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GI 100 | Game Changers - S - Z

All 100 profiles of individuals and organisations working in diversity, accessibility, charity, mental health, progressive politics, uniting communities, and much more

Hasnul Samsudin

former Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation

Last month, Hasnul Samsudin was appointed head of Sony Interactive Entertainment WWS Malaysia. It was a significant moment -- an undeniable show of faith from one of the foundational companies in video games, and a new chapter for one of the single most important figures in the evolution of the Malaysian industry.

Samsudin has worked for and with the Malaysian government, developing the country's digital industries, for much of the last 20 years. As video games grew in popularity all over the world, they became a more and more important part of that strategy -- and Samsudin was right there, getting to know pioneering companies like Gamebrains to better understand how the government's Multimedia Development Corporation (MDC) could help them to thrive.

"When I first started to look at supporting the local developers then, I was also an enthusiast who saw the potential of the game industry," he says. "I essentially immersed myself in Gamebrains, which was one of the only companies then to understand game development and the business… I worked within the MDC, our partners and the government to bring awareness of the opportunities of growing and developing the game industry."

While he didn't act alone, Samsudin was instrumental in establishing the framework in which a sustainable industry could grow -- strategies for talent development, mentorship, funding, technical infrastructure, and access to international trade shows were all established, allowing more and more game developers to emerge.

Some of these concepts, like the IPCC funding programme, are still going after 15 years. Others have evolved to become even greater, like the Level Up KL developer conference, and the Level Up Inc. talent incubator -- a current or former home to leading Malaysian studios like Kurechii, Kaigan Games and Magnus Games.

"A lot has been done to make the global game industry aware of what Malaysia has to offer, but I still think there is a lot more that needs to be done," Samsudin says. "I am glad to see that we have studios now that have become internationally recognized for both the products and services that they create. Companies like Streamline, Passion Republic and Lemon Sky are working with the biggest studios in the games industry on the most visible products in AAA."

Samsudin left his role at the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation to join PlayStation, and he will now be able to contribute to the country's industry in different ways. One area he is passionate about is diversity, and ensuring that new generations are aware of what is needed to build careers in video games.

"It is more critical now than ever to be open to [get a] diverse talent pool to enter the industry. I always felt that the general public sees the industry as a black box, and that it is extremely hard to get in. But more and more, the tools are becoming accessible, and from a very young age the line between passion and vocation is becoming a blur.

"We should try to be more open to those who are enthusiastic to enter, and mentor and guide them to be the best at what they do."

Sol Sánchez

FemDevs Peru

Some national industries have been established for decades. Some started to grow when games exploded in popularity during the PS2 era. And some, like Peru, are only just getting started.

According to Sol Sánchez, who joined Somber Pixel in Lima this year, the Peruvian development scene has grown since 2012, but it still amounts to around 17 companies, with the biggest employing 45 people, and most fewer than six.

"I have to admit that when I first started, I didn't know that we had a games industry in the country," she says. "Unfortunately, this is something that is pretty common here in Peru. Many Peruvians do not know about this market, or if they do, they believe that it is not a realistic job."

However, while Peru's relative youth as an industry brings many challenges, it is also an opportunity to avoid the mistakes made during the growth of more established regions. This is particularly true in terms of diversity, a subject about which Sánchez cares deeply, and to which she devotes a great deal of her personal time.

There aren't many opportunities in the Peruvian industry in general, she says, and the majority that do exist are in outsourcing specialties like art and programming.

"Last, but not least, it is true that there are still women who suffer from the [misunderstanding] that 'video games are only for boys' or similar thoughts. However, people are beginning to be more aware of this problem, and there are many more resources and support to fight against it."

Sánchez is integral to that support. She is the regional organiser of the LATAM-wide Women Game Jam, which offers a creative space for cis women and trans and non-binary people. She is also co-founder of FemDevs Peru, along with Anais Tello and Vania Castagnino, which organises meetups, workshops, talks, panels, game jams and Discord parties for the community.

"What I love the most about both organizations is that everyone is welcome to help and collaborate," she says. "The things that we do are not only the effort of women, but of so many people, companies and other communities that support what we do."

Throughout it all, Sánchez has been supported by her family, and Peruvian industry figures like Luis Wong, Mateo Alayza and Giacomo Preciado. As these communities have become more established in Peru, she is looking forward to doing more to represent the country both locally and internationally -- but those plans will require support.

"With FemDevs Peru, for example, we would like to give scholarships for Peruvian women to study or work in video games, take them to events outside the country, or internships that allow them to get experience and increase their chances of being hired. For this, we need contacts, legal advice, dedicated and experienced personnel, and many things that require effort, knowledge or financial resources that we sometimes do not have.

"Not only us, but many in the Latin American industry do not have these resources to travel or participate in the events that usually focus on this visibility. If more opportunities could be offered to break this barrier it would be a great start."

