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Standing ovation for Palestinian dev at #1ReasonToBe

Developers from around the world share tales of passion, ambition, self-discovery and suffering at GDC 2017

#1ReasonToBe started as a Twitter hashtag under which women would tweet their reasons for being in the industry, often in the face of abuse and cynicism via social media. This was explored further in an annual GDC session that has become a symbol for anyone who celebrates and calls for greater diversity.

This year, Vlambeer's Rami Ismail decided to focus on geographical diversity: developers around the world who come from a culture or circumstances that few from larger markets can fully understand or appreciate.

The most standout example from this year's session was Rasheed Abueideh, believed to be the first GDC speaker from Palestine. Abueideh opened his talk by describing how his country is not recognised by much of the world, and does not even exist on Google Maps. As such, the full extent of its suffering also often goes unrecognised.

"Palestine has been suffering from occupation for 69 years," he said, before showing how different life is in his country to the activities that often crop up in video games. Perhaps the most stark example was a collection of photos showing Palestinians passing through caged checkpoints, with Abueideh adding: "Here, we're playing Papers Please - but they don't say please."

"It's not easy for us to travel. It's expensive. Being Muslim and Palestinian also does not help"

Rasheed Abueideh

He then moved on to the difficulties of making games for his people: "Since we are an unrecognised country, we cannot sell our games [through online stores] because they cannot transfer money to banks in Palestine. PayPal is not working at this time, and we do not have access to 3G networks because we don't have permission to use those frequencies. It's not easy for us to travel. It's expensive. Being Muslim and Palestinian also does not help. Also, no one comes to Palestine so we are isolated."

Because of these reasons and more, Abueideh was forced to shut down the games division of his company in 2013. Despite not being able to make a living developing games, he was still compelled to do so. When war hit Gaza again, the number of people killed - especially children - was huge. As the father of three kids, Abueideh felt he had to do something. He began to make a game about this suffering, hoping to share his experience.

"I believe games are the best medium to share feelings and experiences," he said. "And in this way, I could convince people to work with me for free if they believed what I believe. And I succeeded in that, so we started making Liyla and the Shadows of War."

You may well be familiar with this title. Released through the App Store, Apple refused to classify it as a game because of its political statement and depiction of actual events, instead believing it should be in the News category. "Can you imagine that?" Abueideh asked the audience. "Being rejected for talking about the suffering of your people?"

Thanks to the "amazing" games community, support from developers all over the world flooded in and the game was back on the App Store and its proper category just three days later, prompting plenty of downloads and positive comments - albeit with three comments claiming the game was made by ISIS. "By the way, I'm not ISIS," Abueideh chuckled.

"If you have friendly surroundings you can feel so much better, and that's what makes me really happy: feeling like I belong somewhere"

Marta Ziolkowska

But even this wasn't the biggest challenge the Palestinian developer faced while making this game. After the incident with the App Store, a local TV station invited Abueideh to be interviewed. Afterwards, his family expressed fears that he would be thrown in jail.

"There are so many people in jail for speaking out about the injustice in Palestine," he said. "My wife was scared, but she helped me and supported me. One of the team who worked with me asked me not to mention his name in the game's credits because of the risk.

"I had to work on this game for two years as if it were a secret mission. No one knew about it except my wife and the team, because I was afraid if someone learned about it I would be in jail before it was published. Can you imagine that? Making games could put you in jail?

"But I'm not in jail - yet. I'm here with you. I'm honoured to be here, glad to be here, but I'm not happy. My number one reason to be is that I'm crazy enough to think that I can open your eyes and raise awareness by making games and maybe, just maybe we can protect the kids from being in a war again. Because war is not far from any one of us."

His speech prompted a standing ovation from the entire audience.

standing

Abueideh was not the only inspiring story, of course. The session opened with Brigitta Rena, who helped form Indonesian developer Mojiken Studio. She shared her team's story with attendees and the lessons they learned, such as failing early and embracing limitations, while building titles like She and the Light Bearer.

She also spoke about how the desire to build video games helped Mojiken overcome obstacles like the initial lack of a programmer, how small the Indonesian games industry was when they started, and how personal the process of making games can feel. "We as human beings have thoughts and ideas that sometimes cannot be delivered through any other medium than games," she said. "That's why I believe games are a medium of expression. As a creator, I want to express myself, I want to communicate. I want to share what I like and what I believe through the medium that I love. This is my purpose and my number one reason to be."

"We want to break the exotic wall, bringing African fantasy [to wider audiences] so other creators can use it to create new stories"

Madiba Olivier

Next up was Polish developer and Gspot Studio CEO Marta Ziolkowska, who fell in love with programming at a young age but was often bullied by male colleagues for being the only woman in IT at her company. Determined to marry her passions for computing and art together through the medium of games, she visited as many conferences as she could to better understand development. Despite some initial failures, her company has since released two titles and Ziolkowska has been instrumental in setting up and growing local games events and conferences. She even offers to help other would-be developers learn their craft.

