Visa Rejections, International Struggles Dominate GDC's #1ReasonToBe

The map is a lie

Venture down the stairs towards the halls of the Game Developers Conference and you’ll come across a map, standing 10 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Since the conference’s opening hours, developers have been placing little red stickers to signify where they hail from, dotting the map with splashes of color. Europe, China, Japan, the whole of America, and little flecks of South America materialized over the course of the week. It’s meant to be an inspiring snapshot of the industry and how far it stretches, showing that no corner has gone untouched by the power of games.

But the map is a lie. It’s the furthest thing from a depiction of the industry’s impact. In the words of developer Rami Ismail, it’s not even a map of the world. It’s a map of people who are allowed to sidestep the massive financial, political, and sometimes life-threatening risk of attending GDC.

At the annual #1ReasonToBe GDC panel, the topic of marginalized groups within the game’s industry is often one of personal, affecting stories that likely can’t be experienced from the perspective of more privileged industry workers. Numerous women and non-American speakers have added their voices over the past several years to illustrate the challenges facing each particular culture and demographic.

This year, that marginalization was felt far more personally by attendees as panel host Ismail recounted his efforts to obtain visas for the original panel members he desired. Of the six speakers originally invited, three had travel visas rejected by the United States government. Of the three backup speakers that were located, two had their visas rejected. Of the two backup speakers to the first backups, only one was approved.

“I had one extra person drop out because she was afraid of what would happen if she applied for a visa,” Ismail said. “That is the state we are in right now. In 2015, [an empty chair] was placed on the stage to symbolize the women who could not be at GDC. Just for this panel, I would need a dinner table.”

When Ismail listed off a litany of reasons why other non-American game developers’ visas were rejected (last name changes thanks to marriage, an unstable job, or a simple typo on a government form, and many more of similar slightness), a sea of hands rose up to show that even those privileged enough to attend experienced at least some of the same complications that put a halt to numerous international game developers.

Developers from Madagascar, Romania, the Philippines, the Arab world, and more spoke to their experiences struggling to boost the status of their region’s game development culture. Tales of failing public transit, educational, and internet infrastructure plagued the likes of Javi Almirante of Most Played Games, who experienced hundreds of train breakdowns in a year.

Samer Abbas, co-founder of Arabic mobile games publisher Play 3arabi, still feels like he can’t call himself a game designer, but works to facilitate the passions of others in the Arab world through his company, even through the region’s most tumultuous upheavals, including the Arab Spring. Though Abbas dreamed of being a game designer since he was 13, a lack of opportunity meant he more often than not found himself in business research and management roles, where he could at least organize local game jams for younger participants.

“I often feel bitter about it as I grow older and my responsibilities increase,” Abbas said.

“The cost of succeeding would have been huge. Knowing the impact of my work, if I had the choice to go back and make games, I wouldn't choose to, because for me it's ultimately about making a difference and an impact, and that's my #1ReasonToBe.”

In 1569, Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator created his namesake: The Mercator Projection, a map of the globe that distorts latitudes in order to make navigation easier for sailors. For centuries, the map was the defining standard, used in books and classrooms all around the world. For just as long, the fact that the latitude altered the actual depicted sizes of the continents went uncontested (in reality, Africa is 14 times larger than the massively overstated Greenland, among other errors), stoking the colonial mindset that led to much of the world being subjected to western rule. Quite simply, a lie was taught to millions of individuals because it reinforced its own notions of superiority and “rightness.”

In the halls of GDC, our own industry’s map has bent and morphed perceptions of the world around us, allowing us the comfort of feeling like progress has been made, when in fact it has only reinforced the discriminations that keep hundreds if not thousands of potential GDC attendees from ever seeing American soil.

“The language of games is supposed to be universal,” Ismail said. “But for many parts of the world, the world itself is not universal.”