Martina Santoro

OKAM Studio

A few years ago, Martina Santoro was invited to be part of Rami Ismail's #1ReasonToBe panel at GDC. At first, she was puzzled -- despite having founded OKAM Studio in Buenos Aires in 2010, Santoro wasn't a designer, an artist, a programmer, or a producer. She didn't 'make games' in the traditional sense.

"Then why the f*** did he want me there!?" Santoro recalls. "The night before the panel, I understood why. If I wasn't there, a lot of games wouldn't have existed -- and not only OKAM's. In my community (not only in Argentina, but in the region) I was one of the many that was a catalyst that triggered change."

In the decade since she co-founded OKAM Studio, Santoro has been at the bedrock of the regional games industry. A former president of the Argentinean Game Developers Association, the founder of the LATAM Video Games Foundation, a member of the advisory board for Devcom, a persistent advocate for diversity -- she has sought and embraced opportunities to celebrate and lift up the work of her peers at every stage.

"When we started the studio back in 2010, the industry was smaller but it was as generous as it is today," she says. "Being so far away from the main industry development hubs, information was the key for survival. Information meant not only the knowledge you needed to develop a game, but also how to distribute it and market it, how to look for funding, or even talk to the press.

"We were lucky enough to find the local game dev association (ADVA) and other game dev peers that sat down with us and helped us in every step of the way... Community meant everything, and it still does."

The industry in Argentina has changed since 2010, moving up what Santoro describes as the "value chain" of the global industry -- and it is thanks in no small part to people like her, who are committed to closing the gap in knowledge and access that lies between major hubs like North America and Europe and so much of the rest of the world.

"Watching so many people growing around me has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life," she says. "And it did change me, too. I discovered a side of myself I never thought I'd explore.

"And the best way to support me in the future is by joining me. There is so much to be done. LATAM is very young! We need more people... The more we are, the better. The more diverse we are, even better. No matter what you love to do, I guarantee there is a place for you in this industry. If I found mine, why wouldn't you?"

Anisa Sanusi

Limit Break Mentorship

When she's not working as a UI/UX designer, Anisa Sanusi spends most of her waking hours on the Limit Break Mentorship, a program she started last year to help support people of underrepresented genders in the UK games industry.

"For a long time, I knew that there needs to be more support from the industry for people from marginalised backgrounds," she says of Limit Break's origins. "I personally felt lost and unsure of myself and longed for something like it to exist. But waiting felt futile, so I took it upon myself to start this initiative.

"The decision to aim for underrepresented genders is because of scope, as I never planned for this program to be as big as it has gotten, but I hope to cover more ground as I go along."

Sanusi handles the applications process for both mentors and mentees, as well as planning the events, maintaining the website, and spreading the word via social media. She is grateful to all her peers who volunteered to help, particularly those who have stepped up during the pandemic this year.

Limit Break received a warm reception when it was announced in early 2019, despite the applications initially being limited to London only, with more than 100 attendees joining the kick-off event. This year was the second iteration of Limit Break's six-month program -- handled remotely, of course -- and the number of applicants had doubled. Sanusi is now preparing year three, and teases some "exciting collaborations" in the works.

The program will also expand, with hopes for events outside of London (pandemic permitting). Sanusi is keen to hear from any volunteers and particularly event spaces that could help take Limit Break across the UK. She's also quick to assert that the scope is broader than people may think.

"There is a myth where Limit Break only accepts women mentors -- this is not the case," she says. "We are open to everyone with a minimum of five years working experience, and with the increase of mentees each year, we're always on the lookout for more mentors from all disciplines.

"I'd also greatly appreciate any sponsorship from the games industry to recoup on the costs of running the program, as I profoundly believe that mentorship should always be free to those who seek it. Limit Break will always remain free and accessible to our intended audience."

Sanusi also emphasises that Limit Break is, thankfully, by no means unique in the industry. More and more grassroots mentoring organisations are emerging, but she's keen to see larger companies get involved or launch initiatives of their own. Even internal changes can have a massive impact.

"If you're in a position of power within the industry, just be aware of your own implicit biases, and try to combat them on the daily," she suggests. "Have strong empathy for people who are different from you, and see how you can best uplift others through action, like giving people a voice, promoting diverse workers, calling out unwanted behaviour, and sponsoring hardworking individuals. Any change we want to see always starts with ourselves."

Cholwe Shabukali

Team Gematrix

When Team Gematrix was founded, the esports scene in Zambia was virtually non-existent. Improvements to internet infrastructure had caused the popularity of esports to grow in South Africa and elsewhere, but the wave had not spread to all parts of the continent -- Cholwe Shabukali sought to change that.

"Team Gematrix started in 2018," she recalls. "Prior to our establishment, the Zambian esports industry was dormant -- no events or tournaments were happening. As a way to test the market and scout players for our organization we hosted the Stone Gaming Tournament in November of 2017 -- it was the first tournament [in Zambia] for a while.

"The esports scene seemed to have a kickstart in March of 2018, after we won our first esports championship in Nairobi, Kenya. We saw our community unite in support, and a huge shift in the number of events hosted, teams and other esports organizations emerged."

