#1ReasonToBe: Tales of women game developers in emerging regions

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The #1ReasonToBe panel has had a strong legacy at the Game Developers Conference. This year, it featured seven women from different parts of the world. They talked about why they’re game developers and how that came to pass at the recent online-only GDC.

In 2013, the #1ReasonToBe session was initiated by the longtime game developer Brenda Romero and game developer and former columnist Lee Alexander to give visibility to the work and ambitions of women in the industry.

Three years later, former Vlambeer developer Rami Ismail gave it a new twist by including geographically diverse people — particularly those who have had a hard time getting to GDC or getting on stage at the event. He gave a voice to underrepresented game developers from all over the world, including Lual Malen, a former refugee who is now working on games.

This year, Laia Bee, cofounder of Pincer Games and coordinator at the Latam Game Developers Federation, organized the panel in hopes of combining the visions of Romero, Alexander, and Ismail. She focused on women from different parts of the world.

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“In 2020 the entire world changed as we knew it. We started to face a common challenge. We had to stop moving. We had to stop seeing our friends and our families,” she said at the opening of the panel at the online-only GDC event. “Now, more than ever, the work that we do in creating video games makes a difference for people from all over the world. Video games allowed us to reunite with our friends when we couldn’t hug them. Video games allowed us to travel to different worlds. Video games allowed us to fight against loneliness and depression.”

She said the #1ReasonToBe panel — which included a trans woman –was a moment to celebrate why we’re here. If there’s something that strikes me about these talks, it is just how they have taken the concepts of diversity behind the original panel and taken them places I never expected them to go. Here’s an edited transcript of the session.

Above: Laia Bee introduced seven women from around the world for #1ReasonToBe.

Image Credit: GDC

Laia Bee: In 2013, the #1ReasonToBe was started by the legendary Brenda Romero and Lee Alexander to give visibility to the work ambitions of women in our industry. Three years later, Rami Ismail started to give a geographically diverse approach to the panel, giving a voice to underrepresented game developers from all over the world. Let me start this panel by thanking Brenda, Lee, and Rami for keeping this piece of GDC alive. This year the panel is meant to honor their work by combining their visions. This year the panel is going to be composed of seven women from different parts of the world.

In 2020 the entire world changed as we knew it. We started to face a common challenge. We had to stop moving. We had to stop seeing our friends and our families. Now, more than ever, the work that we do in creating video games meant the difference for people from all over the world. Video games allowed us to reunite with our friends when we couldn’t hug them. Video games allowed us to travel to different worlds. Video games allowed us to fight against loneliness and depression. The #1ReasonToBe is a moment to celebrate why we’re here. No matter what challenges we’re facing, we’re still here making video games. We’re still passionate about making them. By doing so, we’re helping a lot of people from all over the world.

Today I want to introduce you to seven amazing women from different parts of the world. They have different languages, different cultures, different realities. Today we celebrate diversity and provide a space for underrepresented voices and game developers to tell you their stories. Welcome to the #1ReasonToBe.

Camila Fisher

Above: Camila Fisher of Chile speaks on the #1ReasonToBe panel.

Image Credit: GDC

Camila Fisher: Hello everyone. I never thought I’d start a GDC talk like this. If you see any fauna surrounding me during this talk, please ignore it. I want to also remark about how thankful I am to be able to talk to you today. My name is Camila Fisher. I’m a game designer and game writer from Santiago, Chile. I’ve been working in the game industry for the past 10 years.

It was hard for me to solidify my concept for this talk, because it’s about myself. It’s about my own reason to be in game development. To tell you about that, I need to be willing to open up and be vulnerable. But being vulnerable is hard, especially when speaking to people you’ve never met, and will most likely never meet. I’ll have to start with one request from you, and that is empathy. Empathy is something that video games do very well. To make it easier, I’m going to tell you about my story as if it was a game, because I am a game designer after all.

Being a kid in the ‘90s, my first contact with video games was thanks to the only local kid who had a Super Nintendo in their house. I played with 10 to 15 other children, all of them boys, and that included waiting 40 minutes for a chance to have the controller and play Donkey Kong Country for a bit. At that time video games seemed so complex to me that I couldn’t fathom the fact that they were made by people, or that they were a job. They seemed like a product of magic, which meant I didn’t question them at all.

