- 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.
- 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.