The Game Developers Conference is one of the largest gatherings of game developers in the world. Most people consider it a badge of honour to speak or even attend the conference. I got lucky, because a couple of wonderful people recommended me to speak and represent my country at the #1ReasonToBe panel, which is organised every year by Vlambeer's Rami Ismail to highlight countries that are usually underrepresented at GDC.
I live in the Philippines, the Pearl of the Orient, a developing nation with a lot of talent but restricted by opportunities and a red passport. Before I entered university, Anino Entertainment released Anito: Defend a Land Enraged, which won the Independent Games Festival (IGF) Award for Innovation in 2004. The game's release sparked the local industry; its designer, Gabby Dizon, along with other individuals and game studios at the time, started both the local chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA Manila) and the Game Developers Association of the Philippines (GDAP). Fifteen years later, I find myself a board member of IGDA Manila, while another person I look up to, Alvin Juban (who we lovingly refer to as the Emperor), is the incumbent President of GDAP.
Gabby and Alvin are pillars of our local game development industry. Their vision to drive businesses in the Philippines doesn't just benefit themselves; it extends to creating more jobs for more people, encouraging the regional game development hub, and making sure our dreams as game developers live on beyond us. I saw the GDAP board encourage the government to support our industry, persist in spite of bureaucracy, showcase Filipino talent to the international scene, provide accessible healthcare, and innovate company practices such as telecommuting to ensure individuals don't get burnt out.
"I love my country. I was supposed to speak about how I wanted the local industry to grow, and what we can show to the world. But I can't"
They open doors, not just to me, but to the everyone in the local industry, all while making it look effortless. They are part of the reason why I pay it forward, working towards the local industry's success as a whole.
This is what I was going to talk about: our history as an industry, and the goodwill of our people. At my core, I want to create games that are beyond skin-deep, that can truly showcase our culture. But at the same time I was driven to encourage people around me to make well-crafted games, be proud of their work, and find joy in seeing others play Filipino-made games that are ready for the world stage. This is the culture I wanted to cultivate in the community. There is a Filipino word for a community working towards a common goal: bayanihan.
Rami's #1ReasonToBe was the perfect platform to tell our story. About how we persevere amidst the poor infrastructure and the rapidly changing political climate, how studios work around these obstacles, and how opportunity is passed on to each other within the community. The trip was completely sponsored: hotel, flights, and an all-access pass.
But before I could commit, I had to get a visa.
A lot of Filipinos receive ten-year B1/B2 visas, and renewing used to be as easy as dropping it to your nearest mail courier. I have a close friend who got awarded a two-week B1 visa because he represented the Philippines at a trade show in the United States. However, recent developments in the current US administration mean stricter protocols, even for non-immigrant visas. Armed with an invitation letter from GDC, a letter of guarantee, a pair of open tickets, and a hotel reservation, I went to the US Embassy for my application.
"Despite the fact that we were colonised by three different countries we are still treated with diplomatic hostility"
Filipinos can fly to 63 visa-free countries. The United States of America is not one of them. People have the notion that there is a higher chance of approval if you include flight tickets during the application, for both departing and returning flights. This, however, is no guarantee, making it hard for conference organisers who want to give platforms and opportunities to game developers from developing nations. Because the reality is, people from third-world countries have to meet certain requirements and sometimes be subject to an interviewer's decision.
In spite of the fact that I was invited, was guaranteed my trip was covered, was going to come home to finish the games I'm making for my studio, and was part of an organisation that works towards creating more opportunities for more game developers, I was denied of a visa - not once, but three times.
There are a lot of Filipinos who fly to Spain/Europe undocumented, who go to the US to find themselves a token American for a green card, who overstay in Japan, all wanting a better life, better opportunities, and a better future. Despite the fact that we were colonised by three different countries we are still treated with diplomatic hostility. It is a symptom of a problem that goes beyond the games industry. This is what makes it hard for people like me, who are more than willing to take the bureaucratic route but are still subjected to harsh judgement and scrutiny.
I love my country. I was supposed to speak about my efforts with the community, how I wanted the local industry to grow, and what we can show to the world. But I can't.
After the physical and emotional exhaustion of being handed a blue paper more than once, I accepted the reality of the situation. It was beyond my control. With the event drawing closer, I owed it to Rami and to my country to send a representative. It was more important that our stories were heard. Javi Almirante, who was five years my junior, is a talented game creator and is also part of the current board of IGDA Manila. At his core, he makes games while understanding our struggles and helping the community grow. More importantly, he already had a ten-year US visa which would lessen the complications.
"After the physical and emotional exhaustion of being handed a blue paper more than once, I accepted the reality of the situation"
Javi spoke at #1ReasonToBe alongside five other individuals from their respective countries. Rami Ismail, even with the visa rejections and the hardships of organisation, delivered a full panel. It was only fitting that, the night before, he accepted the Ambassador Award for his efforts in ensuring that everyone had a platform and an opportunity to make a difference.
During the talk, Rami showed a map of the world with blank spaces representing people who couldn't afford and didn't have access to GDC. Sadly, there are a lot of people who want to go to the event, who want to share what their community has to offer, and to tell the stories of how they make games despite difficulties. But they can't. We can't.
Right after the panel, friends sent me photos of the slide Javi had dedicated to me. When he showed me his draft, I asked him not to include me and to highlight our problems, our aspirations, and our games, but he still did. These small hat tips are what makes me proud of our culture of gratitude. My glass is not half empty, or half full; it is overflowing. We are never alone, and we must continue to work towards creating an industry where everyone can make the games they want to make.
Luckily, we live in a time where the internet breaks restrictions. The reason why I was considered in the first place is because this industry opens doors. It is efforts like #1reasontobe, #notGDC, IGDA Scholars, Pro Indie Dev and many others that aim to make information accessible to everyone. It reminds me of why I love the world of game development. The passion and the commitment of people makes me feel that I am a person capable of affecting change.
We will continue to do what we have always done: making games while staying true to our vision of an inclusive industry, a growing community. Bayanihan. I feel deep pride knowing people know our stories, and I hope to listen to all of yours, someday.
A denied visa doesn't define you or me. We all live in the internet anyway.
Gwendelyn Foster is director of technology at Ritmo Learning Lab, organiser of the ESGS Indie Arena, and secretary of IGDA Manila. Foster was one of six invited speakers for the #1ReasonToBe panel at GDC 2018 to be denied a visa.