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GDC 2018’s #1ReasonToBe Panel Shared Beautiful Stories of Resilience and Growth in a Time of Fear and Questioning

Who gets to visit GDC? Who are the people allowed to come to this conference?

It was with these questions in mind that indie game developer and this year’s Game Developers Conference Ambassador Award winner Rami Ismail introduced the people who would make up 2018’s #1ReasonToBe panel. All six of the panelists hail from six different countries: Romania, the Philippines, Jordan, Colombia, Lebanon, and Madagascar. Each of them were invited to talk about their experiences getting into the games industry within their respective countries. As well, they were asked to talk about why they continued to work in the industry in spite of the difficulties they may face—in other words, their “one reason to be.”

Ismail opened the session by revealing some of the issues he ran into while trying to wrangle up panelists for this year. His biggest issue could be summed up in one Executive Order: the U.S. State Department’s travel ban on visitors from majority-Muslim foreign countries (a.k.a. Executive Order 13769, or the “Muslim Ban”).

While the order was met with much resistance—in the form of airport protests, ACLU lawsuits, and federal judges blocking its enforcement in a handful of states—it still signaled a significant change in the way the Trump administration would be handling visas for visitors from foreign countries in general. And while the U.S. was always seen by many countries as a tough, unfriendly place to visit (provided you aren’t a white, cis, heterosexual male), this ban made it ever so much more clear that getting into the country would be significantly more difficult.

Of the original six panelists Ismail invited to GDC 2018, three of them had their visas rejected. Of the three replacements, two of them were held back by similar fates. Of the two of them, one more was also faced with rejection. Beyond that, one person declined attending over the fear of the backlash or response that may come from simply applying for a visa to enter the United States. Several didn’t even get to the interview (or interrogation) phase of applying, as they were deemed “a threat” to the country. One wasn’t even allowed to turn in their application at all.

Worse yet, for those who had their applications rejected, they now have to live with a permanent mark on their record, saying that they had been rejected for a visa in the past, which could potentially make it more difficult for them to enter the country even after this administration has crumbled into dust. In short, the repercussive effects of this racist order are already beginning to show themselves, and it’s likely we’ll have to deal with the fallout for quite some time.

Ismail expanded upon this point by posing the wild criteria that resulted in visa rejections for a few of the potential panelists. These questions ranged from things like, “Are you currently married?” to “Do you have children?” to “Do you consider yourself self-employed or an entrepreneur?” Apparently, the lack of stable job or partner made people more likely to try to stay in the country, which is something the State Department apparently does not want. After a handful of these, Ismail asked everybody in attendance to raise their hand if they answered yes to any of the questions. Nearly all the hands in the room shot straight up.

The irony was painfully clear: All of us here already attending GDC would not have been able to pass the ridiculous visa process required to get into the very country in which it’s held.

The first panelist to speak, Irina Moraru of Faerydust Games in Romania, spoke about the struggles of building a foundation for game development in a country that is still struggling with the effects of communism. Moraru expounded upon her and her studio’s efforts to create a culture of progressive, creative thinking, things that she explained were made difficult by an education system that teaches submissiveness and rote “hard” knowledge with little to no education regarding “soft” skills (e.g., leadership, critical thinking). Moraru says that Faerydust does their best to empower their staff, encouraging them to own their own projects and to help build a culture of learning and growth. It’s because of this mission and its potential to change culture that Moraru says she fights to stay in the industry.

Javi Almirante, creator of Most Played Games, explained that coming up in the Philippines required facing a great variety of challenges, ranging from dealing with poor city infrastructure to processing the colonial mentality baked into growing up in the country. For the former, Almirante mentioned that “working from home” isn’t quite the perk it’s made out to be here, as the internet/networking infrastructure in the Philippines can be shoddy. Moreover, commuting into work could also be an issue, as the country’s subway system is notorious for its numerous outages. Almirante said that last year, it broke down an average of two times a day, making travel all but impossible for those who might not drive. Most interestingly though, were his comments on the colonial mentality, and how in Filipino culture, people are often brought up to believe that foreign (namely, Western/American) goods, ideas, or beliefs are superior to those made by Filipino people. Naturally, this also extends to the games produced by Filipino people, and Almirante wants to change the way Filipinos look at Filipino-made games. That, he says, is his “one reason to be.”

Similarly, Samer Abbas, worked to bring some of the culture surrounding game development into the Middle East and North Africa. As the co-founder of Play 3Arabi, he sources, markets, and distributes social mobile games geared for Middle Eastern and North African audiences. Early on in the company’s life, however, Abbas curated game jams and grew the indie game dev scene in the Middle East. One of the largest issues he’s faced as a jam organizer has to do with the myriad borders that cover the entirety of the Middle Eastern region. Whenever conflicts or tension would arise between two neighboring regions or countries, it would make travel difficult for anybody interested in coming together for any kind of community building event.