As I started growing older, being raised by an engineer mother, I eventually had access to a PC at home. Said engineer mother found a partner, and this is the part of the story, and this is the person raising the levels of vulnerability in this talk beyond what I’m comfortable with. So I’ll just say that I became one of those girls that would rather be at school than at home. Especially when my mother passed away, and video games became my escape. I was 12, and I could replace any feelings with pure empathy for fictional characters, for hours. That was my way of maintaining myself, keeping myself sane.

I kept doing that even after years went by and I got out of there and into a safe space. I can’t count how many times video games made things bearable for me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that feeling. That was what I thought of every time I chastised myself for choosing a path in games, instead of a career where I could help people with a similar background to mine more directly. But being raised by fiction left me hungry for a creative outlet, and so I took every chance for expression that I could find, from writing to drawing to even music.

Eventually I became a 2D artist and jumped from small project to small project in different studios. I was also working on the game that would become my thesis. But instead of specializing, I was diversifying more every day, which added difficulty to finding my footing in game development. The solution came in the form of game design. I was offered the chance to leave the 2D art team and try my hand at game design. I can’t speak for all countries. We have a smaller game industry. But game designers in Chile tend to be very scarce. More often than not we’re generalists. I think the moment I became a game designer and a game writer was also the moment I began to see games as a tool for empathy.

But the moment I started to see games as a tool for politics was October 2019, when I was fulfilling a personal dream. As soon as I left on my first international trip, news of protests in Chile started breaking out. I was reading about them obsessively when I was away. Within hours I started seeing news of military forces using their weapons against the people that they should have been protecting. Similar to what my mother also saw almost 50 years ago, when a military coup implemented the politics that are causing the current crisis over inequality, underrepresentation, and human rights violations. October 2019 was when I truly understood to what extent empathy could be heartfelt.

For the past few years, it’s become common to hear the phrase “keep politics out of gaming.” But this puts creators at a crossroads. Do we limit ourselves to making games an escape from reality for those that need it? Do we keep real-world problems from bleeding into our fantasy universes? Or do we purposefully use empathy as a device to highlight the urgency of real-life change? It’s clear for me that games are intrinsically political, mainly because their ability to generate empathy is greater than any other medium. Full immersion can make a player equally aware of what is being said as they are of what is not.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that female representation in games continues to be a struggle, even when the majority of players are currently women. A game with an empty message can feel the same as a superficial conversation. I feel that I’ve been made conscious by time to give back to games everything that they’ve given to me. And my challenge will be not to keep politics in or out of them, but to make them either an agent for change, or an agent for care. That includes making development more accessible for our local community, where a career related technology isn’t something reserved only for those who have resources to spare.

This is my #1ReasonToBe, and it’s why, after years of experience, I find myself at square one. But I honestly hope I never achieve my goal, just so I can leave as many attempts behind as possible. Thank you so much for your attention, and I would love to hear your stories in case you want to reach out. Thank you very much.

Estelle Makhoba

Above: Estelle Makhoba of South Africa speaks on the #1ReasonToBe panel.

Image Credit: GDC

Estelle Makhoba: Hi there everyone, and welcome to my GDC #1ReasonToBe talk. Before I get started and tell you about myself and the work that I’ve done and of course my #1ReasonToBe, I’d like to first talk about the intentions and goals for this talk. I basically wanted this talk to be inspirational, so that people can come and watch it and refill and feel inspired to go make video games or pursue whatever dream it is they want to pursue. And also I wanted to talk about the games that I’ve worked on, and my #1ReasonToBe.

So, who am I? Well, my name is Estelle Makhoba. I’m a self-taught game developer, game designer from South Africa. I’m from a city called Pretoria, which is the capital city of South Africa. That’s where they have the Union Building, which is the equivalent of the White House in the U.S. I mainly do programming and systems design. I like working on AI. I like making games inspired by mental health themes and my own experiences and emotions. That’s who I am and what inspires me.