With Team Gematrix as a catalyst and increasing access to the internet for Zambian people in general, the country's esports scene is starting to grow. However, Team Gematrix faces significant issues in competing with teams from wealthier countries with more mature industries.

"Being a pioneer of an esports industry in a third world country has been a challenge, especially that there has been no road map to follow and certainly no role model to look up to," Shabukali continues. "We were heavily handicapped by the little resources we had when running the business.

"The biggest challenge has been trying to make Gematrix into a sustainable business, despite us having no seed capital or any form of funding. We have had to bootstrap our way into every little success story we have built."

Some of the business acumen behind Team Gematrix was learned in the Zambian startup incubator Bongohive, but otherwise Shabukali has crafted her own approach by studying entrepreneurs like Patrick Bet-David and Gary Vaynerchuk. And in addition to becoming sustainable in the business sense, there is a drive towards making diversity a core principle of Zambian esports even at this early stage.

When asked about her vision for Team Gematrix, Shabukali says it's "To create a platform for players, male and female, to grow and nurture their competitive skills. We [want to] provide opportunities for players to compete around the globe, and a chance for content creators to express their freedom.

"As a female gamer, one of my goals is to make Gematrix a place where gamers like myself feel a sense of belonging -- we signed our first female streamer this year."

Dominic Shaw

UKIE

Diversity in the games industry can only progress if companies actually commit to building a better workplace culture. To that effect, UKIE launched its Raise The Game pledge this year, inviting studios to publicly commit to making a meaningful change. It was synchronised by the UK trade body's EDI (equality, diversity, inclusion) coordinator, Dominic Shaw.

"From guidance and practical advice to engagement activities like events, both online and in-person, the pledge is a call to action to rally the sector together and become lead examples of inclusion to other industries," Shaw says

The Raise The Game pledge led to a range of activities helping the overall UK games industry to grow and improve in all areas of diversity and inclusivity -- such as webinars, roundtables and a newsletter.

"[The newsletter] allows pledge companies to show their commitment by sharing what they are doing around EDI, along with the wider games industry to gain better insight to the pledge and have another EDI resource to have access to," Shaw explains. "Overall we support those involved in the pledge through ongoing communications, engagement and best practice advice to support them to be as all-encompassing and welcoming an organisation as they can be!"

In addition to his work coordinating the Raise The Game pledge alongside UKIE's senior operations manager Sophie Mangara and head of communications George Osborn, Shaw helps run its Video Games Ambassadors programme with Into Games' partnerships lead Brandon Cole.

Since May 2019, he has also worked with the autism research charity Autistica Play as an ambassador, raising funds and awareness for the organisation. You can learn more about how to support autistic individuals and partner up with Autistica Play here.

"Always try and put the effort into positive causes," Shaw says. "EDI isn't about being perfect and meeting tick boxes, it's about being open, transparent and always doing your best to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible to those who work in video games, and those outside the industry bubble like players and new talent.

"Individually, proactively make an impact in your own work environment -- even the smallest change may be showing allyship to a colleague from an underrepresented minority."

Silver Geek

We live in an increasingly digital world, and while some are able to adapt, more needs to be done to ensure some groups aren't left behind. One such group is the elderly, an audience the French organisation Silver Geek was formed to support.

But Silver Geek's concern is not just whether grandparents can join in with a round of Fortnite -- rather, it's how they are excluded from key aspects of our daily lives.

"Since technology is becoming the only way to access different public services, a whole part of the population is forced to use it for the first time, and we all agree that this kind of use isn't the best way to motivate the elderly to discover technologies," says co-founder and general secretary Vincent Blanchard.

"So we were looking for a [more fun] way to do it, and we launched Silver Geek as an experiment. The results went beyond our expectations. That's why the informal group decided to become an association to develop the concept and spread it into other regions."

Created in 2014, Silver Geek uses video games to improve the health and wellbeing of the elderly, as well as helping them develop social ties with other generations and teaching them crucial digital skills.

This is achieved through weekly workshops, run by civic service volunteers, to help the elderly "discover and demystify technologies." Silver Geek has also organised esports competitions between teams of seniors, with the finals held at major events such as Paris Games Week. It even hopes to see video games established as a standard activity in retirement homes.

Today, the organisation has supported 20,000 seniors with the help of more than 500 young volunteers. Silver Geek has been assisted by a variety of partners: its first donor, the Macif Foundation; Unis Cité, which has helped recruit volunteers and spread Silver Geek's work across France; and the nation's games trade body SELL, which has helped it connect with key players in the industry.

Blanchard emphasises that this sort of support is essential for initiatives like Silver Geek to continue: "Each new project requires time, from its conception phase to its evaluation, which always represents an investment for a young association like us. So the best way for the industry to support us is to have a sustainable commitment to help us last and spread these new experiences."

Amanda Stevens

diversity and inclusion consultant

Amanda Stevens has been using her visibility and expertise to improve gaming of all kinds for a decade now, from working in the Magic: The Gathering judge community to improve tournament policies, to working as a diversity and inclusion consultant specializing in esports.

