Rami Ismail (ramiismail.com)                             

Event Schedule

Biography

Rami Ismail is the Business & Development Guy at Vlambeer, a Dutch independent game studio known best for Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box, LUFTRAUSERS, GUN GODZ, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter & Radical Fishing.

Through his work at Vlambeer, Rami has come to realize that the marketing & business facets of many independent game developers could use some help. As such, he created the free presskit-creation tool presskit() and is working on side projects such as distribute() and gamedev.world.

Believing sharing knowledge openly is the cornerstone of independent development, Rami has spoken on a variety of subjects at dozens of game events around the world, ranging from the Game Developers Conference to Fantastic Arcade & from University seminars to incubator mentorship.

He is a avid opponent of game cloning after Vlambeer's Radical Fishing got cloned. He is also a proponent of searching for new, beautiful things in places no-one is looking for them and thus organized Fuck This Jam, a gamejam focused around making a game in a genre you hate. Rami also worked closely with the Indie MEGABOOTH team to enable indie studios to showcase at the larger game conventions, runs the #1reasontobe panel at GDC, and helps as an advisor on events such as Devcom, Train Jam, PocketGamer, and NASSCOM GDC.

Rami has received several awards and recognitions for his work promoting game development around the world, including the IndieCade Game Changer award for the decennial jubileum of the festival.

 
 
 

RAMI IS CURRENTLY IN THE NETHERLANDS.
YOU CAN REACH HIM AT RAMI@VLAMBEER.COM, , , OR BY CALLING +31 (0) 621206363.

The Tearoom

I got a bit morally stuck wanting to tweet about an article, so instead I decided to write a short blogpost about it.

Robert Yang’s work tends to include powerful commentary on and about sexuality and gay life, and touches upon topics that in many cultures and countries might be classed as inappropriate. On my Twitter, I tend to avoid topics of sexuality due to the wide and worldwide variety of cultural perspectives about the appropriateness of sex and sexuality in the public sphere or outside of the family sphere. That Robert Yang’s work happens to touch on gay sexuality is not part of this consideration – I believe that if sex is considered an appropriate public topic in a culture, gay sex should not be an exception.

As a game designer and developer, I would strongly recommend reading the following phenomenal article by Jeffrey Matulef on Robert Yang’s The Tearoom, which uses the ubiquity of guns in games to try and sidestep censorship rules about nudity on Twitch.tv. It also uses publicly available statistics and the form of quitting a game as a mechanic to provide powerful statements about the topic of homophobic laws in the United States of 1962.

Twitter’s ability to reach people around the world remains a forever mystifying puzzle of personal moral judgments and considerations.


The perfect apology

I read this apology for an Islamophobic post from a British game company owner on Kotaku today.  I got angry. I wrote an inline response. The bold parts are the apology’s original text. My responses are the rest of it. Yes, this lay-out is half-copied from the amazing nodontdie.com (which you should read) because I couldn’t come up with another one this fast.


If you’re trying to apologize, start by identifying who is apologizing, and what you’re apologizing for.

“I want to apologise for the Facebook post that I put out on Saturday in the aftermath of the horrific London terrorist attack.”

Perfect! In a great apology, this is where you stop. You did something bad, and you apologize for it. No conditions, no shifting blame. At this point, you could opt to speak to solutions to avoid this problem in the future. Solutions speak louder than words.

Whatever you do, do not make the apology into an accusation by saying you were just misunderstood by other people, and they’re the ones really at fault for missing your point. You should never suggest that what you did in no way was offensive.

“I was trying to air my views on extremist Muslims and it seems my comments may have been misinterpreted by some people and caused offence.”

Yeah, exactly that. Don’t do that. Really the only way to make this more of a faux-apology is by saying you’re only apologize to those who were offended, instead of apologizing for your actions in general.

“I am so sorry to anyone who was offended by my words – I was trying to voice an opinion on the minority group of Muslims who use their religion as an excuse for terrorism.

It’s going to be hard to recover from this one, unless you use the word ‘sincerely’.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction and I sincerely apologise.”

