GI 100 | Game Changers - A - B
All 100 profiles of individuals and organisations working in diversity, accessibility, charity, mental health, progressive politics, uniting communities, and much more
Wixel Studios and SpicaTech
Entrepreneurs have to face many challenges, but the outbreak of war is not usually one of them. For Reine Abbas, however, the foundation of her first company played out against the backdrop of the bombings and chaos that followed the Lebanon War in 2006.
"I was stuck on the road between fires and people beating each other, because our leaders told them to do this," she recalls. That experience inspired the creation of a game: Duma, a satirical fighting game that pitted Lebanon's politicians against each other.
"It was a reaction, to change our reality and show the young people," Abbas continues. "Millions played that game, from all over the world, and because of that success we decided to open Wixel Studios."
Along with Karim Abi Saleh and Ziad Feghali, Abbas was part of the core team that established one of the first game studios in Lebanon and the entire MENA region. The aim was to introduce the world to Lebanon's culture -- from its long history to its troubled present -- through video games, and Wixel proved to be a catalyst for the development scene in Beirut, and the country as a whole.
Individually, Abbas had a greater significance, as one of the only female entrepreneurs not just in MENA's games industry, but its entire tech scene. Since Wixel rose to prominence, Abbas has invested her time in travelling the region to help and support other women with similar aspirations.
"I use panels and talks to talk with girls and women, to empower them, to tell them they can do whatever they want in the games industry -- in any industry," she says. "For me, especially in our region, the culture is especially difficult for women. Until now, they considered that we should really stay in the kitchen. But I will not stop.
"With time we've had more female developers in [Lebanon]. They talk to me, and I'm in contact with them all the time, to boost them and help them, to give them the knowhow and connections."
In addition to her work at Wixel, Abbas has also started SpicaTech, an educational organisation that teaches kids STEM and creative subjects through the lens of game development. To date, more than 1,300 students have taken its courses. "They are doing maths, science, reading, writing, storytelling," she says. "The thing I'm most proud of with SpicaTech is that we work with kids with difficulties -- like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, kids who have difficulty reading and writing at school. But they do our courses, they make their own video games, and they have motivation to finish the games. We are using that passion to help them."
In August this year, a stockpile of ammonium nitrate in a Beirut port exploded, killing hundreds and destroying a huge part of the city where SpicaTech's offices were located. Abbas was working at the time, and considers herself fortunate to escape with her life, even as the company's offices were destroyed. This is not the first tragedy the people of Beirut have faced, she says, and it is another challenge she's determined to overcome.
"I survived. I don't know how I'm still alive. A lot of people died, and a lot of Beirut was destroyed… Against those odds, I continued my work. I tried to find solutions to continue.
"Myself, I have survived more than four wars in my life here in Lebanon. They didn't stop me from my goals and my dreams, and changing my reality with everything I do."
Samer Abbas and Danar Kayfi
Throughout the Game Changers project, you will see examples of solidarity between countries in regions where opportunity is thin on the ground. That is certainly true of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which has one of the strongest regional identities in the global games industry.
In terms of the evolution of development culture, the impact of the Game Zanga game jam cannot be underestimated. It started in 2011, a point in time when Unity and Flash had motivated people all over the world to start making games.
"Game Zanga offered people across the region's 20-plus countries an opportunity for the first time to be present together online in one regional, game development-focused event," says Samer Abbas, who organised the first four editions before handing the reins to Danar Kayfi.
"Individuals and small communities that did not know of each other's existence discovered that they were part of a larger group. Suddenly they could share experiences with many more like-minded people speaking in their native language."
Game Zanga had myriad positive effects: the region's developers gained confidence to share work and feedback with their peers; it inspired local communities within MENA to start their own community groups; it drew the attention of influential people and companies, leading to what Abbas describes as "a kind of support that made the developers in a region not known for its games output feel validated and taken seriously."
Game Zanga will celebrate its tenth anniversary on December 15. Under the guidance of Abbas and Kayfi, it has provided a platform for thousands of the MENA region's developers -- a platform that, in many cases, led to careers in the games industry. More than that, it created connection and friendship across national borders, between people who had never met but shared a language and cultural heritage.
Abbas continues to promote and elevate the Arabic games industry, with a particular focus on improving marketing knowledge and connections to platform holders. Kayfi has been Game Zanga's main organiser for the last six years, a responsibility he has embraced alongside his work in games education in Jordan and, since 2017, his native country, Iraq.
