At this week’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, a panel of game developers and critics gathered for the fourth annual #1ReasonToBe panel — as in, “the No. 1 reason to be” a woman or person of colour who works in games and technology.
The goal of #1ReasonToBe is to focus on the panelists’ accomplishments and amazing experiences in an industry that can sometimes be hostile to people from different backgrounds.
In its first year, the panel reduced the audience to tears before concluding in a standing ovation, and it became the talk of the event. In the past, it’s focused heavily on women, but this year, #1reasontobe expanded to include people from diverse backgrounds all over the world.
Across all seven panelists’ stories, a theme emerged.
It doesn’t matter where in the world you’re trying to do business — if you don’t fit in, it’s always an uphill struggle. But if you remember why you’re in this to begin with, you can do great things.
‘That’s just business as usual’
First off, it can be hard to make the connections you need to get off the ground.
For instance, Tasneem Salim found it really hard to express her love of games in her home country of Saudi Arabia, where gender segregation is the law, and all gaming conferences and conventions were men-only.
“If you’re a girl living in Saudi Arabia, that’s just business as usual,” says Salim.
But after meeting a very few likeminded souls, she founded GCon, Saudi Arabia’s first-ever video game conference for women, which just celebrated its fourth successful year. It was very much an “if you build it they will come” scenario, Salim says, if only because it didn’t have the budget for marketing.
While other countries don’t have the same restrictive laws around gender segregation, other panelists said that they had similar issues establishing themselves in the male-dominated tech industry.
“Unfortunately, it most Ukrainian countries, programming a computer is still seen as man’s work,” because it requires a lot of dedication and focus — while women are supposed to be homemakers, says Elena Lobova, the CEO of the Ukraine-based game studio iLogos.
Sithe Ncube, founder of the Ubongo Game Lab in Zambia and a part-time computer science student, says that there are four career options if you’re from Africa: “Doctor, lawyer, engineer, or disappointment to your family.”
And Laia Bee, the cofounder of Uruguay-based Pincer Game Studios, says that she struggled to find investors and business partners who believed in her work.
“There is fear due to what they haven’t experienced yet,” Bee says.
‘Gaming is kind of an evil thing’
There are other barriers, too, including growing up away from the reach of technology: Tsitsi Chiumya, a game designer from South Africa, kicked off this year’s event with the sheepish admission that “until about two weeks ago, I had never been on a plane. And now I’m here.”
Coming from a rural area, he never saw a line of code until his father accidentally enrolled him in a game development class in 2012 (it was apparently one digit off on the registration form).
And Sun Park, founder of Seoul-based Turtle Cream (that’s “cream for a turtle,” not “cream made from a turtle,” he clarified), says that he’s decided to make a political stance against South Korea’s anti-gaming public sentiment by not releasing his acclaimed game “6180 the moon” in his home country.
“In South Korea society, [gaming] is kind of an evil thing,” Park says.
The problem is that Park, who doesn’t speak English as a first language, is struggling to sell his games to the Western market.
He can hold a conversation, but negotiating contracts and business deals is way beyond him. Those barriers mean that he can’t bring games that reflect his own experiences to the American market.
“Diversity of language is diversity of games,” Park says.
‘It’s not my work, it’s who I am’
But something all of the panelists agreed on was that all of these barriers weren’t going to stop them, because making games is something that’s core to their identity.
In his talk, Chiumya emphasised how making games is vital to his sense of self-expression. He says he’s trying to make games that express distinctly South African values, especially the notion of “ubuntu,” or unity.
“I wanted to bring that unity and diversity to games, as well,” Chiumya says.
For the Ukraine-based Lobova, she says she’s not shy about shattering any stereotype in front of her.
“It is difficult and it is challenging, but it is interesting. And it’s not my work, it’s who I am,” Lobova says.
Meanwhile, Zambia only appears in video games as a backdrop to open warfare waged by Americans with guns. Ncube says she makes games to show a different side to the country. Her visions, and the short games she’s released online, have resonated enough that she was able to raise an IndieGoGo crowdfund to pay for her travel to GDC.
“I want to see a different story told about where I’m from, and I want it to be told by us,” Ncube says.
And more than anything, the panelists agreed that they stay in games despite the problems because they want to keep working to make it better for everybody else.
“I just want to give my life to what I love, and I want to keep our scene amazing,” Bee says.