The #1ReasonToBe panel is always a highlight of GDC and this year was no exception, once again sharing inspirational tales from game developers around the globe.
Host Rami Ismail, co-founder of Vlambeer, invited speakers from Egypt, Pakistan, Paraguay and more to take the stage and offer an insight into their background -- all in the name of inspiring attendees to help build "a fair and inclusive industry."
"Diversity is a simple goal but an incredibly difficult effort," Ismail said. "Inclusivity -- the act of making our industry to anyone, no matter their creed, heritage, location, sexuality, gender, race, disability or socio-economic reality -- is a battle we can win. We often act as if our industry is a coherent whole but it is not, and if we accept that people exist in and understand the world in radically different ways, it is important that we structure our industry with an understanding that those views are not necessarily lesser for being different."
"It is important that we structure our industry with an understanding that [people's] views are not necessarily lesser for being different"
Rami Ismail, Vlambeer
First up to the mic was Khaya Ahmed, lead content developer from Optera Digital -- a Pakistan transmedia company "focused on games and content for change." She told the audience there are lots of misconceptions about Pakistan and it's her goal to break them.
Originally working in television, movies and comics -- even helping Marvel to define Kamala Khan, a modern Ms Marvel and the company's first Muslim superhero -- she moved into video games a few years ago, which she describes as "one of the best decisions of my life."
She confesses she "didn't know the power of video games" until she took part in a drive called 'Your Relationship With Your Health.' run by a group that went to impoverished women in rural areas of Pakistan suffering from moderate to severe postpartum depression.
"These women were a danger to themselves and their children, and didn't know how to get out of it because of the perception of depression in that society. It's often associated with being crazy in those rural areas. We wanted to change that, so we went there and used games."
The group came up with several exercises, like going for a walk for a minute. Players got a prize -- mostly food, such as barrels of rice or lentils for each completed exercise, and the game's leaderboard tracked their progress. By the end of the three-month course, their depression had significantly improved, thanks to a combination of these activities and medication.
"That's when I found out games can make a difference. People don't think Pakistan has a thriving games industry -- I'm here to tell you you're wrong. We have a very supportive industry back home. Even when I was younger, no one looked at my age, looked at my gender -- they looked at my talent."
Next was Ehsan Ebrahimzadeh, a 3D environment artist at Arkane Studios who originally hails from Iran. The lack of games development education in Iran didn't deter Ebrahimzadeh from pursuing such a career and he started his own studio with a few friends. Their first title was Men of Freedom: Tangestan, a First World War shooter set in Iran. This won awards in the 2013 Tehran Games Festival and even won funding to help the team continue working.
Ebrahimzadeh also became an instructor at the Iranian Video Games Institute to educate young video game designers. But while he was gaining experience, he was also dealing with problems that were impossible for him to solve -- most notably how isolated Iran's economy is from the rest of the world. He realised he had a choice: continue games development or quit and do something else.
"Even when I was younger, no one looked at my age, looked at my gender -- they looked at my talent"
Khaya Ahmed, Optera Digital
"This was an easy decision to make: I wanted to make games," he said. "But how could I do that? I needed to leave my country to pursue my dream. This was not an easy decision to make because now I had to leave my family and friends. I had to compete in a world class stage with some great artists that didn't have any of the problems that I used to have, and I knew I would have a lot of visa complications because I had an Iranian passport in my pocket.
He continued, "After two years and many applications and rejections -- mainly because of the visa process -- I finally got a call from Arkane Studios, one of my dream studios to work in."
Fortunately everything went smoothly from there but he says, "That's not the ending for me, it's only the beginning". He has vowed to constantly work to improve himself and inspire the younger generation.
The third speaker was due to be Nourhan El Sherief of Egyptian developer Instinct Games, but she very recently had her visa application rejected. Instead, she asked the panel to give her presentation.
El Sherief has loved video games all her life, which made games development "a much more logical career choice than becoming a regular software developer." However, announcing this decision to friends and family was not met with the same excitement she felt. She was warned it has no future in Egypt, but she was determined to pursue this path.
"And then, a miracle happened," she said.
The Global Game Jam was hosting in Egypt for the very first time in 2013. El Sherief was able to make contact with people who could guide her on how to start her career and told her about a nine-month game development diploma.
"It was challenging, watching everyone getting jobs while I would be a student for an extra year with no real experience or training earned," she says. "Later, when applying for game development jobs, all the projects were product marketing ones for clients.