"Since then I started working on spreading the knowledge of game dev in Iraq, through workshops and events in collaboration with universities and NGOs," Kayfi says. "The game dev workshops were part of the Erbil Unity User Group, which is an official first ever Unity user group in Iraq. We also managed to host the first ever Global Game Jam in Iraq in 2019, following up with the first Game Zanga in Iraq, too."
Game Zanga is volunteer-driven, and its continued existence relies on community leaders in every country that participates. All of them deserve gratitude, Abbas says, but specific thanks is reserved for Abdullah Hamed, the founder of GameTako, who backed Abbas to create the event in the first place.
"The past couple of years were particularly challenging for Game Zanga, especially in 2020 thanks to the pandemic," Abbas says. "We realized that if it is to continue to exist and grow, like any worthy movement or cause, it cannot stay at the mercy of volunteer work. We should be able to do this work without sacrificing our time and livelihoods.
"We are looking for ways to sustain it and expand its reach and impact. We are looking into things like registering Game Zanga as a revenue-making non-profit or social business, and reaching out to the community and to public and private sector industry stakeholders to gauge interest in playing a more active role and supporting Game Zanga."
In the 2019 IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey, 28% of respondents said they live with some kind of disability. That number is bigger than many would assume, and it begs the question of how comfortable those people are with speaking about their experience, and whether they are being supported in the right ways.
"Many are unable to be honest about their disabilities, for fear that it will impact their being seen as able to cope or be selected for work," says Accessibility Unlocked, an organisation that works with disabled developers in Australia and New Zealand.
"Game developers in the industry have a high rate of turnover already, not to mention industry-wide issues with crunch and the high stress levels involved. When you add extensive pressure, stress and working hours on top of this, it can be doubly difficult for those with disabilities to maintain a career in this industry."
The organisation grew from the personal experiences of its founders. Cameron Hopkinson and Meredith Hall both live with disabilities, and have felt the impact of that on their careers. The Game Developers Conference can be a stressful, trying experience for any attendee, but at GDC 2019, Hopkinson was overwhelmed by sensory difficulties caused by autism while Hall's fibromyalgia made it especially exhausting and intense. Shortly after that event, Hopkinson and Hall met for the first time, shared their experiences, and formed Accessibility Unlocked with Calliope Rider and Zala Habib.
"We aim to be visible about our disabilities and how they make us better creators, to show others they're not alone, and find solutions together to create a more supportive industry culture. Our hope is that if we can better educate people on how to make more inclusive workspaces and games, we'll see far more diversity in our industry because of it -- and in the people who can play what we make."
Hopkinson, Hall, Ryder and Habib were all individually put forward by our advisors, a demonstration of the esteem with which Accessibility Unlocked is held in Australia and New Zealand. The group's activities are often behind the scenes, offering free consultations on improving accessibility, creating resources for support and education, and making connections and finding opportunities for developers with disabilities.
Accessibility Unlocked relies on a small team of volunteers and contributors: Humphrey Hanley, Joe Park, Jess Gates, Cole Williams, Jody Wales, and Tiger Bailey. The founders say they have big plans for 2021, and welcome any show of support, however big or small.
"Every time you signal boost our tweets, sign up to our mailing list, share a talk, read a resource, engage with our game jams, or email us asking to be put in touch with people -- everything helps. It can be hard to get abled developers to get involved with and understand this space, but for every one that does, they have a greater understanding of how to be a better colleague, manager, friend, and creator.
"While we're a volunteer-run organization, our hope is to reach a point where we can engage more contributors and supporters in order to facilitate more opportunities for developers -- for training, further mentorship and more. The more you support us and get involved, the easier it is for us to justify this need to these supporters and increase what we can offer to the community."
Diversity is a huge issue, and it's easy to overlook the unique barriers people face in different parts of the world.
GCON, the women-only game event in Saudi Arabia, is a case in point. According to its current owner and CEO, Ghada Almoqbel, it was started when women were banned from another gaming convention. Hosting a "mixed gender event" in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at that time required compliance with more regulations, the completion of more paperwork -- the organisers didn't believe there were enough female gamers to make the extra effort worthwhile.
