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Trump is bad for the US games industry

An isolationist, nationalist administration can't help but harm an increasingly diverse and global industry

There is no shortage of arguments to be made as to why the presidency of Donald Trump will be a moral, ethical, humanitarian, legal, and/or constitutional disaster. You can no doubt find those arguments being made in numerous forms across the internet right now, and while those are all important and deserving of consideration, they don't fit within the scope of coverage for GamesIndustry.biz. However, one argument that does fit within our coverage is the one explaining why the Trump presidency could be a disaster for the American games industry.

Let's start with last week's executive order barring entry into the US of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries for a 90-day period, whether they have visas or not. While there are other concerning parts of the order from a human perspective (a four-month suspension of the refugee admissions program and a requirement to periodically publish information about foreign nationals charged with terrorism-related charges), the travel ban would seem to be the one most pressing for the games business.

It might not seem terribly consequential on the face of it because Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia are not traditional hotbeds of game development. But even if we were to accept that these countries somehow did not produce talented game developers (although they clearly do), the ripples of the executive order spread far beyond that talent pool.

"The number of developers from the seven impacted countries may be limited at the moment, but the number of Muslim developers is considerably larger, and Trump's actions have given them all cause for concern"

The number of developers from the seven impacted countries may be limited at the moment, but the number of Muslim developers is considerably larger, and Trump's actions have given them all cause for concern. This executive order is a clear indication that his previous call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on" was not just empty campaign rhetoric but a priority goal of his administration, and one it wanted to waste no time putting into action.

You don't have to look too hard to find Muslims in the industry upset by Trump's actions. Sony's long-time Strategic Content director Shahid Kamal Ahmad has already said he won't be attending this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco until confusion about the US' position is cleared up, adding that US-based events like GDC and E3 are now "held behind a Racist Curtain." Meanwhile, globetrotting developer Rami Ismail wrote a column for The Guardian critical of the order, noting that many developers who hold dual citizenship with a majority-Muslim country are now uncertain of travelling to the US, and if they're already in the US, unsure about leaving lest they not be allowed back.

The uncertainty this has created goes well beyond Muslims, extending to virtually anyone who has been vocally critical of Donald Trump. Whether it's foreign developers fretting about border guards asking their opinion of Trump or calling on GDC to move the show to Canada, it's clear that many in the development community have a less favorable view of traveling to or working in the US now. Let's add in some other marginalized groups here, as Trump and many of the people in his administration have relationships with black, LGBTQ, Mexican, and other communities that we could charitably describe as fraught with tension. So how many qualified candidates out there are part of these groups, know people who are, or merely sympathize with them regardless and would think twice about taking a job with an American studio now?

And even if developers did want to emigrate to the US for work, there's a very big question about how many of them could. The Entertainment Software Association hinted at this earlier this week with its own statement on Trump's executive order, in which the trade group said it "urges the White House to exercise caution with regard to vital immigration and foreign worker programs." If it sounds more softly worded than condemnations from GDC and Insomniac Games, it's probably because the ESA has very clear reasons not to antagonize Trump at the moment.

"The ESA has spent millions lobbying US legislators for years, and some of their favorite topics are already in Trump's crosshairs"

The ESA has spent millions lobbying US legislators for years, and some of their favorite topics are already in Trump's crosshairs, like the H-1B visa program for skilled workers. The ESA has lobbied to increase the number of H-1B visas granted for years, but it seems incredibly unlikely Trump would go along with that. During his inaugural address, Trump promised the country would "follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American," and reports this week of an imminent executive order specific to H-1B visas were enough to sink share prices for companies in India's tech sector. The ESA has always wanted to bring more international talent to the US than the government permitted, and it's likely under Trump that talent will remain in other countries, working for other companies.

A look at the rest of the ESA's lobbying slate shows other issues where Trump's positions run counter to what the big players in the games industry would want. One of the biggest issues where the two are at odds is no doubt international trade. The ESA has lobbied in favor of multinational free trade agreements like the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump last week pulled the US out of. (Trump has also expressed an interest in renegotiating existing trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement.) The TPP overlaps with another of the ESA's lobbying interests, protection of intellectual property, as it would require all participating countries to extend copyright protection terms and criminalize circumvention of digital rights management.

Another familiar issue that could see the ESA at odds with Trump is video game violence. While it wasn't a hot button topic of his on the campaign trail, Trump did lament on Twitter in the days after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 that "Video game violence & glorification must be stopped-it is creating monsters!" You might think that gaming violence was a First Amendment issue settled in 2011 by the Supreme Court, but Trump's already shown he has little regard for either the judiciary or the First Amendment. Or the First Amendment. Or the First Amendment. Or the First Amendment.