In fact, these conflicts often fed the jams’ prescribed themes, as Abbas explained. In 2012, he said, fresh off of the after effects of the Arab Spring resistance, the theme was “freedom”. But in 2013, following power struggles and military coups, the theme changed to “lost”. Then, in 2014, with the rise of ISIS, the community voted that the theme should be “chaos”. It was a tragic, yet poignant example of how our surroundings impact the things we create, and how such massive, world-changing events impact every single thing we do. Abbas summed up his mission in games, saying, “It’s not about making games, it’s about making a difference and an impact.”

Just like Almirante and Abbas, Carlos Rocha, CEO of Below the Game in Colombia, said he got into games development mostly as a way to encourage others to create games in Bucaramanga, the city in Colombia where he’s from. Rocha works to grow the scene not just to “make good Colombian games,” but rather to “make really great games,” period. He explained that doesn’t want to be judged on the basis of where he comes from, but rather for the fact that he and his colleagues and students and mentees are just able to make great games. Here, he also touches on a theme that would come to define the rest of the panel: the fact that games can serve as a universal ground and language for connection and understanding. In fact, one of his newest games, Haimrik, plays with the idea of turning language into real, tangible objects which you, as a character, can use to solve puzzles and the like. It’s a clever play on the power of language, which Almirante continues to touch on throughout his talk.

For Lara Noujaim and her company, Game Cooks, the games industry is a way for her to show her pride for her home country of Lebanon. She is fiercely proud of her Lebanese heritage, and works to exhibit cultural references like music, art, and even graffiti with excitement. As well, she explained that games served as an outlet for a great many young people who may have been unable to go outside during times of civil unrest or war. Games were a way for them to entertain themselves and give themselves something to do when they were confined to the relative safety of their homes, and thus, they became a way for them to express themselves. She likened this constraint to the very same constraint that drives the creativity and resilience required for working in a creative space like the games industry. She believes that good games can come from the unlikeliest of places, and as such, must be encouraged where it is found.

Noujaim very succinctly explained what many on the panel and in the room have come to believe, which is that, “it is crucial more than ever to have a universal language that can connect people all over the world.” Gaming can be that language, and it is her hope that thorough play, “whatever differences that separate us [will] become insignificant.”

Finally, Matthieu Rabehaja, CEO of Lomay Games in Madagascar, explained his journey to become the first game studio in his country. Like many of the speakers before him, Rabehaja wanted to go out and get people to “play a game that tells their story, appropriate to their culture and their local values.” It was one thing to play American games with Western values (on a “PolyStation,” which he explained was a counterfeit PlayStation), but Rabehaja wanted to make something that truly belonged to the Malagasy. One of the unique issues he faced as a game developer was the restricted market within Madagascar. It was costly to develop a game, and as such, the game’s price would have to be high if it was going to make a profit for the company.

But Rabehaja explained that not many people can afford to pay for such an expensive game, and that was a conundrum that he had to solve. He found a way to make it work by developing for mobile, which, while still costly for end users, still was prevalent enough that many people had the ability to play. Then, he and his studio sold ad space on their racing game, titled GazKar. Companies could buy in-game billboards advertising their products, and in that way, Rabehaja could keep the game profitable, and thus keep the studio afloat.

Rabehaja also touched on a topic that has been on the mouths of game devs from all over the world as of late: “crunch time,” or the unpaid overtime often worked by developers who are held to strict, almost unreasonable deadlines. In addition to dealing with things like poor infrastructure, restrictive markets, and a lack of dedicated games design and development education, Rabehaja had to deal with the pressure of creating a game fast. But he said he did his best to approach the crunch time with a positive attitude. He explained that every morning he woke up during crunch time, he’d say to himself, “This is another day to make the impossible doable.”

The dangers of glorifying crunch aside, Rabehaja wanted to make it abundantly clear that he is driven, and determined to do his best to leave an impact not just on the game industry in general, but also his home country and his people. Truly, the same can be said for all the speakers in attendance, as their pride in what they do was damn near infectious.

But the one poignant note that every speaker shared revolved around one common belief: that this movement they shared would not be an easy one to push forward. Given the state of the world as it is right now, and the ever-present, ever-growing divide between cultures and nations, it would seem that we all, as humans, are in need of a reminder of the things that we have in common. For these panelists, and for a great many of the attendees at GDC, games and the way we play already serve as a way for us to find these commonalities, and despite what our “leaders” may do to prevent us from finding each other, they cannot stop the stories that lie at the core of our work. Way back at the top of the panel, Ismail said as much, summing up the spirit and the message of the #1ReasonToBe movement. He said, “They can reject visas for years, decades, before we run out of beautiful stories to tell.”

(image via Official GDC/Flickr)

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Jessica Lachenal is a writer who doesn’t talk about herself a lot, so she isn’t quite sure how biographical info panels should work. But here we go anyway. She's the Weekend Editor for The Mary Sue, a Contributing Writer for The Bold Italic (, and a Staff Writer for Spinning Platters ( She's also been featured in Model View Culture and Frontiers LA magazine, and on Autostraddle. She hopes this has been as awkward for you as it has been for her.