Tasneem Salim, Felwa al-Swailem and Najla Al-Ariefy took the initiative, and hosted the first GCON in 2012. Those early shows attracted more than 4,000 attendees.
"At first it was just a gaming convention for women, then almost immediately it started to become more than that by organising the first game jam that focused on empowering female game developers in the Kingdom," Almoqbel says. "GCON since then had its value and reputation in the women gamers and game developers community."
Almoqbel represents the second generation of GCON, having taken over running the organisation from its original founders in 2018. It was an organic transition; Almoqbel vividly recalls attending her first GCON in 2013 at the age of 17, with "the only girls I knew that played video games," her sister and cousin.
"I was amazed, an unforgettable experience," she recalls. "A huge pretty place, filled with many video games including AAA and indie games. Many tournaments and competitions. And most importantly, 4,000 women and girls of all ages -- teenagers to adults and moms -- who loved gaming as much as I do, and maybe more.
"I knew instantly I wanted to be part of the team who enabled all this. And I wanted to do more. I didn't know what exactly at the time but I was game for whatever comes next."
Almoqbel joined GCON as a writer for its website in 2014, and she is now CEO of the entire organisation. The conversation around diversity in Saudi Arabia changed with the introduction of the government's Saudi Vision 2030 strategy in 2016, she says, and there is now a more widespread push to empower women across multiple sectors. Almoqbel's early actions as GCON's new leader were defined by that shifting context.
"Keywords of our new vision [are] 'inclusiveness' and 'women empowerment'," she adds. "We aim to enable inclusiveness in the community and industry, as well as supporting and empowering women."
In addition to GCON's original founders, Almoqbel is most grateful to her family, whose encouragement and support has never wavered as she pursued her goals. More broadly, she calls upon the industry to match its words of support for diversity with action.
"So many say they support women in the industry, but only a few actually genuinely care to understand our actual needs and wants," she concludes. "Genuine understanding and opportunities is all we ask for."
Mark Yassine Ancheta and Osama Hussain
Moroccan Game Developers
While big companies are seldom noted for their positive impact on local communities, the presence of a major publisher can often help to kickstart a developer scene. Such was the case with Ubisoft Casablanca, which provided a focal point for the Moroccan games industry from its founding in 1998 until its closure in 2016.
It was where Osama Hussain and Mark Yassine Ancheta first met. Hussain started making games in his native Jordan, but a lack of personal experience and official support from the industry prompted him to move to join Ubisoft in 2008. Ancheta was born to a Filipino family in Morocco, and studied at Ubisoft's official campus in Casablanca -- the first professional game development school in the region. He joined the studio as a game designer after graduation in 2010.
"Before 2011, if you [wanted] to build a career in game development in Morocco then you only had one choice -- joining Ubisoft Casablanca or nothing, and the knowledge was centralized around there too," Ancheta says. "But what happens if the studio goes down? That was the reason I thought that a local community was a necessity, in order to decentralize the knowledge and support -- which brought us to Moroccan Game Developers with Osama."
Morrocan Game Developers was founded in 2012, and Hussain outlines three of its key early objectives: "Promote game development knowledge by giving regular presentations and workshops; build a communication and collaboration platform for the community; develop creative leadership and entrepreneurial spirit among the game developers."
The point was to build stability and structure within the emerging Moroccan industry, but also to seed the value of that work across the MENA region. Attending international conferences -- as well as organising the Maghreb Game Conference -- and participating in cross-border game jams were a vital part of that strategy. Our advisers praised the "organized and prolific" Moroccan Game Developers group as "a role model for others to follow" in the MENA region.
Hussain and Ancheta are grateful to numerous institutions and companies for showing support and providing office space to Moroccan Game Developers, but they highlight the contribution of a handful of individuals: Salah Malouli and Riad Aboulethar for helping the group to improve its reach, and Game Zanga organiser Samer Abbas.
"The torch has been given, and I'm happy about the work so far done and the new communities and organizations that start to appear and get established in the country," Hussain says. "Not only in Casablanca, where Moroccan Game Developers was based, but also in other major cities.
"There are many studios and small teams getting into game development, and this is on rise. I consider that part of the vision being concluded."
The majority of people in the industry are focused on building better games. A smaller but no less valuable group are focused on how games could help to build a better future.