Phew. I guess that’s it! That’s not great, but it’s also not goo- oh? There’s more? Oh dear.

“For the record, [My Company] is one of the most diverse companies in the industry and I have championed equal opportunities and equality for all since I started out in 1994.”

Copyright champion of equal opportunity 1994-2017. All rights reserved except if you’re Muslim, then please leave the country.

“Anyone who knows me personally will vouch that I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

Bones aren’t racist. People are racist. Actions are racist. Your post was racist, because despite you saying ‘Muslims’, what you mean is ‘Arab muslims’ and ‘Asian muslims’. I’m sure your post didn’t mean that Cockney-accented white guy at the bus station in a hip t-shirt and short jeans that happens to go to mosque twice a year for the holidays and say ‘Salaam’ to their parents on the phone.

“When we see innocent people slaughtered like we have in Manchester, London and other places around the world during the last few weeks, it is hard not to get angry and lash out.”

I got angry and lashed out too, and for some reason my post wasn’t removed from social media for hate speech, and there’s also no news articles describing them. Maybe it was because I didn’t call for 1.6 billion people to not have access to a country. Maybe it was because I didn’t call for the removal of people that might have fled to the UK away from terrorism. Maybe because I didn’t attack the religion or identity of the people that suffer most at the hands of terrorists globally. Maybe it was because my anger didn’t focus on British-born citizens that have no connection to socio-political terrorism on the other side of the planet. Maybe it was because I blamed terrorism instead of religion. I’m sure the exact reason you got trouble and I did not will remain a mystery to you.

“But I realise we all have different views,…”

We all have different views: not everyone is a Islamophobe and thinks it’s a good idea to air those views on Facebook while also being in charge of a company and its hiring, that is true.

“…and I will certainly not be writing any of mine on my personal social media account in the future.”

This sentence here reveals that the apology isn’t so much an apology for what he did, but an apology for getting in trouble. If your solution to saying something bad is ‘I won’t say it in public‘, that reveals a lot about what regrets you actually have. I guess “I’ll be an Islamophobe behind closed doors” might seem a solution, in that case.

I understand that being thrust into the spotlight for a mistake, a momentary lapse of judgement, or an unfortunate phrasing is incredibly scary. At Vlambeer, we’ve been on the receiving end of tons of criticism, and it never stops being scary. It never gets easier. But apologizing for messing up isn’t a hard thing to do if you’re actually sorry.

If you ever find yourself writing an apology (and if you gain any visibility, you likely will have to, at some point), here are four basic things you should know:

  1. Take some time away from the internet before writing an apology. There’s often a false sense of hurry instilled into you by the panic, but the honest truth is that a genuine apology takes time and clarity of mind. It requires you to truly understand what the complaint is, and it’s hard to do that when you’re in a defensive mode.
  2. Try mentally re-contextualising your apology to stepping on someone’s toes. If the apology you wrote comes down to ‘If me stepping on your toes hurt you, I am sorry. There’s many toes in the world, and I don’t step on most of them. Your toes might’ve misunderstood that I stepped on them, I was trying to cover them from rain. Maybe your toes shouldn’t have been where I put my foot down.‘, you should probably reconsider what you’re writing.
  3. A short and direct apology is the strongest apology you can make. Instead of focusing on your own defense, focus on what your future action are going to be, or what you have learned, and how you will avoid similar incidents in the future.
  4. Posting an apology does not mean that anyone has to accept your apology, or that the criticism will fade. An apology is not written to make bad things happening to you because of bad things you did go away. An apology is not a defense. An apology is you taking responsibility for the bad thing you did, and showing that you genuinely understand why what you did was bad.


Games Discussion: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Yakuza-0 is the latest and sixth major installment in the beloved Japanese Yakuza series, but unlike EA’s FIFA or NHL games, the story being told is not chronological. Yakuza-0 is a prequel, more like the similarly named Resident Evil Zero, and tells the story of events before the original Yakuza game – while failing to reach the levels of horror Resident Evil so effortlessly creates.