"I am a marginalized individual via a lot of checkboxes," she says. "I'm Black, a Trans Woman, a Lesbian, and I'm a plus size individual. I know what it's like to be bullied and to be made to feel like the other, and I don't want other people to feel that way. So, I've made it my mission to use the talents and platform I have to improve esports and gaming for everyone who wants to be involved."

Sometimes that means serving as inclusivity ambassador for Cloud9. Sometimes it's consulting for clients like Ateyo and KillSteal. Sometimes that means raising more than $10,000 for Trans Lifeline in a two-day Street Fighter V tournament. Sometimes that just means advocating and educating through her Twitter feed.

Stevens credits her fiancé Katie for being supportive of her career, as well as friends like Erin Ashley Simon, Indiana "Froskurinn" Black, Judith Barbosa, and Michael Perrotti for serving as sounding boards for her work.

As for how the industry can support Stevens in her work, it's pretty simple.

"The best way to support me is to hire me! Honestly, let me work with you and I'm sure we'll find a way to do meaningful diversity and inclusion projects," she says. "Outside of that, you can always support me via my Patreon, which basically allows me to do the side projects I do like my Diversity & Inclusion AMA streams and organizing events like Transitional Combat."

Eyram Tawia

Leti Arts

Starting a business from scratch is difficult. Laying the groundwork for an entire industry is the kind of challenge only a handful have ever attempted. Yet when Leti Arts started in Ghana in 2009, it was the first full-time game developer in Sub-Saharan Africa, and one of only a handful across the entire continent.

"It was quite interesting starting a whole new industry instead of just a company," says Eyram Tawia, co-founder and CEO of Leti Arts. "We had to fight the challenges of human resources, the cultural mindset about games, and infrastructure -- slow and expensive internet, non-existent payment systems, non-existent distribution outlets and portals, lack of development tools, building up the game development community, etc."

The goal of Leti Arts was not only to help seed the African games industry, but to do so with content -- not just games, but digital comics, too -- based on "authentic and meaningful African stories." The continent's history, culture and mythology is diverse, Tawia says, and yet younger generations do not often see it in the pop culture they consume.

"This is largely because of the attractive digitized, electronic formats in which the Western content is delivered," he says. "We see our initiative redefining entertainment in Africa and uniting Africa as well. With this, Kweku Ananse could help Shaka Zulu solve issues in South Africa, and Pharaoh help the Massai Warrior fight crime in Nairobi during elections. These collaborations will promote strong ties amongst African countries, especially among the youth."

The African industry has grown since 2009, with more than 40 different companies addressing different markets, supporting conferences, and publishing more and more games. Tawia is one of the leading figures in the newly formed African Game Developers Association, which can bring unity at a crucial time in the evolution of the regional industry.

"We need to formalize the industry and bring everyone together as one community to have a bigger voice," Tawia says. "The gaming industry in the West is bigger than the movie and music industry combined, and a continent of more than one billion people doesn't contribute to this industry, and as such are not regarded.

"We want to prove that Africa is capable of creating cool tech through games using local expertise which rival global standards."

Cherry Thompson

accessibility punk

Cherry Thompson has been pushing for disability and inclusion in games for years, consulting for developers, talking at conferences, serving on the board of GaymerX, and working to make the industry a more welcoming place for everyone.

That work has taken on a new form in 2020, and not just because they did motion-capture for the wheelchair-using character Cerise in Marvel's Avengers. After years working as an independent, they joined Ubisoft in April as a game designer and accessibility specialist, and have been working on the publisher's first internal technical design benchmarks for accessibility.

While accessibility features in games are often broken down and categorized by disability type -- motor, hearing, visual, or cognitive -- those distinctions are more helpful for players than developers, Thompson says.

"All barriers overlap across multiple barrier types and many players will even experience more than one type themselves, whether traditionally considered 'disability' or not," Thompson says. "It's important to me that we see accessible design through the right lens - not trying to solve specific disabilities, but solving for more successful design and player experience. Otherwise there's a lot of potential for ineffective solutions not to mention stigma, segregation and pity, which are the cause of a lot of society's biases toward disability."

Thompson's new benchmarks will eventually cover controls, navigation, gameplay, progression, and virtually everything else in games, focusing on best practice design considerations. They hope to share the benchmarks if they prove effective.

"I see it as being able to pass on my expertise culminating from a decade of experience," Thompson says. "This is one of the reasons (in a nutshell) I made the decision to settle down and join a big publisher."

They acknowledge that "no one does anything alone in anything, but especially games," spreading thanks to mentors, colleagues, and everyone working for change.

"I'd be remiss to not mention the countless LGBTQIA+, women, BIPOC, working class, and other marginalized developers across the world in every country and community who've fought to make space and build safety," they say.

Getting a little more specific, Thompson names The Games Accessibility Conference and its organizers Ian Hamilton and Tara Voelker as "an enormous driving force behind the change we've seen for accessibility in particular."

At this point, Thompson says the best support the industry can give is to lift others up and keep working to make change, space, and safety.