Bethlehem Anteneh is part of that group. She first saw the potential of games and systems of play while studying for a BSc in Architecture in Ethiopia, exploring ways to incorporate "a human element" into how buildings and spaces are designed.
"After my 'gamification of Architecture' thesis -- which was filled with potentials and not products -- the essence of what makes games so profound, popular, inclusive, expressive, and participatory started to sync with me," she recalls.
"The day that games became so relevant in my work was the day we organized a street shop for people to play games, and there was no more class division or any form of inequality. The division only happened between those who played well and those who were still learning."
Anteneh is co-founder of Chewata Awaqi, which she describes as "a network of game-thinking creatives" that grew out of a gamification workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Chewata Awaqi is engaged with the ways play can be used to address key challenges in society -- from education to human relationships to the planning of cities. Ethiopian society is "tightly wrapped around the concept of play," Anteneh says, so the methods being pioneered at Chewata Awaqi work in harmony with it.
"It is especially tough to bring a foreign tool to solve problems; one must use tools that are relevant, already valued, and used to bring about solutions where participation of society is needed... Games can become a great tool to accentuate opportunities and clarify challenges into solutions."
Anteneh has been able to take those ideas beyond Ethiopia through her work with Enter Africa, a gamification project involving 15 African countries. As part of Enter Africa, she travelled across the continent to train participants in "game-thinking" to explore the future of cities.
"I am lucky and so grateful to have been energetically welcomed and allowed to pass on my knowledge and skills of game-thinking in all aspects of life," Anteneh says. "I am part of a great team whose members are active in the arts and cultural scene in Addis Ababa. I can only go so far without them."
Anteneh and her team also recently formed an Ethiopian Games Association, and in October this year, they organised the country's first ever games culture event: ChewataCon, which Anteneh declares "a great success" due to the support and engagement of the local gaming community.
"There is a lot that can be exchanged to enable the future," Anteneh says of the ways the industry could better support her work. "We [have been] able to secure some co-productions between African talents and European, but it is at a young stage and there is a long way to go from here… We can't do this alone."
If building a sustainable career in video games is hard, it is doubly so for those living and working outside of traditional development hubs. When publishers look at emerging industries around the world, many don't see places where new games are being made; they just see new places to sell their own.
"Indonesia, and Southeast Asia in general, tend to be overlooked by the global games industry and only be seen as a market," says Kris Antoni, founder and CEO of Toge Productions, one of the leading independent games companies in Southeast Asia.
"We have amazing talents in Indonesia and they are creating amazing games, but it's very hard for them to get visibility from the international games media or get signed with publishers. Usually, one of the best ways to meet publishers and press is to go to big game events such as PAX, GDC, Gamescom, etc -- sadly most Indonesian devs can't afford it."
When Antoni founded Toge Productions in Jakarta in 2009, Indonesia's industry was largely composed of hobbyists, with just a handful of development studios. Antoni started the Game Developers Gathering two years later, with the aim of providing a place "where all of Indonesia's game industry stakeholders could meet, get to know each other, share knowledge, and build an ecosystem."
That event still exists today, as the consumer-focused Game Prime and the trade-focused IGDX. However, while it gave Indonesia's developers a bedrock from which to build, games made in the country were still struggling to find an audience. Noticing the increasing frequency of studio closures, in 2015 Toge started an initiative that offered local developers the chance to collaborate, receive mentorship, and in many cases funding. By 2017, the company was a full-fledged publisher, focused on bringing Southeast Asian games to the global market.
"I wanted to give these amazing devs and their games the chance they deserved," Antoni says. "Also, I want to see more games with Southeast Asian representation, telling our stories, history, and culture to the world. If no publisher is willing to pick up Indonesian games, we will do it ourselves."
While our advisors said Toge had a hand in a relatively large number of the Indonesian-made games on Steam -- either as publisher, or just as a mentor -- Antoni is full of gratitude for the help he was given by so many: his teacher and mentor, Dien Wong; Toge's COO Jonathan Manuel Gunawan; even those who ran the Flash platforms that hosted its early games, such as Newgrounds' Tom Fulp, Kongregate's Emily Greer, and Armor Games' Daniel McNeely.
If Antoni has one piece of advice for the global industry, it is the same one that has inspired so many of his achievements.
"Pay more attention to Southeast Asia."
Videojuegos por Alimentos
Videojuegos por Alimentos founder Pablo Avilés recalls watching television in 2013 during the Spanish financial crisis when the idea for the non-profit organization came to him.