In Yakuza-0, players assume the dual perspectives of series protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, two yakuza members that have found themselves embroiled in a political conflict larger than either of them. In that regard, the game vaguely echoes games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where players assume multiple character to learn different sides of the same story. Obviously, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had some powerful moments, and Yakuza-0 never quite reaches the dramatic heights of blowing up the International Space Station.

The gameplay itself is very similar to Saints Row: The Third, although you can’t beat up random people, use weapons freely, or steal any sort of vehicle. Most of the time you spend in the game is spent walking around, something that honestly has been perfected since Vanquish, but somehow ends up feeling sluggish without the rocket boost in Yakuza-0. Frequently, but not as frequent as in, say, the beautiful and overwhelming chaos of Dynasty Warriors, the player has to deal with fighting enemies.

Fighting in Yakuza-0 never quite reaches the depth and complexity of the giants in the genre, such as Super Street Fighter IV. Players can use punches, kicks, grabs, and basic combos, and while both characters have different stances and styles to introduce some variety, the Yakuza-0 cast can’t begin to rival the cast of League of Legends, Overwatch, or Super Smash Brothers Brawl. With few exceptions the protagonists fight barehanded, and that might be for the best, as the swordplay can’t hold a candle to this years’ For Honor, and the gunplay falls miles short of games such as 2016’s DOOM. There is also one point in the game where Kiryu has to make a jump from a balcony through a window, and it’s a shame that this one sequence did not heed the lessons about jumping and jump feel from a game like Super Mario Bros.

A cool detail is that while fighting, attacks will make money fall out of enemies, which looks really cool. Unlike Grand Theft Auto 5, the money falling out of enemies isn’t interactive, and is merely a visual effect. Money is used to buy items and upgrade your character, and the upgrade system allows for a good amount of skill personalisation. While not nearly as in-depth as Sword of the Stars 2, the game allows for some strategic planning in expanding your tech tree.

The story is complex and engaging, and there’s an incredible amount of content, although there is probably more content in a game like Persona 5, and more engaging story complexity in games series like Kingdom Hearts. Kiryu and Majima are charming and well-rounded protagonists, but their facial animation falls flat compared to Nathan Drake’s in Uncharted 4, or the characters in Battlefield 1. Yakuza-0, for a game this dependent on cutscenes, never manages to have cutscenes as cinematic as Alan Wake, nor as many as most Metal Gear Solid games.

There’s a lot of freedom in Yakuza-0, and a lot of different things to do. While you’ll never have the freedom that a game like Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers in term of exploration, there are an enormous amount of sidequests, side-activities, and other distractions. There’s a business simulator that falls short of reaching the depth of Sim City or Civilisation V, and a karaoke minigame that, despite being solid, can’t quite be as good as Parappa the Rapper or Rock Band 4. Regardless, distractions are everywhere, but not quite as common (or explosive) as Just Cause 3’s distractions. The sidequests, while less numerous than in World of Warcraft, offer some respite from the main story, and end up giving the game an enormous amount of flair – sadly, these side stories aren’t even close to being as fleshed out as Chrono Trigger’s story. The huge variety of meals available in the game as health restoration needs to be emphasized, although food isn’t as varied or as well-rendered in Final Fantasy XV. The love for the culture beyond food is also obvious, as the game takes tremendous effort to painstakingly rebuild parts of 1988 Tokyo and Osaka. The results fall short of being as impressive as Assassins Creed reconstruction of ancient cities, they’re convincing enough. Some additional locations exist to flesh out the world of Yakuza-0 a bit more, and while that helps, it never reaches the location variety of Destiny or Mass Effect: Andromeda.

In the end, Yakuza-0 ends up being a great entry point for people trying to join the series, with new gameplay elements and at the start of the story, just like Halo: Reach was a great entry point for people looking to start on the Halo series. So although Yakuza-0 is not a bad game, I felt a lot of the agency in the pocket racer mini-game fell short, and ultimately do think that when it comes to power-up enabled party kart racing on the Nintendo Switch, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the better game.