"It's an active effort for all of us where even the smallest moment, like standing up for someone in a meeting or other space where they're being excluded, creates waves of change and stops them feeling alone," Thompson says. "I've had a lot of support personally in 2020, so I just want to ask everyone to keep learning, passing it on through mentorship, knowledge sharing, and research or working with players of all backgrounds."

Shouichi Tominaga and John Davis

BitSummit

As much as Japan has played a pivotal role in shaping the games industry over the decades, the country's indie development scene hasn't always been well supported.

Eight years ago, a group of developers at independent studio Q-Games set out to change that, creating an exhibition where studios and developers like them could showcase their work. Shouichi Tominaga, John Davis, and James Mielke put together the first BitSummit in March of 2013, with the help of their employer, Q-Games founder Dylan Cuthbert.

The first BitSummit was a closed event hosted by Q-Games, but it attracted 30 creators, about 200 attendees, and a fair bit of international media attention. Since then the event has grown immensely, drawing more than 17,000 attendees in 2019.

In 2015, Tominaga and a group of volunteers formed the Japan Independent Games Aggregate (JIGA) to oversee and put on the event. Tominaga serves as president and chairman of the board of JIGA, which is also represented by its vice president Hisashi Koshimizu of Pygmy Studio, as well as Skeleton Crew Studio's Masahiko Murakami and Davis.

"One of the major roles of BitSummit is to revitalize the Japanese indie game scene," Tominaga says. "We also want to expand the definition of indie games, rather than narrow it down. BitSummit is not the only indie game event in Japan, but it is the biggest and we hope that BitSummit will continue to stimulate the games industry, encourage more people and companies to try new and unique things. Ideally, we'd like to see an increase in the variety of channels for creators to share their work with the world."

BitSummit's impact extends far beyond Japan's borders, something Davis helps with as the self-described "foreign face" of BitSummit. He coordinates with overseas attendees and runs satellite events, like the internationally touring BitSummit Roadshow, which helps to showcase Japanese games in foreign markets.

Tominaga is still with Q-Games as a creative director, while Davis has since started his own consulting firm, BlackSheep, where he helps developers with the usual problems like landing funding or launching worldwide, as well as helping them make their games more diverse and providing feedback on people of color in their stories.

Both Tominaga and Davis expressed their gratitude for the help of numerous volunteers who ensure BitSummit goes on, and Tominaga also mentioned the Kyoto government, which has been supporting the show since its second event in 2014.

As for what they need in terms of help from within the games industry, Tominaga says BitSummit is always looking for sponsors who share the event's vision, while Davis says the best way to support him would be "to continue supporting events like BitSummit and continue to make content that represents the diversity of the people who enjoy games."

Chad Toprak

Freeplay

For many people, the concept of an "independent" game wasn't widely understood until the late 2000s, when Xbox Live Arcade and Steam provided a new home for small teams and solo developers. Freeplay Independent Games Festival, an Australian event celebrating just that kind of creativity, was founded by Katharine Neil and Marcus Westbury in 2004 -- at a time when the term "indie" was scarcely used in the context of video games.

"Australia at the time was predominantly populated by AAA studios that were mostly working with overseas publishers on foreign IP," says Chad Toprak, who has been director of Freeplay since 2017.

"Sitting at the fringes of the industry, though, was an underserved and underrepresented population of grassroots independent game makers: bedroom coders, modders, map-makers, machinima creators, new media artists, and students, many of whom unfortunately lacked the visibility, support, and resources that larger studios had access to."

Freeplay was created to bring those communities together, promote the sharing of knowledge, and further the case for "games as a legitimate form of art and culture." A great deal has changed since 2004, of course, both in Australia and the wider industry; independent creators are now the global majority, and through companies like Halfbrick, Hipster Whale, Mountains and House House, Australia is more established as a hub for that kind of talent.

"We're no longer having to make the argument that games can be political, personal, and provocative," Toprak says. "As a result, we've found ourselves asking what it means to be an independent games festival in an age where practically everyone is indie.

"The answer to that is to simply continue to support and spotlight the fringes: experimental games, art games, alt-games, not-games, installation games, physical games, games made by marginalised and underrepresented game makers, and to continue to demonstrate the vibrancy of the community, to show not only what independent games are but what they can be."

Freeplay's festival program includes an increasingly large contribution from neighboring countries and regions, particularly New Zealand and Southeast Asia. It is also more dedicated than ever before to finding and celebrating underrepresented groups and communities. Toprak leads this effort, but he is full of praise for the support and guidance offered by Freeplay's board and festival team.

"We have a long history of including voices from marginalised and underrepresented backgrounds and genders," Toprak says. "Since 2015, the gender balance of speakers at our festival has not dropped below 55% for female and non-binary speakers. The games we select for our events also reflect these values, and often allow for sharing of personal and intimate stories of the developer's game making journey.

"As a person of colour and a Muslim immigrant, I have first hand experience of what it's like to not be represented, and so I find it particuarly important in my own practice as a game maker, curator, and festival director to include a multiplicity of voices in the work I do and the events I produce."