"It felt like forever being stuck in that loop. The real problem was I was just a fresh graduate by then. I had no idea how to make a game work correctly, or how to work on shaders or animation. Tutorials were insufficient and there weren't any seniors to learn from. Moreover, I wasn't even working on games I liked."
"It was challenging, watching everyone getting jobs while I would be a student for an extra year with no real experience or training earned"
Nourhan El Sherief, Instinct Games
It became so frustrating, El Sherief and a group of colleagues started their own indie studio. They couldn't quit their jobs because they needed to earn money to live, so the team worked hard until they could become full-time indies. It was hard managing both, especially when opportunities arose around El Sherief's Global Game Jam entry Keys to Success. Placed third in awards in Bahrain, with the help of a mentor, managed to get funding and was able to go full-time.
"The fund wasn't much but it should have sustained me for a year or less -- being careful, of course, and living like a corpse," she said. "But sadly, this was shortly outlived."
The government decided to float the Egyptian pound, which meant everything doubled in price and her funding lasted half the time. Studios became much more selective about who they hired -- one rejected El Sherief because there was a high chance she would get married and have children, requiring maternity leave. Another didn't want to hire a woman because she would be the only one in the studio, and this was "culturally inappropriate."
She was eventually hired by Instinct Games, a co-development studio working on Ark: Survival Evolved. However, she was still the only woman at the studio, which presented challenges -- like having to leave work early and not pitch in overnight because it was still deemed culturally inappropriate and unsafe.
"This makes me look slack compared to my male colleagues and feel like I'm holding the team behind," she says. "So I try to compensate for that with speed and hard work to be able to catch up. Every time it feels too heavy, I turn to games for inspiration, I play to recharge and I start moving forward.
"For as long as I can remember, games were to me a pat on the back where no one understood, an adventure I've been waiting for my whole life. In that sense, I feel I want to do that to inspire someone after their long day to keep fighting for their dream, or to help people experience uplifting epic stories that they'll never forget. To change their perspective, or walk them through another time. This is the real power of games."
El Sherief's presentation was followed by Juan de Urraza, CEO of Paraguayan developer Posibilian Tech.
"My #1ReasonToBe is that I felt four years ago that video games will become the most complex, interactive, influential and social artistic creations in the history of humankind. A new unexplored territory, and I wanted to be part of it."
However, at the time he couldn't join the industry. Paraguay had been under a dictatorship for decades with huge restrictions on creativity until 1989, but de Urraza says locals "still suffer under that influence"
"I was supposedly too old to start developing games, had a family and kids, but I was determined to do it"
Juan de Urraza, Posibilian Tech
He studied software engineering, which was as related a subject as he could find, and coded games in every class he could. He had an idea for a location-based video game many years ago, but the technology didn't exist.
When he was 40 -- after working in software engineering, launching digital magazines and even a video games radio show -- he decided to go back to his dream of making games.
"The rise of mobile phones, digital distribution, game agents and internet training programs changed everything," said de Urraza. "I was supposedly too old to start developing games, had a family and kids, but I was determined to do it."
He quit his job, raised angel investment and founded Posibilian Tech. The problem was building a team in a country without game developers. So he founded IGDA Paraguay, brought in the Global Game Jam and formed a new conference. He also founded the Latin America Game Development Federation, which this year got scholarships for 100 Latin Americans to come to GDC for the first time. All the while, he was able to grow his team and finally start developing his game.
"We wanted to develop it ourselves, learn in the process and not hire external developers so the experience and knowledge will stay in Paraguay," he said.
The game was Fhacktions, a location-based PvP title. While de Urraza acknowledges his team made a lot of mistakes, they learned a lot. They didn't earn money with it, but had other kinds of success -- for example, Fhacktions was one of the winners at the Google Play Indie Games Festival, making Posibilian the first Paraguayan developer to be featured on Google. The game has even sparked memes and graffiti on public restrooms.
"In four years, we learned a lot but we have much work ahead to become a sustainable business," said de Urraza.
Next was Camila Gormaz, founder of Chilean studio Bura, which focuses on narrative games and is now developing first RPG Long Gone Days. Gormaz told attendees she has wanted to be an indie developer since she was ten years old.
"I grew up watching arts and crafts shows, and if I learned one thing from them, it's that if I want something, I can make it on my own."