I’m going to basically talk about the different games that I’ve worked on and how that came to be. Initially, when I started trying to break into the games industry, I feel like my first attempt was–back when I was younger, I would go to the local shops and they’d have arcade games, like Street Fighter. I was so terrible at these games. I’d always lose. So half the time I was watching other kids play these games, and having that time to observe made me question how these games were made. I’d generally go back home and draw levels and design my own games on paper — how it would work, the different characters, the enemies and bosses. It was always a very satisfying feeling. That’s what sparked my interest in video games. Back then I didn’t have any idea how to do any of this. It was just a beautiful feeling I would feel every time I would draw out a level or design enemies and how they would work.

I’m going to talk about the first game that I developed and released. You’ll notice that I have the game title as Unknown Game. The reason for that is because I don’t talk about this game anymore. This game is for me. The conditions this game was made under are what I think is special about this game. And currently the game has over 400,000 downloads.

Again, I don’t talk about the game anymore, because I feel like this game was for me. When I made this game, I had hit my version of rock bottom at the time. I had a plan that I would make a game and it would make a lot of money. I was going to release it and be famous. What happened was that I–because I didn’t have access to a computer, I drew the game in my notebook, how it should work, and then I would go on my phone and google different code. I would have functionality, write down the functionality I wanted, and go online to google how I would do that. I’d write down the code in my notebook. The plan was that I would go to an internet cafe and release it and make a lot of money.

I did actually make the game. A lot of people ask me if I made money from ads. I’ve not made any money from this game, though, because what happened was I moved. Because I didn’t have my own computer, I didn’t have a certificate to change the code of the game. The game’s on the Play store, so I couldn’t change it anymore because I’d lost the certificate to make any changes. This game, for me, though, it let me know that this is possible. Every time I see this game, it’s a reminder of where I came from and how far I’ve come. It keeps me going, keeps me grounded.

The next game I worked on is called Khwezi, which is a Xhosa word meaning a star. What happens in the game, I use an API that connects to Twitter and reads tweets. You’d bring your Twitter username, your Twitter handle, and it will read your 10 most recent tweets and determine your mood, if you’re angry, rude, or upset. The API reads the text and interprets, and then comes into the game with those results to change the sound, the lighting. When I made this game, I’d just lost my dad. It was basically about that. It’s a very layered game in its meaning. You can see these headstones here, and the little fox here that’s lost, navigating the world. I’d lost my dad, so it was about dealing with the loss of my father. It’s a very special game to me.

I also worked on a game called Ambi, which is a 2D dungeon crawler about–the game uses themes of mental health. I wanted to encourage people to seek help. In the game, the puzzles and levels are easier if you recruit your friends and NPCs to help you in battle. You can speak to them and do their side quests, and then they’ll join you and help you fight your enemies. If you stay in the darkness for too long, your health starts going down. I was translating depression into game mechanics. I’m still working on this game right now and trying to get some funding for it. It’s a very special game to me. I worked on this game with a friend of mine, Clayton Barnard. We’ve worked together on a couple of projects, and he’s someone I like working with.

The next game that I worked on is called Dungeon Crawler. This game, I was part of Code Coven’s summer program. I got to meet other developers and artists that are starting out in the industry. We wanted to make our first commercial game. I made this game with Kate, Joe, and Plum. It’s still a work in progress. I still work on this game on a daily basis, and we’re also trying to find funding for this game. The beautiful thing about this game is it’s so light-hearted, especially compared to my previous games. It was a breath of fresh air for me to work on.

Finally, my #1ReasonToBe. If you look at these pictures here, you’ll see these girls sitting here. This was at Comic-Con Africa. I was showing Khwezi. These girls came to my table here where I was showing the game, and they played it. They said, “You made this game?” I said yes. “Wait, does that mean we can make games?” “Yes, you can.” If you look at the one girl, she’s literally in Maya 3D modeling, placing objects there and manipulating them. These girls stayed at my table for over an hour with their mother. They were so happy that they could make games. But what they don’t realize is that they inspired me, too, to keep working in games and being a representation for women and developers on the African continent. It is possible. I make games because I want to inspire other people to join in from the continent of Africa. That’s my 1ReasonToBe.

Sandra Castro Pinzòn

Above: Sandra Castro Pinzòn speaks at the #1ReasonToBe panel.