Despite its contribution, however, funding has always been a challenge for Freeplay, which survives on "a grant-to-grant basis" even in its 17th year. Ongoing financial support would help it to take a longer-term view, Toprak says, and achieve its goal of providing a platform for emerging and experimental game makers from a position of stability.

"I think the best way for the industry to support us would be to recognise and emphasise games as a form of creative practice and culture, and not merely as a consumer- and business-oriented capitalist endeavour."

Alexey and Afanasey Ushnisky

Mytona

When Alexey and Afanasey Ushnisky started developing casual PC games in 2004, few could have predicted what was to follow. They lived in Yakutsk, a port city in the far east of Russia, almost 5,000km from the national capital of Moscow. It is also reputed to be the coldest city on Earth, with temperatures plummeting to -50C in the winter.

"No one taught us what we know now; we mastered 3D, learned how to draw on a tablet, how to code ourselves from scratch," they say. "It was fun -- one should always learn new things. By 2012, we had a strong self-made team. We decided to switch to the mobile market, and named the company Mytona.

"There was no fiber-optic internet in Yakutsk... We had to pay [up to] three rubles per megabyte of external internet (non-Yakutsk domains). Internet traffic was very limited, so we had to divide the available traffic among the team members to download files. Our artists would share available megabytes with each other to look for references for their drawings."

While there were a handful of other game startups in Yakutsk in 2012, none has grown as quickly as Mytona. It now has 1,000 employees spread across offices in St. Petersburg, Singapore, and Auckland. But the majority of its staff are still in the company's home city, where it has become an important part of the local industry.

"We help to organize math contests, sponsor hackathons, and do mentoring and support students and teachers with special scholarships. We equipped IT schools where children learn programming, 3D modeling, and design with computers. Our [employees] often give talks at local schools and universities."

The Ushnisky brothers are also supporters of local charities and causes. As COVID-19 spread, it teamed up with another local company, InDriver, to buy ventilators worth 45 million rubles (around $617,000) for hospitals in the Yakutia region.

"In crisis situations like this, people should support each other," the brothers say. "After us, other companies and entrepreneurs began to provide support in the fight against COVID-19.

"A person usually develops an environment around them or the place where they were born, and strives to make it better. We want Yakutia -- Yakutsk is the capital of the Sakha Yakutia Republic -- to become one of the most developed IT regions in Russia."

Ivan Venturi

IV Productions

Ivan Venturi may well be one of the longest-serving games developers on this list, having published his first game in 1987. He discovered his love for games during the '70s at the arcade halls found along Italy's Riviera Romagnola coastline.

"It was a wonderful shock, and I understood that it was the way I needed to really create all the imaginary worlds I had inside me," says Venturi.

But it's not imaginary worlds that have earned Venturi a place in this list; instead, it's his works set in the real world, often based on real events, that have raised his profile as a developer. He began producing 'serious games' as far back as the mid-'90s, long before the term had fully taken hold -- for example, working with public administrations on a drunk driving simulator to be used in schools.

In more recent years, he has produced games exploring real-life tragedies, including the Bologna massacre of 1980, and the shooting down of Itavia Flight 870. Both were released for free, as Venturi was keen to reach as wide an audience as possible.

"For this reason, both games are also short, because my aim is to reach people and tap into their curiosity," he says. "If I've only got one chance of them playing the game, I need to help them reach the 'final emotion' and the message built on it.

"I did these games because I get angry thinking about how schools don't teach the worst tragedies of our country's history. At the end of the day, I have all the money I need for me and my family, so I want to spend my time on what I believe in, things that make me learn."

Venturi is able to afford these personal projects thanks to the success of his studio IV Productions, which has also produced games designed to raise awareness of important or sensitive topics -- ranging from upbeat parade management game Pride Run, which we spoke to Venturi about last year, and Riot: Civil Unrest, a strategy game that recreates real protests from around the world.

"I love working on 'commercial' video games," he says, "but I never forget the role of games in communicating and raising awareness for topics which I think are really important."

In addition to these projects, Venturi has also led the way in producing a series of audio-only games for blind people. This stems from a historical game he worked on that was produced entirely in Latin; the Latin expert involved was blind, so the team made the game accessible to him and kept this in the final product -- something that was well received by blind players around the world.

Maize Wallin

Nonbinary Zone

Maize Wallin is a Melbourne-based composer, sound designer, and audio programmer. Though they started in composition, they quickly found a passion in technical audio, and specialize in 3D spatialized audio and dynamic music, having worked on titles such as Godfall, Receiver 2, Wayward Strand, and Cosmic Express.

Alongside their audio work, Wallin is the co-founder of Nonbinary Zone, an advocacy group and community of nonbinary individuals.

"Nonbinary Zone has worked with local government here in Victoria on making more inclusive events," Wallin says. "But mostly we are a huge international online network on Discord, and as a community we've helped to guide non-binary representation in a lot of areas, as well as internally our community supports a massive amount of self-discovery and exploration."