At first she would watch her friends play games, and then sketch her own custom stages in a notebook, challenging people to play them later. Realising pen and paper were not enough, she learned HTML and made hyperlink games, moved on to Flash games, until she discovered RPG Maker and the game dev community around it.
"I felt like I was finally ready to work on my own story," Gormaz said. "I wanted to work on a game set in the real world with no magic, where the characters aren't a bunch of high schoolers because, like more people here, I didn't like school. And I wanted people to experience language barriers because I've been dealing with those my whole life."
"To get messages from people all over the world telling me I'm the reason they've become game developers... I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world"
Camila Gormaz, Bura
The more she learned about game development, the more she realised how little she knew, and began to lose hope. There were no game development careers in Chile, very few games studios, and she couldn't afford to leave the country -- so she gave up and worked in web development. But all the while, she kept drawing and making games as a hobby.
One day, she received an email from a European developer who had seen drawings and wanted her to make art for his visual novel. After that, she worked on other commercial titles and slowly regained her confidence.
"After my last contract had ended, I had saved enough money to take a couple months off and it was the perfect chance to work on that project I'd been pushing aside for over a decade," she said, referring to Long Gone Days.
After a successful Indiegogo campaign, the game launched on Early Access last year, and Bura is currently working hard on full release.
"There's simply no other job that can make me as happy," Gormaz concluded. "To get messages from people all over the world telling me that this is the kind of game they've been wanting for, or that I'm the reason they've become game developers... I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world."
Finally, Lual Mayen took to the stage -- founder and developer of Junub Games. Hailing from South Sudan, he told of a country ripped apart by civil war for years, with over 2.5 million people displaced and 1.5 million internally displaced within South Sudan.
His parents fled the country to Northern Uganda, with Mayen born on the way to the refugee camp. He also lost two sisters during the war.
"Living in a refugee camp was not easy," he said. "As a child, I wanted to make sure what is the best way to restore a sustainable peace in my country. My main focus was to make sure I contributed something to my country, so I asked my mother to buy a laptop. She laughed at me, saying, 'What are you going to do with a laptop in a refugee camp?'"
She spent three years saving $300 to buy a laptop, and Mayen finally got one in 2013. There was no power in the refugee camp, no place to learn to make what he wanted, so he walked three hours every day to a nearby internet cafe to charge his laptop.
While he was there a friend installed Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which inspired him to use the power of games to contribute to peace-building and conflict resolution.
"As game developers we have a lot of opportunities to explore to help people and make their lives better... I'm the voice of the refugees and what we can achieve with your help"
Lual Mayen, Junub Games
"Children need games to play, not war to slay," Mayen said. "In my country, almost 73% of the population is under the age of 30. These are young people, born and raised in war. Their mindset, their attitude is all about war. I thought, 'How can I make peace as a product, something they can play using their phone, their computers and so on?'"
He started making video games to divert kids from getting involved in destructive activities, convinced that games can be used to spread messages of peace. His first effort was Salaam, derived from the Arabic word for peace, which sees players protecting a refugee camp from hate and war using peace as a power-up.
However, it was hard to distribute from a refugee camp, so used bluetooth to share the game among the others. He eventually travelled to Johannesburg for A.Maze and met Rami, which helped put him in touch with the worldwide developer community.
His team is now working on a VR game that gives players an insight into the decision you make before picking up a gun. The goal is to help people in South Sudan understand the consequences of choosing to participate in war.
"As game developers we have a lot of opportunities to explore to help people and make their lives better," he said, before adding: "I'm the voice of the refugees and what we can achieve with your help."
#1ReasonToBe started as a community hashtag on Twitter to share inspiring stories among women about their experiences in the industry and the challenges they face. The panel was originally hosted by Brenda Romero and Leigh Alexander, who passed it onto Rami, suggesting he expand it into geographical diversity. But he announced at the end of the session that this will be his final time as host.
"While there is much work to be done, I'm proud of what I and the panelists have achieved," he said. "That being said, the question has been raised whether it's right for #1ReasonToBe to no longer be about women in the industry, or whether it was really mine to refocus at all. I understand and recognise that criticism."
GDC is looking for someone to take over the panel and focus it back on the issues it was originally created for. Ismail will continue his work bringing down geographical barriers in his own way, including with his upcoming GameDev.World conference, which we spoke to him about earlier this year.