Obviously, Yakuza-0 and Mario Kart 8: Deluxe are both good games. This article is merely an expression of my frustration with how many online discussions about games and game elements seems to devolve into a competitive comparison with other games or media in or outside of the franchise. In many cases, tremendous value and emphasis is placed upon whether a game does something ‘better’ than other games, and even in a single franchise, such comparisons are often useless and unnecessary. While I appreciate the need for comparative examination and analysis, it would be useful to consider the (over-)use of such in game descriptions on the overall discourse surrounding our media. There’s no need to establish a pecking order where none is needed, not of games, business models, genres, platforms, mechanics, or otherwise. If the only addition you have to a conversation is how you feel another game did something better or worse, maybe simply watch the conversation unfold without that opinion injected into it.


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.


Rabbitfood

Adriel and I were visiting Campagne Cafe in Seattle at the recommendation of a friend & got to talking about salads when Adriel ordered one. We ended up talking about how salads are referred to as ‘rabbit food’ by people in the US sometimes, and I thought it was interesting as the Dutch will call it ‘konijnenvoer’. The two of us being huge etymology fans, but the etymology here seemed obvious (did you know the English word “rabbit” also comes from Middle Dutch robbe?) – what caught us this time is that the term is usually used in a negative way, while salads are generally a healthy and good thing to eat.

The solution is obvious: since salads are a generally healthy and often low-calorie thing to eat, it triggers the holier-than-thou backlash in people who are not eating a healthy salad. The same effect exists when it comes to vegetarians, people on a diet eating small portions, and people that don’t drink. The salad one is extra devious when it comes to traditional and outdated gender expectations: it’s most commonly employed by men, and societal expectations nudges women to put more effort into looking good and thus getting into (delicious) salads, it’s mostly employed against women. In other words, men generally expect women to look slim, but they also poke fun at them for using diets or employing more considerate food choices to achieve that. That’s kind of messed up.

I asked a few female friends to see if they ever felt made fun of for eating a salad, and it ended up being a thing that was almost unanimous. I was told it’s a common annoyance in business and work environments, and in fact, some mentioned, it’s so common that men will make fun of ordering a salad, that some of them have started having salad parties away from men. Turns out that healthy food also tastes great, and that people generally feel great about being allowed to eat their food without being made fun of.

I, for one, have decided to just not poke fun at what people order in terms of food – whether it’s quantity, type or place. I hate it when people make ‘witty’ comments about me not drinking, and I realized phrases like ‘rabbit food’ kind of do the same to people that like salads. Next time, I’ll order some sort of salad too, because chatting with my friends sure seems to suggest they’re awesome.


What am I arguing anyway?

 Content warning: discusses US abortion debate

If you’re on the internet, you’ve probably noticed it has effectively split into two camps. One believes the internet should be a place where people get treated with respect, where disagreement is handled properly and where people are generally held to the standards of decency you’d expect in real life. The other group believes the internet’s power is that you can say whatever you like, even if that is awful or has no purpose beyond trying to hurt others.

I see a lot of people outraged, and then people outraged about people being outraged. The solution, however, is “simple”: fix the social imbalance or issue at the heart of the anger, and the anger goes away.

One of the clearest examples to me is the pro-choice versus anti-abortion debate in the US. In the United States, there’s an almost unbelievable discussion about whether abortion should be allowed at all. In the Netherlands, that topic has been cleared since 1984. Guess what happened? The anger and outrage, the protests and discussions? They went away. It turned out the women who wanted abortion to be a right were being held back by unfair laws, and the opponents were speaking on behalf of embryo’s, fetuses, and God.