Wallin is also an active organizer for Game Workers Unite Australia, where they are a representative for Melbourne and spread awareness about contracts, rates, and what working conditions to expect. They also work with advocacy colleagues across Southeast Asia, and are on the board of directors for Making Space, an initiative to support marginalized genders.

Though Wallin says Making Space is still in its early stages, it's already produced talks on inclusion and intersections of race, colonization, gender, and class for festivals like Freeplay.

"I love community so much, because it is about holding space for one another," Wallin says. "We're all learning and evolving. We need space to express joy, anger, frustration. That's why it's important for communities to be inclusive.

"There is a key difference between community and industry, and that is that in communities we are supported to be angry and personal. We can be confronting and talk about hard issues. Issues that are hard to talk about, and easy to make mistakes within. And we can do that without risk of losing a job, being told to shut up, or any other capitalistic punitive actions. We hold space for one another, because we actually care for one another and are invested in all our mutual growth. Industry is not like this. Capitalism can't support it.

"Another part of community is that we don't care how long you've been working in games. The games industry churns through juniors, and marginalised juniors are routinely exploited and harassed -- they're easy to take advantage of because they are new and marginalised, and don't have the job security or wide enough network to feel confident saying no to people. Communities need to step in here, and help allow people to say no to predatory bosses or work environments, and [know] that they will still have a network to move somewhere better.

"I think it's really important to be open to change and embrace tension and being uncomfortable. There are new words and interpretations of 'nonbinary' that didn't exist just a few years ago, that includes younger people coming to it, but also how we interrogate its whiteness. As communities, we can support each other through new ideas -- or even old ideas where we're still catching up."

Wallin is grateful to the support they've received from communities across social media platforms, Game Workers Unite Australia, and community leaders in Southeast Asia. They say the industry can further support their work with money and time, saying their dream is for their industry work to be able to subsidize their advocacy work.

"What if I could put in my contract that 10% of my time is spent on advocacy? I think some employee arrangements have things like this already, but more studios need to embrace this kind of practice."

Phoebe Watson

DragonBear Studios

Phoebe Watson, along with the rest of DragonBear Studios, is currently working on a co-op adventure game called Innchanted. The team is based in Melbourne, and proudly announces itself as a studio of diverse, queer, and Indigenous storytellers explicitly making a game set in an Indigenous Australian-inspired fantasy world.

Watson joined the team in 2019, during the second year of her studies toward a bachelor's in game design at RMIT. She now works with DragonBear to include Indigenous culture in the game in a way that's both fun and culturally respectful.

"I was so excited to join the team and I thought it would be fantastic to help intertwine my own culture into such a cool game," Watson says.

Additionally, she has spoken publicly at various industry events, including PAX, Freeplay19, and GCAP19 about the benefits of including Aboriginal culture in video games, and the importance of sensitive representation.

Watson says her biggest supporter has been DragonBear creative director Paulina Samy, who has encouraged her to speak about what she does in the games industry to work toward better Indigenous representation. She adds that she has loved every talk she has done, and appreciates the support and interest from the industry at large.

"The best way for the industry to support me is to support Indigenous peoples in the industry and the projects that are run by or support Aboriginal people," Watson says. "Acknowledge the local tribes and communities, and support Indigenous employees by including them in your processes."

Thorsten S Wiedemann

A MAZE

There are many indie and less traditional games events across the year, but few are as well-regarded as A MAZE -- thanks in no small part to the hard work of its founder and artistic director Thorsten S. Wiedemann.

Wiedemann has helped manage and direct this celebration of arthouse games since 2008, leading to the first iteration of its current festival in Berlin, Germany back in 2012. It was an event he created to fill a keenly felt void.

"A MAZE started because I couldn't find any game events where I was feeling at home," he explains. "That was around 2007. I knew about Indiecade and Babycastle, but they were in the US. In Europe, there was still this blank spot -- no one actively featured and celebrated art games or indie games at that time."

He adds: "From the beginning, A MAZE was open for change and self development. Being diverse and inclusive isn't just a nice-to-have -- it is the core of a well-directed festival."

While better known for its activity in Germany, A MAZE has also been active highlighting the development talent found in Africa. An edition of the festival ran in Johannesburg, South Africa from 2012 to 2017, paving the way for Cape Town's independent games and immersive arts festival Playtopia, which started the following year.

"It was the right moment to pass it on and we're still very connected with the South Africa scene, with our 30-hour Train Jam, which we've run in collaboration with Goethe-Institut Johannesburg since 2018," says Wiedemann. "I'm very happy that we're able to support growing the South African games community."

This month, the 2020 Train Jam is moving to the VRChat social platform for obvious reasons, but Wiedemann hopes to be back on the rails next year. Last month, he and the A MAZE team also played a key role in curating Nairobi's Jimbambe na Tec Festival, which highlights the East African games scene.