Image Credit: GDC

Sandra Castro Pinzòn: Hi, my name is Sandra, and I am Batman! I’m going to tell you today a story of a woman that has two lives. I believe, I deeply believe in my heart, that making video games is the holy grail of communication. I’m giving this power to the community and keeping an idea alive forever. I work in the mornings as someone that builds a lot of advocacy for human rights, and at night I work as someone that promotes the game dev industry, someone who is really intense with game developers.

We have to go first with my first principle here for everything in my work, and it’s that all of your actions are political. I don’t mean just to choose your president or to choose your parliament. I mean about all the elections that you are making every day, every time. I’m going to explain a little bit more.

First of all, I have to tell you about my game dev side. I’m not a game developer. I’m a journalist, with a masters in political communication, and what I do in the game dev industry is that I’m part journalist. I’m always communicating what game developers are doing. I started with a question. The question was, in my country, do we create games? That answer is easy. It’s yes. But how? When? Where? I have to know everything about the game dev industry. And that made me create something that was really big at the moment. I didn’t know at the moment. But it was Tan Grande y Jugando, which in English means “grown playing.” I want to promote that, to keep getting older and playing. Let’s keep growing and keep playing.

At the beginning, I started just with news coverage. But in 2018 everything changed in my life. In that moment, I went to my first game jam. I was there as a journalist. I had an awesome experience, because when I had all this creative energy on my side, when I saw these young men and women creating something in 24 hours, it was so amazing for me. I wanted more. I wanted that to be not just a one time thing, but 10 times, 100 times. I wanted that energy all the time. I wasn’t even creating games myself. I was there as a journalist doing coverage of all of the game jam. That made me think about what I was doing for the game dev industry. I was already doing something that was promoting game developers and their games and their projects and their stories. But of course I wanted to make more.

We had our first women’s game jam with 25 developers there. It was awesome. We were part of Campus Party in 2019 and 2020. We were part of the biggest fair of creative technology, creative industries in my country, which was Colombia 4.0. This is a government event, and we helped doing whatever we can. We were also part of our biggest geek fair, which is SOFA. I love that fair too. We’re the creators of the Indie League, which is an initiative that promotes games made in Colombia inside esports. It was pretty awesome.

During the pandemic time, we had to move forward and change what we used to do and make it all online. Of course, we started to work with other initiatives to also make them digital. We helped, for example, Global Games to be part of the digital tools. We created our campus game jam to be part of Campus Party online. In these moments, we’re working on the Network Jam, which is an initiative that I hope you look for on this page.

I have to tell you more about the other dark side that’s there in this story. You know about the gamer and the game developer Sandra, but there’s also the human rights Sandra. This Sandra is someone that started in 2015 to work with organizations that were part of really big movements that started to promote human rights. Being a watchdog for big industry — the big tobacco companies, the big sugary drinks companies. For me, that was pretty awesome, because it was an initiative that led to working more in whatever you’re hoping to make better in your country. Working to erase diseases, to erase deaths in your country. I work a lot with NGOs and I’m promoting public policies inside government, but as a social society.

That made me create something even bigger. In 2019 I started my career as a master in political communication. Part of my thesis project was Colombia game devs. This was the moment when my two lives collided. I thought it wasn’t possible to keep them apart. I started to make my thesis about that. I saw how political policies were promoting or not promoting the game dev industry in Latin America, and that made me part of a book that was just released a couple of days ago. Now I’m part of something that create even more to make it more serious. That was Tan Grande y Jamendo, Tan Grande and Jamming, which is to make campaigns of political communication toward jams, toward games, to make people more aware about the information they’re receiving.

Our first serious jam for us is the Women’s Game Jam. For us it’s very serious. We take it with all the information and all the tools that we have to promote these girls to part of the game dev industry. In Colombia we’re only five people in the industry in total. In 2020, last year, we had our second edition, and we had 100 jammers, Colombian jammers in an event of 800 women from different parts of the world, 13 countries. It was pretty awesome to see how our jam and our ideas are growing up more and more.