The other day, a US pro-choice group was extremely critical of a Doritos commercial.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vH2LsFcWOFY

To someone from the Netherlands, getting upset over this commercial feels ridiculous – but we haven’t lived with the requirements of debate, and the oppression of laws regarding abortion for over 30 years now. To most people in the Netherlands, that discussion is not part of their life. In the US, hundreds of millions of people are directly affected by the outcome of that debate, and the slow progress of freedom. What is and isn’t important to get upset about is so dependent on perspective, that my golden rule has become to check what side I’m on: those arguing their personal freedom, or those upset on behalf of something else. Am I arguing that I’m upset, or am I upset that others are? One is valuable. The other is a waste of time. Freedom isn’t one big thing. It’s lot of little things.


Design Entitlement

The notion of player entitlement is a common one in the industry, and rather often an applicable one. The industry has often failed to inform the audience of the effort a lot of things take, and presented itself as flawless and perfect. That created unreasonable expectations, and aggressiveness was considered part of the culture – all of that inevitably led to disproportionately aggressive responses to balance changes, and other forms of player entitlement.

There was a lot of discussion today about the use of guides for the gorgeous The Witness, and whether that’s appropriate or not, or whether it’s the right way of playing the game. Obviously it’s not the intended way of playing, but I guess there’s also such a thing as design entitlement. Games nudge players in a certain direction and evoke a certain intent – creators like to think of our work as something with an intent and purpose, and (hopefully?) often end up getting personally attached to our work. Since often that intent is clear, we think a game has a right way to be played, and the honest reality is that no one can make that call but the player. I’d encourage you to embrace or even encourage more wrong ways of playing in your design and conversation. After all, that attitude did bring us anything from tower defense to speedruns, Twitch Plays to beautiful game photography and many more.

There’s no wrong way to play, and the value of your game might come from unexpected places.


Open opportunity

One response that I always get to posts about diversity like my feature last week on OFAC SDN sanctions unfairly impacting non-Western developers is ‘then why don’t you do something about it yourself?’. It’s a response that baffles me for a variety of reasons – one being that I am trying to do something about it, but the other reason it’s confusing to me is far more fundamental.

The comment often comes combined with the idea that ‘people have to earn things themselves’, suggesting that the worldview of people who invoke such responses is capitalistic and that they believe the world operates as a meritocracy. But given that, wouldn’t someone pointing out an opportunity that nobody has capitalized on be extremely valuable? My article offers an invisible and unmet demand, an opportunity for impact, and -if you want to consider the capitalistic aspect of it- the potential of an enormous marketshare.

I guess it suggests that most people that suggest ‘you have to do something about it yourself’ either don’t have the capacity or mindset to do it themselves, or have no idea how to achieve success in a capitalistic environment.


It sure would be a shame if something happened to your dreams of becoming a game dev.

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

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.

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.

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.

Ragdolls

Let’s look at what Muslims, people from the Arab world, and people from the Middle East look like in games.

That sign on the left? Not Arabic.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.


How much does it cost to go to GDC?

The wonderful discussion around the IGF and the Game Developers Conference initiatives around scholarships for international visitors made the part of me that deeply cares about emergent territories a bit wary: the costs of visiting GDC are often trivialized, which tends to neglect the very real issues the EEMEA territories (Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa), South America and Asia have in attending the largest industry event in the world. Since these things also affect the cost of submitting to something like the Independent Games Festival, or the ability to submit to events which require nominees to showcase the game without adequate travel reimbursement, I was wondering what the impact of the geographical and economical status of each country around the world is on the expenses required to GDC.

The Game Developers Conference, or GDC for short, is the largest annual games developers conference in the world. It takes place in San Francisco, usually at the end of the first quarter of the year. GDC is potentially the most potent networking event of the year, with developers from all over the planet, from all aspects of the industry, meeting for talks, conferences, networking and informal events. It is attended by a enormous variety of industry professionals, press, media and video content creators. It’s the event to be at if you’re looking to break into the industry.
So I spent all of my spare time today using Skyscanner to figure out how much the cheapest flight to and from San Francisco would be for each country in the world (and entering CAPTCHA’s every time the bot detection balked at me), I figured out how long a stay from Sunday the 13th of March to Sunday the 20th of March in the cheapest hostel I could find with availability would cost, did a cursory check for general Visa fees, estimated that $15 a day will get you fed and transported in San Francisco, and added a $325 Independent Games Summit pass to the total. Then, I’d add up the amount of hours lost to travel for each country, and the amount of hours spent in San Francisco (~170 hours). I multiplied the time lost as an opportunity cost with the GDP PPP divided by 365 divided by 24, giving us a highly unofficial but useful GDP PPP per hour. The GDP PPP has the advantage that it standardizes every currency into Geary–Khamis dollars, a hypothetical currency that corrects for purchasing power, thus eliminating the need to further adjust for that. I added the opportunity cost expressed in Geary-Khamis dollars to the cost tally.