"I was watching television and I saw many families starving and lining up at associations to receive food. I could not bear that situation without doing anything."
He remembered trading cards with friends in school, and getting what he needed to complete his collection without the money to just buy it. He applied the same thought to Videojuegos por Alimentos (or 'Video Games for Food'), which doesn't sell games to people, but rather exchanges them for non-perishable food at various events and in shopping centers.
Game publishers donate new games to the organization and individual gamers donate their own used titles and other gaming-related items, which are then assigned a value in kilograms of food. People bring in food and exchange it for the games they want, with Videojuegos por Alimentos delivering the proceeds to food banks or other associations providing for the needy.
"From the beginning, many video game companies have supported us," Avilés says, "especially PlayStation, the video game store GAME, Koch Media, Bandai Namco, Badlands, EA, and Ubisoft. We will always be grateful to all the companies that support us. And also very important [are] all the people who donate video games to us and especially all the people who bring food to help."
As for support, Avilés says it all comes down to donating games to be traded for food and supporting whatever projects Videojuegos por Alimentos organizes.
Those who nominated Sidick Bakayoko for this project described him as a "driving force" behind the games industry in Côte d'Ivoire, and West Africa more broadly -- one who has helped to fund African developers' attendance at major events like Gamescom, in addition to founding two of the pillars of the region's games industry.
Chief among them is Paradise Game, the leading esports franchise in West Africa, which aims not just to entertain young people, but to educate and empower them, too.
"Over half a million people have engaged in our esports festivals, gaming and edtech facilities," Bakayoko says. "Our vision is to engage and influence 200 million Africans through esports and video games. In a few years [since 2016] we are happy to see how we were able to change the landscape and impact positively the communities."
In the context of West Africa, Paradise Game is more than just a games company; it has become "a beacon" for the region's games business and culture. It operates a 1,200 sq. meters gaming center -- the largest in West Africa -- and produces the region's first video game focused TV show.
Bakayoko also started "Africa Corner" at Paris Games Week in 2018, as a showcase for game developers from all over the continent, and runs the Festival de l'Electronique et du Jeu video d'Abidjan (FEJA) video games festival, which brings more than 20,000 people to Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire each year.
"FEJA was created with the ambition to become the biggest video game and esport event in Africa," Bakayoko explains. "Very early on we engaged with existing local communities across the region, including Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Togo, etc. After the success of the first editions, in 2019 we had players from 12 countries including Algeria, Cameroon and France."
Together, these endeavours have provided a framework for the region's games industry to flourish. This year, Bakayoko joined the board of the African Game Developers Association with a similar objective in mind -- "to contribute to creating a better and more sustainable environment."
"The industry can support us by shedding light on our work and our initiatives," Bakayoko says. "Africa is not yet seen for its real potential, and through our activities, global companies can better assess the market and find opportunities."
Running a studio is difficult, making games is hard, and doing both in a sustainable way is a singular challenge that many struggle with. Laia Bee, co-founder of Pincer Games, manages to do both while still giving so much of her time and herself to furthering the Uruguayan games industry.
"I strongly believe that volunteer work that helps your community has never-ending rewards, like learning, creating meaningful relationships that will help you in your work, and even creating job opportunities," she says. "With volunteer work, you can fail and try again, and make the most awesome friends along the way."
In addition to her duties at Pincer Games since its founding in 2014, Bee has been a key part of Girls in Tech Uruguay since 2015, a supporter of the country's developer association CAVI since 2016, a co-ordinator of the LATAM Video Game Federation since 2018, and is the lead for Uruguay for both the Global Game Jam and Latinx in Gaming.
That's besides her role organising the Level UY Game Dev Summit, various meetups and hackathons, and advising the Uruguayan government on initiatives to support developers. Along with Martina Santoro, who was profiled in a previous article in the Game Changers series, Bee helped to create 110 GDC scholarships for developers from Latin America. Indeed, at the next GDC, you may see Bee onstage, as Rami ismail's successor as organiser of the #1reasontobe panel.
Ismail is one of the industry figures Bee feels grateful to, along with the veteran game designer Richard Lemarchand, both of whom showed her kindness and opened doors that would otherwise have been closed. Within LATAM, Bee highlights her "role models," Santoro and Sofia Battegazzore, and the patient support of Ironhide co-founder Alvaro Azofra.