Wiedemann thanks a range of colleagues past and present for the growth of A MAZE, including Lorenzo Pilia, Matthias Löwe, Nike Wilhelms, Ben Myres, Zuraida Buter, and Michael Liebe, who worked with him on the original event in 2008. He is also grateful to regular partners Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Goethe-Institut, Institut Français and the backers of the successful #amazenotdead Kickstarter campaign. He hopes more industry players and organisations will get involved in the years to come.

"My advice is to take arthouse games more seriously -- gamers are desperate for meaningful and thought-provoking narratives," he says. "We kicked off our first arthouse games market during A MAZE Berlin 2020 -- the games and the creative minds are there. We only need more labels or publishers who see the value."

Justin Woodward

Media Indie Exchange (MIX)

Justin Woodward has been obsessed with games since he was five years old, beginning with a love for character art and design, which he later translated into a degree in game art and design, a brief stint at THQ, and eventually founding Interabang Entertainment in 2009.

Soon after starting Interabang, Woodward helped organize the IGN Indie Open House, which led to further advocacy for independent developers, organizing the Double Fine Indie Space, all eventually evolving into Woodward co-founding The Media Indie Exchange (MIX). The MIX is a regular showcase that has appeared alongside various major gaming events over the years, such as PAX and E3, that helps showcase independent developers' game demos to the press.

"For The MIX, I wear many hats with my team including creative direction and brand management, business development, event coordination, and live show production," Woodward says. "Also communicating with indie teams and publishers to get access and exposure to press and media outlets to showcase their games, and working with first-party to help developers network deals and new business.

"We do this through our event coordination and production for online events such as The Guerrilla Collective, or our live events that we put together at shows or conventions such as GDC, PAX, BitSummit, Gamescom, EVO, Unite, and more. My team and I partner with Twitch, PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo and others in order to help to provide developers the best opportunities to be successful in their craft and sell their games."

More recently, Woodward started working with Humble as an advisor for the Black Game Developer Fund, a role which has Woodward helping shape the program, and selecting and scouting Black game developers looking for opportunities to fund their projects.

Woodward is grateful to the teams that assist with the production efforts on The MIX as well as at Interabang Entertainment, and adds that his work is supported by the various independent game developers, publishers, press, and others who help increase and bring value to the game development culture and community. And he wants to see more support from the games community in lifting up underrepresented voices.

"Amplify the voices of developers in general, including BIPOC developers, support indie game developers' work, and check out the events that my team and I at The MIX put together," he says.

Simon Zhu

China Indie Game Alliance

China is becoming increasingly important as both a market and a development scene in the games industry, but some aspects of the industry have been more visible internationally than others. Tencent and NetEase get headlines, but there's less awareness around the independent studios.

As the founder of the China Indie Game Alliance, Simon Zhu has been working to change that. In just five years, CiGA has provided multiple parts of the scaffolding that can help produce a thriving indie community.

Each year, CiGA organizes indiePlay, the largest awards for independently developed games in China, with between 200 and 300 games submitted a year. There's the CiGA Game Jam, which runs in eight to ten cities with more than 2,500 developers each time. It runs the CiGA Developers Conference, which not only lets Chinese indies share best practices and insight, but also invites big names from outside China to speak so that both the guests and attendees can learn more about each others' experiences.

CiGA also handles the WePlay Expo consumer event, which started in 2017 and has already grown to more than 200 exhibitors showing their work to 17,000 attendees. Zhu sees WePlay as a particularly effective bridge between China and the rest of the gaming world, with numerous overseas companies taking part and forging connections with local media, developers, players, and influencers.

On top of all that, CiGA runs various workshop events in different cities, bringing indies together for networking and learning while encouraging more students to get involved in game development. Zhu also helps Chinese developers coordinate trips outside of China to events like PAX, BitSummit, and so on, arranging for booths or transportation, and sometimes even setting up meetings for them in advance.

"It is also a very good opportunity for the industry abroad [to] get to know better about indie games from China, while letting the teams from China [understand] the local market, audience, other developers of overseas markets, and of course also do some biz meeting and matchings to [form partnerships]," Zhu says.

The next area Zhu will focus on is game development education. This year he convinced six Chinese universities to officially get involved with WePlay to showcase the work of their students, and has watched happily as game development majors become increasingly common in the country.

"If we are looking for a better future or at least some changes in next five to ten years, we'd better plant something in [an] earlier stage," Zhu says.

He's grateful to the sponsors, guest speakers, developers, and media who participate in CiGA's various events, as well as to the friends who make key introductions or help out as temporary workers come WePlay time each year. Beyond that, he'd like to see a little more support from the largest players in the Chinese game scene who reap the benefits of his and CiGA's efforts.

Zhu didn't do all this for fame and fortune -- he's had to juggle three other jobs at times in order to keep everything going -- but because of what he knows the Chinese indie dev scene can become.

"I know it is not something that can be changed fast or it may take many, many years," Zhu says. "But you have to do something or nothing will change. When I look back from the end of 2020, there were already many good things happened to this group and industry and public. I always believe in the future, that games from China will be recognized and respected worldwide, and furthermore, the culture from China would be recognized and respected worldwide."

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