"My one reason to be... er, actually there are three of them," she said. "One is do what you love. If someone tells you that you should do something else, don't listen. Follow your heart. Second is the freedom of creativity. Games mean so much to me, because you can express yourself, tell a story and do something bigger.

"And thirdly, if you have friendly surroundings you can feel so much better, and that's what makes me really happy: feeling like I belong somewhere. My crew becomes my real dearest friends. Those are my reasons to be."

Madiba Olivier is thought to be the first ever GDC speaker from the African nation of Cameroon. He described himself as a "professional wallbreaker", in that he does all he can to bring down the barriers between his team and their goal. The founder and CEO of Kiro'o Games, he was inspired to make games by Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, among others. With so many titles heavily based on Western or Eastern culture, he took it upon himself to create games based on African culture - something, he told the audience with a chuckle, that goes far beyond just the Egyptian myths.

Aurion, Kiro'o Games

For his flagship project Aurion, Olivier spent weeks preparing a Kickstarter campaign, only to find that he could not launch it as the crowdfunding site did not support Cameroon. So he formed his own funding platform and raised the money necessary to complete his project. His story inspired others in his area to look into games development, and now his studio continues to make games based on local culture and history.

When describing his reason to be, Olivier he said it was something that evolved. In 2003, when he was much younger, it was passion for video games and the desire to make one. After 2013, his reason became the need to bring something to the community and have Africa "put something on the creativity table." But it was only upon receiving requests from local parents to release a physical version of Aurion, so their children could see it was possible to have a career in games, that his "ultra reason to be" emerged.

"Now when we make games, we mainly want to share the wallbreaker mindset," he said. "There are a lot of walls in life. There is the wall of fear, the fear to try. The wall of funding, which we broke. And there's the exotic wall, my favourite wall.

"When I say the word 'Africa'... your brain has a bad database about it. It's not your fault - even when I say 'Africa' I think of problems, of children dying. It was like this with Japan 30 years ago. When that generation thought of Japan, they thought of communists and so on. Japan worked hard to break that wall. That's why Kiro'o Games is working hard to make our games now. We already started to break the exotic wall for our own people. We want to break the exotic wall, bringing African fantasy [to wider audiences] so other creators can use it to create new stories and good characters."

"Make the games you want to make, make the games that matter to you, the games you would like to play or would like other people to play"

Thais Weiller

Just prior to Abueideh, Argentinian games exec Martina Santoro took to the stage. A political school drop-out, she has risen to become co-founder of Buenos Aires' Okam Studio, the first female president of local games trade body ADVA, the editor-in-chief of InsideGamesLatam.biz, and director of the animation programme at the Universidad del Cine - not a bad resumé for someone who, by her own admission, doesn't make games.

She praised the industry for being so welcoming, saying that for every person that wronged her, for every troll she encountered via social media, she has met hundreds of "kind and amazing" people. And she has worked hard to help encourage and nurture more creative people throughout her nation. "I like to think I'm a catalyst," she said. "I never achieve anything in my life without help, and that works the other way around - there are definitely things that wouldn't exist if I wasn't around. [The teams I work with] are my reason to be. I'm not alone. I never will be, and neither should you.

"If I, from Argentina, the end of the world, can find all these amazing people and do all these amazing things, then what are you waiting for?"

Finally, Brazilian independent developer Thais Weiller spoke about how games led her to an important moment of self-discovery. Working in games since 2010, she spoke about wondering why no one was making games about the "crappy moments in life," like break ups, awful bosses, and experiences with serious health conditions. "It's very hard to face your demons," she warned. "It's very hard to look inside and see all the dark shit that is lurking there. I have a bit of personal history with this."

In 2016, she decided to make a game about the numbness she felt inside. She hated what she was doing at her job, so she worked on a project in her spare time that explored social anxiety. That project was Rainy Day, and when she released it six months later the press started calling it a depression simulator.

"I had to face it: perhaps what I had felt for the past 20 years, that numbness inside me was actually depression," she said. "I actually went to a psychologist after that, and now I know a little more about myself - thanks to a game.

"My one reason to be is to help all of you here. Make the games you want to make, make the games that matter to you, the games you would like to play or would like other people to play. Not only are you going to help other people who feel like you to see that they're not the only ones who feel like that, but also you might discover something new about yourself. It may even improve your quality of life."

Vlambeer's Rami Ismail concluded the session by encouraging other developers to share their reasons to be and their stories via the hashtag.

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