However, one person stands above all the others: "Without any doubt, I have to name Pex Pison from Pomelo Games, who was the first president of the Uruguayan association. I wouldn't be here without him and his family's support."
In terms of industry support, Bee's advice is closely tied to the reason for her tireless efforts in service of her community.
"Please think about LATAM as an amazing hub for creativity and competitive games," she says. "We want to see our video games and studios be showcased in the main industry shows in the future, and be known by everyone in the world."
Chile is far from the biggest country in Latin America in terms of population, but it has long been established as a hub for game development in the region. There are more than 70 development studios in the country, which are represented by the longstanding developer association, VG Chile.
While this makes Chile one of the leading development scenes in LATAM, Niebla Games CEO Maureen Berho believes there is room for improvement. The most recent industry data showed that 14% of the country's workforce are women, behind a global average that all agree should be much higher.
"Also, in Chile, there's a huge challenge in terms of decentralization, since the major part of the Chilean teams are concentrated in the country's capital city, Santiago," Berho says. "These problems are even more apparent in a context where there's still a big challenge in terms of the professionalization and economic sustainability… There's very high flexibility and uncertainty, with approximately one third of the professionals working under freelance contracts."
These are common issues in relatively young industries, and people like Berho are invaluable in both assessing the problems and pushing towards solutions. She is an ambassador for the Dove-UN Women's Programme for Self-Esteem and Microsoft's DigiGirlz initiative, both of which reach out to young women interested in STEM education. She is the Latinx in Gaming country lead for Chile, and is central to "an informal network of women" that is now emerging in the country. All of this, while running a studio that embodies the same ideals of inclusion.
Berho is also engaged with improving the economic stability and status of the Chilean industry, and Latin America in general. She is on the board of directors at VG Chile, and has collaborated with the national government to promote video games as one of the country's exports. Recognising a lack of data on the gaming sector, Berho is currently part of a research initiative that will provide a clearer picture that can inform policy-making in Chile -- with the aim of eventually extending it to the whole of the LATAM region.
"Thanks to the outstanding creativity, and the rich and diverse culture of the local developers, the global industry is increasingly recognising the talent in the region," Berho says. "Hopefully, the growing amount of success cases will keep raising the status of Latin America in the global games industry.
"I invite industry professionals and companies who would like to learn more about the Latin American gaming industry, and share opportunities with the game developers in this region, to directly contact the Latam Video Games Federation, which is a direct bridge to all the national trade associations.
"Also, for all professionals and companies interested in the promotion and elevation of the Latino culture, even outside Latin America, be sure to contact Latinx in Gaming -- a US-based organization, with a core team and also representatives in each country of Latin America."
Dan Bernardo is a relative newcomer to the industry, but is already devoting much of his time and effort to improving it. Until three years ago, he worked in the tech industry, helping companies build diverse teams and develop internal cultures based on equity and empathy. In 2017, he founded Playtra Games to put the lessons he learned into practice for games.
In addition to leading the design of Playtra's games -- which include upcoming all-female action-RPG Grid Fight -- he gives talks about queer history in video games and alternative narrative structures, advocates for ethnic and cultural inclusion, and mentors young developers and artists in gaming and tech.
But as one of the few Black and gay studio heads in the industry, Bernardo found the road into games difficult, and urges games investors to put more trust into new ventures led by folks from a broader range of backgrounds.
"Playtra was only possible because of my previous success stories in the tech industry," he explains. "I had to bootstrap it because access to funding is extremely hard. In the last two years, I've been dismissed many times -- regardless of how solid my business plan is, how talented and experienced my team is, or how many awards and nominations our projects get.
"It might be because I'm doing a bad job, but that is hard to believe when my experience is shared with many other queer or people of colour colleagues of mine -- especially in an industry that in 2018 had only 1% of its workforce coming from black and brown ethnicities. There's not much difference when it comes to who the industry trusts with its investment bids. Of course, that is frustrating but also inspiring. It makes me wake up in the morning knowing that there's a lot of work left to be done. That's what I'm here for."
It's not just a message for investors. The talks Bernardo delivers are often focused on convincing a white audience that including people from different ethnic, cultural and sexual backgrounds "isn't a threat, it's an opportunity."
