about collecting all the appropriate paperwork, their giddiness at selecting their flights and making a reservation on the booking, and then seeing the crushing disappointment as an informal letter told them to not bother.
For most, no reason is given. No appeal is accepted. There is no one to speak to, because all communication is via paperwork, or front-offices. Several of them didn’t even get to go for an interview to assess their ‘threat’ to the United States of America.
One of my speakers was told no non-immigrant visa applications from their country are accepted, and wasn’t even allowed to hand in their application. Another speaker spend so much time in the process, that by the time they went for the interview, their name had changed due to their wedding. They were not allowed to amend paperwork. One was told that their lack of a ‘stable job’ and ‘partner or children’ made them a risk for overstaying, describing the situation uncountable indies find themselves in around the world as cause for rejection.
All but one of them asked me to not identify them or their country, and I will respect their wishes.
What I will tell you is that my heart broke every single time I got the message that one of my speakers had been rejected. These developers had stories and passions and perspectives and games that are worth sharing on this very stage, but they will not get to now. They had opportunities here to speak to press and likeminded developers, forge friendships, chase opportunities, but they will not get to now.
Instead, they got a mark on their file that said their visa had been rejected, something that they’ll be required to mention every time they apply for a new one. Instead, they plead with me to not reveal their names and identities, so as to not cause a industry or media ruckus that they fear might make them into a martyr, and making it even harder for them to re-apply in the future. Instead, they apologized to me, TO ME, for making my work organizing this panel harder – as if they had done something wrong by existing, as if finding a new speaker was somehow a bigger burden on me that their rejection from the heart of our industry was for them.
I’m going to tell you a few scenarios. Listen carefully to each of these, and count how many apply to you.
How many of you here today got married in the last year, or otherwise had a change of name, first or last name?
How many of you do not own a house?
How many of you have a criminal record, or have used drugs in their lifetime?
How many of you are independent, entrepreneurs, or do otherwise not have a stable job?
How many of you are here on a grant, or otherwise are supported financially for being here?
How many of you are not married or engaged?
How many of you do not have children?
How many of you are nervous during important interviews or interrogations, or have never
been in an interrogation but think it sounds like you’d be nervous?
How many of you have ever made a typo on an official government form?
How many of you have a first name that starts with V, F, Y, X, Q, or U? You represent about 3% of the US population, or in other words, the 3% of the world that was born into countries that were affected by Executive Order 13769 – an order that might’ve been rescinded – but that doesn’t mean visa applications from those countries are not rejected in enormous proportions.
Pick a number between 1 and 5. If it’s 4, count this question as applying to you. You will represent those who just get a random rejection, which seems to be about 20% of the rejections I work with.
Now please, raise your hand if even a single one of these applied to you. Raise your hand. Keep it there, and take look around. You have all fulfilled, in one way or multiple, a proven reason to bar your entry from the United States of America as a threat for overstaying or for security. You, like the speakers who could not be here today, might very well not be here if you needed a visa.
Imagine this room without those with their hands raised. This is how welcoming the country at the heart of our industry is to the world.
I do not want you to think of our amazing speakers tonight as a ‘backup’, or a ‘replacement’. There are so many phenomenal stories left to be told around the world that I could have speakers rejected for years without running out of stories that deserve to be told. But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you what we missed out on today. It is worth fighting for, for those of us who face barriers so enormous that they could not even make it into the country this room is in. The cost of this panel for me wasn’t the money, or organisational time – the cost of this panel was making six amazing people excited and happy just to see their dreams shattered with an impersonal letter handed to them through a little window, some before their application was even considered beyond a look through their personal information. The cost of this panel is every single person rejected from this country. The cost of this panel is that we get to be here, and they do not. And like those of you who just raised their hand, they deserve to be here.
The #1ReasonToBe panel is off to a devastating start. Everyone with a hand raised fulfills one or more of the reasons that speakers who were supposed to be at this panel had their visas rejected. pic.twitter.com/CVduIEwjOU
Carlos Rocha, a back-up speaker helpfully suggested by Extra Credits’ creator James Portnow, delivered a direct talk about the opportunity of networking at an event, and his wishes to bring that same opportunity to the community in his home country of Columbia. Lara Noujaim gave an impassioned talk about her home country of Lebanon, and aired her frustrations with the Western media depiction of it before delivering a hopeful statement about games’ ability to connect us all – to see what we have in common, rather than what divides us. Irina Moraru spoke about focusing on growing talent in countries with a limited talent pool, and eloquently discussed the harmful effects of communism on Romanians entrepreneurial mentality.
Young Javi Almirante was a replacement for “Fillipino industry mother” Gwen Foster, who had her visa rejected for no apparent reason. It was tremendous seeing him fill the shoes of someone who has been critical to his career, and the slide in which he admitted to feeling guilty about taking her place on the stage was heart-wrenching. His message of hope in the face of historical colonialism was powerful and succinct, and delivered with humor and humility.
Samer Abbas -an old Joranian-Palestinian friend that has impressed me throughout my career with his selfless work on bringing together a divided Arab world through game development- focused on his journey of repeatedly being distracted from his dream to be a game designer to instead fix community issues. His conclusion was that seeing the positive impact his work had in the community means he would not change a thing about his choices, despite being bitter about foregoing his dreams.
Finally, Matthieu Rabehaja delivered -with noticeable effort- an English-spoken message of perserverance in making games on the island of Madagascar. He spoke on the economical realities of the country, and the technical and economical difficulties of making games – but convinced the audience that his passion and determination would see him overcome both with his existing release, GazKar, and an upcoming game based on local culture and history, Dahalo.
I will update this blog post with the video of the panel when it goes live, but suffice to say that my pride in seeing each speaker deliver a sincere, confident, and highly informative talk is without compare. Spending time with them both before the talk and afterwards, as we fielded numerous interviews, was delightful.
Sometimes, we’d trail off during an interview question, and spend time talking about our home cultures, the language and cultures, the jokes and curses, little phrases and sounds, and hopes and dreams. A notable memory was when Carlos interrupting an interviewer that asked what our group would suggest Americans do about the visa situation in the United States, exasperatedly pointing out that Americans technically refers to a continent of people, not a nation – a continent that ironically includes himself as a Columbian.
“There’s a joke in Columbia, that sees Captain America answer the phone to a Columbian asking him to return a stolen bag in Columbia. When Captain America asks ‘why are you calling me, I’m Captain America’, they respond ‘Si, si! Columbia! America!’. If that would ever happen, Captain America would start calling themselves Captain USA.”
I might add that after a few days of seeing Lara, Samer, and 2017 #1reasontobe speaker Rasheed Abueideh, I found myself using a lot more Arabic expressions, sounds, and gestures. Our group of speakers, Rasheed Abueideh, and Gabriel Dal Santo – whose flight we also managed to sponsor – said our farewells on Thursday night in Café Mason, laughing as old friends in the half-good diner that has become my usual 3AM breakfast hangout.
At least that French Toast Croissant is still really good.