Our real serious jams that have all these different types of political communication–we have two examples of this. The first one is Mujeres Game Jam, a jam for the Women’s United Nations, and the other one is a jam we make for a museum here in Colombia. We had an opportunity to have Rami Ismail as a speaker and a mentor for these jams. These ideas and these powers led these jammers to know more serious information to create even more epic games. The work from these jams are pretty awesome, and I invite you to be part of these jams and know more.

The best jam at the moment, of our serious jams, is Tan Grande Imparto. I don’t know if you know a bit more about the crisis that is happening here in Colombia, but we let our jammers, our game dev community, to be a part and let their voices to be heard and known, to tell us what is happening and what’s something that hurts them inside. That was something that was really awesome for them, to let them know more about what’s happening in their country, to know what to do and not feel like they’re not contributing to something in this country.

So yes, of course, I’m kind of a Batman, but I’m a Batman that promotes public policy, promoting the game dev industry to grow more and more. My biggest recognition is not being a name as a woman game changer for Globant or being recognized as one of the 100 game changers from the Gamesindustry.biz project. It’s to know that I’m in the curriculum of other jammers that know me and put me there as their contact. For me, that’s the biggest recognition of all. Of course, if you need me, if you want to know more about Tan Grande y Jugando and our initiatives, please write to us. We’ll be happy to know more about you and whatever you need.

Weam Numan

Above: Weam Numan of Palestine speaks on the #1ReasonToBe panel.

Image Credit: GDC

Weam Numan: Hello everyone, and thank you for having me. I’m Weam, and I like games a lot. I want to begin with a little story. For my first job in the industry I remember after the interview. The art director walked me to the elevator and asked me, “Where are you from?” I answered that I was from Palestine. He said, “Yes, but you do have a different passport, right? Because that would be too complicated.” Ever since, I’ve never mentioned I was from Palestine. But today, in front of all of you masters of games and passionate people, I say, hi. My name is Weam Numan. I’m from Zeita, Tulkarm, Palestine, and I’m an architect. I specifically make buildings for games.

As a kid, when I watched cartoons, I used to pause the TV when a building popped up in between scenes. I tried to guess what was going to happen based on what I saw. This is from Oban Star Racers, probably the show that got me into architecture. I developed an interest in backgrounds and environments and how they have to have something to do with how I perceived a scene, what I thought the characters would do next. Claire Hoskin did a wonderful talk about how architecture sets the tone of a game or a show. Please watch that if you can.

Then I graduated from watching cartoons to watching my two brothers play stuff like Counter-Strike and Myst and Assassin’s Creed. They each had a computer, and they had a back to back setup. They often played the same game at the same time. They communicated stuff like, “Hey, that structure looks creepy, did you go there?” Or, “I don’t want to hay dive from here, I want to go higher.” I thought to myself that buildings were telling them what to do. They’re kind of like characters in the game.

After studying architecture at the University of Jordan, my first job was fixing and making buildings for a strategy game. One of the complaints I had about the game was that the buildings weren’t characters. They all felt about the same, regardless of function, urban location, or even upgrades. Don’t get me wrong — some strategy game buildings have loads of personality, buildings that make the whole game better because they translate an idea or a concept. They also give the player a choice to make.

I also make clickbait. I’m not very proud of that. But it taught me how to use the Unreal Engine, which is what I use right now at Tokyo Tech researching how architecture influences the behavior of players, specifically in virtual reality. We spend 90 percent of our lives inside buildings, and the other 10 percent surrounded by them. Whether momentarily or over time, our environment has an effect on our cognition, our beliefs, our desires and intentions, and therefore our choices. That, in turn, affects our ideologies, the environment we build, and so on. Architecture is, like any other medium, political.

This was a comment from Rasheed Abueideh’s 2017 talk on making games in Palestine. I really want to answer it. Architecture is political. Art and fashion and music and even flowers are political. Games are not something you can take politics out of. When the recent events in Palestine surfaced in the media and everyone was sharing opinions, I quickly went to see if Alec Holowka and Derek Yu tweeted about it. They were responsible for Aquaria, my favorite game, the game in which Naija discovers the genocide, not hyperbole, of a civilization and fights the higher powers that caused it. I’m certain that they did not intend for this to be a political statement. But it is made by people who have desires and beliefs and intentions for people who could have their desires, beliefs, and intentions affected. Therefore, it is inherently political.