"Those diverse developers and artists will bring new possibilities and expand the horizons of the stories they will continue telling," he concludes. "In my opinion, a game studio without white developers is as incomplete as one without female or Black developers, and that is not what this push is about. There's no subtraction in the process of inclusion -- there's addition, multiplication. More games being made by diverse people will attract new audiences and expand the market."
There are hundreds of large and successful companies in this industry, but not many of them remain committed to the regions in which they started, and support those in need in their local communities.
Vizor Interactive is an example of one that has done both. Founded in 2004 in Minsk, Vizor was among the first successful companies in the Belarussian industry. Today, it has grown to more than 500 people, and its co-founder Sergey Brui was put forward for using that success to make a difference.
According to Brui, Vizor has been actively working with charities for many years, and in that time it became clear that it could make the biggest impact with organisations that had technology at the core of their mission.
"Our main project back then was equipping orphanages in Minsk with tech classes and hiring professionals that could teach kids basic computer knowledge, entry level robotics, and so on," he says. "We've covered most of Minsk together with our colleagues from Belka Games, who joined us in this matter.
"Now we build more advanced tech classes in schools outside of the capital -- mostly in the countryside and small towns... Robotics, 3D printing and modelling, 2D illustration, entry-level programming, game development. Our employees are heavily involved, reading lectures, providing materials and so on. I just love this project, and we look forward to expanding into more regions and schools."
More recently, Vizor expanded the scope of its education programmes, holding theatre classes across Belarus and Russia, and bringing a select group of students to perform onstage in Minsk and Moscow. This year, it was held in an online format due to the impact of COVID-19, but Brui is excited to return to in-person performances soon.
"It is both about appreciating the work of previous generations and investing into your company's future -- your kids' futures," Brui says of his belief in giving back to the community. "There are plenty of international funds and government activities, which is amazing, but nobody knows the details better than the locals. Nobody is on top of things more than companies who work on the tech edge in competitive markets that change so rapidly."
Byrne quips that her route into gaming is a bit of a "weird story," because she didn't have a typical entry point of simply being passionate about the craft. Instead, she came from a background in lighting design, but was forced to make a change during the 2009 recession.
"After about the fifth or seventh short-term contract I was like 'Okay, this isn't working. What does the Canadian economic forecast say?' -- because I like data before I make major life decisions," Byrne says. "And right at the top of the 2012 forecast was Software Development and Video Games. So I took the plunge."
Since then, Byrne has worked as the lead digital and interactive coordinator at imagineNATIVE, an organization that promotes and presents Indigenous screen content. Out of that role, she developed Night of the Indigenous Devs as a riff on Day of the Devs, aiming to draw attention to Indigenous-made video games.
Currently, she's a narrative mechanics designer and owner of Achimostawinan Games, an Indigenous indie games studio that makes games with original Indigenous stories. She has also been on the board for both the non-profit gaming arts organization Dames Making Games and Indigenous new and digital media artist collective Indigenous Routes.
"Creating the space that I wish I had starting out in video games was really important to me," she says of these roles.
Byrne is grateful to people like Archer Pechawis, who brought her into Indigenous Routes, and Elizabeth LaPensée, who has been her mentor since her early career. She also has found support from Dames Making Games, the Indigenous game development community, and programs like the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Canada Council for the Arts that have given her safety nets with which to create the games she wants to create.
"The industry needs to start acknowledging that it is almost entirely made up of those who are in the middle-class or higher," Byrne says. "So often funders and publishers ask for a level of polish on demos and prototypes that is only possible if the team does not need to work other jobs, or if everyone is doing free labour, or barring that, that team members are sacrificing their wellbeing and health to hit the level of polish required while living in poverty or working other jobs. Too often I see funds aimed at bringing equality to the industry that continue to privilege those from the middle class.
"When I was starting I had to work to pay for school, so I could not spend my summers working on a game with a team. After school I had to take on a few contracts in order to live. All this means that what I can produce will not stand up to someone who has those things taken care of for them. It's not about who does more work either; it's about those who want to support a more diverse industry getting rid of the 'bootstrap it' mindset and working to create space where someone doesn't need to make the choice between having a warm home and making a game.
"It's about looking real hard at the boundaries we are perpetuating in the industry. It's about discarding predatory practices like unpaid internships or giving a small amount of funding in exchange for control to a marginalized creator's IP."