Note that I am not, by any interpretation of the word, really qualified to figure this out. I did pass my statistics class, and my topology, history and economics class in high school, but I’ve been a game developer first for most of my life. I am, however, curious – so I decided to see how far I’d get with what I know. Some of the data here is deeply generalised or flawed – there is no way to adjust for income disparity since GDP PPP is an average, for example, and averages are a terrible metric that tends to get less reliable as countries have larger income disparity. Some countries are rather big, which also leads to inconsistencies. For larger countries, I picked the capital city. In case the capital city did not have an international airport, I went with the largest international airport, and if none existed, the closest international airport. I also compiled several sources into one, which might lead to some minor differences in the datasets, the airfare changes on a daily basis and fluctuates wildly, as does the time spent traveling. The result, however, would be a somewhat useful indicator of relative costs.

I then calculated a ratio of cost to go to GDC as part of the GDP PPP, and used that value to calculate a rather generalizing but useful real cost of GDC per country, expressed in US Dollars. I mapped out the data, and got the following map.

The U.S. is the anchoring point at $1451. A few things stand out immediately: As soon as you head into Central and South America, things get expensive fast. Mexico, which is close to the United States, still ends up paying the equivalent of $2,897 for a week at GDC. A Brazilian game developer pays the equivalent of $4,321 (14% of their GDP PPP), while a Bolivian game developer ends up paying the equivalent of $10,077 (or 33% of their GDP PPP). The difference between Europe and Eastern Europe becomes rather visible too. Where a German developer pays the equivalent of $1,837, a developer in neighbouring Poland pays the equivalent of $2,779. Move a single country further East, to Ukraine, and the cost rise to $7,188, which is almost five times the price of a German visit to GDC.

African and Southern Asian developers end up paying the most by far. A developer from Niger pays the equivalent of $79,234 to come to GDC, or two-and-a-half times their yearly income. An Afghani developer pays the equivalent of $44,345. A developer from India pays the equivalent of $10,218, while a developer in Somalia, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo each pay the equivalent of what would be $125,000 for an American – or the equivalent of more than four years worth of income to be able to visit GDC. I had to exclude their values from the color scale to not turn the entire map yellow.

The cheapest countries to develop from are surprisingly in Europe. Liechtenstein, where GDC costs the equivalent of $1,189 and Luxemburg, at the equivalent of $1,254. Bermuda falls right in between those two, as in Bermuda a trip to GDC will cost you the equivalent of $1,225.

I don’t really have anywhere to go with this data, as the issues here are infinitely complex and barely understood. All this data really says is that things are more expensive for some than for others, and that developers from many places on the planet at GDC are potentially spending years of income for their shot at being at the event, so give them a super huge high five if you come across them. I haven’t had time to properly process the data mentally or figure out if there is any actionable response to the data I can attempt or take. For now, it’s just data – but it’s data that didn’t exist before, and in many ways, I find it more shocking than I anticipated.

If you’re as curious as I am, I’ve uploaded a copy of the full dataset on Google Spreadsheets. Sources used are Booking.com, the CIA World Fact Book, Indexmundi.com, Skyscanner.net (January 19th, picking the cheapest flight every time) and several airline websites for Island groups that weren’t represented on Skyscanner. I got help from my ever wonderful partner Adriel in compiling the data. The map was generated using a trial version of Tableau. The map data was made interactive by Antanas Marcelionis using his magnificent amcharts.