"The indie game community in the US is likely going to be hurt by Trump's administration as much as any other corner of the industry"

On a related note, the ESA also lobbied in favor of anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) legislation, so you can put that as another issue where the US game industry and the president are presumably at odds.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to games than the ESA, and the indie game community in the US is likely going to be hurt by Trump's administration as much as any other corner of the industry. The apparently imminent repeal of the Affordable Care Act with no replacement lined up could be catastrophic for indie developers. If insurance companies are once again allowed to turn away people with pre-existing conditions, or simply charge them exorbitant rates, it becomes more difficult for developers to break away from their current employers and their health plans in order to form their own small companies. Even for perfectly healthy developers, it would be considerably more expensive to get coverage on their own rather than through an employer. While the repeal of the ACA would mean they could go without coverage and avoid any sort of fine for being uninsured, perhaps that's not the wisest course of action in a field notorious for developers driving themselves into the ground and ruining their health through crunch for the sake of finishing a game.

In the past, the industry--particularly the large publishers of the ESA--would probably welcome a Republican president with a traditionally conservative approach of low corporate taxes and light regulation. And it's still possible that Trump will deliver on those two fronts. But it's hard to see how any gains in those areas would offset the spectacular damage he has already done and will continue to do to the US industry's available talent pool and the country's standing in an increasingly global industry.

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Latest comments (8)

Ruben Monteiro Engineer 4 years ago
Given these days of everyone and their dog being game developers, I think you'd have to come up with a hell of a lot of barring orders to see any talent shortage.
And for the companies that are worried about losing talent, do the words "remote working" ring any bells?
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Alex Barnfield Lead Engineer, 17-BIT4 years ago
Ruben - this article made the claim that it won't be talent shortages which cause the indie scene problems, and your points only really cover Indie titles which are developed in an entirely different fashion.

Companies like Naughty Dog don't tend to hire anyone and their dog, despite their name, the same goes for the many other AAA developers in the US.
Remote working requires a different company culture which could upset the existing one, and although I don't have personal experience of remote working I am informed it's not a way of working everyone is suited to.
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Eyal Teler Programmer 4 years ago
It's fine to be against Donald Trump's policies, but anyone on the left who implies that the TPP has anything good about it is obviously out of his mind. Couple that with the implications that violent video games are what we the industry is about and needs and that the US game developer talent is so lacking that reducing immigration will be disastrous for it, and I really have to wonder about the writer.
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Show all comments (8)
James Coote Independent Game Developer 4 years ago
@Eyal Teler: TPP and free-trade agreements generally do make life easier for multi-national businesses. The vast majority of games industry, even tiny one-man indie studios, fall into that category.

I think the reason free-trade agreements have been politicised recently is because the benefits do not filter down to wider society in developed countries. Middle-class manufacturing jobs have been automated out of existence (replaced by robots). Headline GDP figures appear to show steady grown because Tech companies have come along to replace that lost economic activity.

The problem is, those companies don't employ anywhere near the same number of people. Companies like King or Supercell have a tiny number of employees relative to their turnover. Getting rid of Free trade agreements makes life harder for businesses without really solving the jobs issue. Even if manufacturing plants return to developed countries like the USA, they now need far fewer workers than when they left.

For the Tech industry, of which the games industry is a part, we need to be more sympathetic to wider society who have been left behind by globalisation and automation. We can't call out Trump's solutions as wrong when the public perceive us as failing to even recognising the problem.
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Benedict Harris Music Composer & Sound Effects. 4 years ago
he is putting Americans back to work - stop playing games!!!
haha
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises4 years ago
The ban is pretty crappy, but like you say it is just six countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. And isn't it just for 3 months?

He can't really add any of the bigger ones because we need them. They've either got oil, military bases, an important canal, or future use as an ally in the Pacific.

I'm pretty sure he's just using the media to APPEAR to be fulfilling a crazy campaign promise. He can't actually do it, so he does this instead, in such a way to make it the outrage of the week. So all the coverage it gets makes it appear much larger than it is.
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Sybil Collas Narrative designer, Writer, Teacher 4 years ago
@Craig Page: Actually the impact is much larger than that. In Europe for instance, the general feeling of American lack of sympathy is enough to make you reconsider moving to the US. This country was already a tough one to enter, but now that previously understandable difficulty is being replaced with speculative bans, supported by isolationist and hate speeches. Trump hasn't banned more than seven countries, but he's alienated a lot of potential migrants - including tech and design brains.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 4 years ago
The race to add Trump as an in-game boss character is officially on.
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