The purpose of any artistic media is not to tell you how to think, but to give you a question to think upon. Even games that are comforting and easy to consume, I would argue–it is precisely the hedonistic politics of the game, or you agreeing or being indifferent to the message being sent out about culture and society in it, that you think it reflects actual reality–that is the reason it’s comforting. That means that, just like architects, developers and artists who are shaped by the environment now have tremendous power to shape the player’s thinking. That’s why they have to be careful with their questions and designs, and let players make real choices rather than accidentally indoctrinating them with choices that aren’t really choices. In a way, politics is a part of game design, isn’t it?

If I still couldn’t convince you why we should be talking about this, I have one last argument to make. Robin Hunicke said in her #1ReasonToBe speech that one thing you should do to share your love of games and spark conversation about games is to go to a conference that isn’t about games and talk about them. This is important to me, and as a woman from Zeita, Tulkarm, Palestine, now in a community of designers and developers I feel I belong to, I’d like to share my love and spark conversation about it. Maybe if you send me an email I can also tell you why watermelon is political. Thank you so much for having me. This was amazing.

Jules Glegg

Above: Jules Glegg of the U.S. speaks at the #1ReasonToBe panel.

Image Credit: GDC

Jules Glegg: I’m Jules Glegg, I use she/her pronouns, and I’m a principal engineer for the game Valorant at Riot Games. I’ve been a technology leader for about 15 years. It’s a little hazy. The most recent eight or so of that I’ve been making games. Besides being a game dev, I’m also an immigrant, a lesbian, and a trans woman. I helped co-found a community for trans women in games, which is aptly called Trans Game Dev.

A word to the wise. This talk does cover some difficult topics, such as homophobia, transphobia, and harassment. If you’re not up to that today, no problem. Skip ahead about eight minutes and we’ll get you to the other side. That said, I grew up in England in the 1980s. That’s not the best time for a queer kid to be growing up. Homosexuality had been decriminalized some time earlier, but that backlash to that was in full swing. Any attempt to improve society that didn’t strictly cater to straight people was met with panic and derision. The climate became so bad that it led to the creation of a new law, the sinisterly-named Section 28. Section 28 didn’t prohibit being queer per se, but did prohibit the promotion of homosexuality, doubly insulting since it covered all LGBT issues. The people who hated us didn’t even bother to understand the difference. Kind of rude if you ask me.

The law had its intended chilling effect, and as a result most of the authority figures in a queer kid’s life would be unwilling, either due to their own prejudice or fear of reprisal, to teach us about ourselves, even just to tell us that others like us existed, that we weren’t abnormal, that we had nothing to be ashamed of. We had few advocates and role models were vanishingly rare. And of course, the more things change, the more things stay the same. This isn’t ancient history. I’m in my 30s. Don’t let the endcap at Target during June fool you. We’re still fighting for dignity and equality around the world.

Society, not ideal. Could be improved somewhat. But in the ‘80s there were other exciting developments such as good home video games. Video games, what makes them special for many people, but perhaps especially for people who aren’t getting to be themselves, it’s that games let you choose who to be. Games spoke to me. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I knew I wanted to make them, and so I embarked on this meandering career where I was an illustrator and a programmer outside of games. Eventually, through whatever combination of work and luck, I got a job in the games industry and started doing the thing.

I got to work on some pretty cool stuff. I’d like to tell you about one story that was pretty meaningful to me. This is a card game, Legends of Runeterra. I was lucky enough to help shape a canonically trans character in the game. Cards in Runeterra can represent the same character at different points in their life, and through the magic of voice-over, they can talk to each other and riff at each other, which gives us this great platform for storytelling. And so in the game, our character Tyari, this character who is still questing to find their identity, still pushing toward something that they’re not sure what it is, they get to meet their future self and she has insights to share.

This story was meaningful to me because transition can be depicted often in ways that more or less comply with how cisgendered people experience them. The story of a transition is told as a person transforming or being replaced by a different person. I get how it could look that way, but that’s not the internal reality of it. I wanted to make a story that spoke to the internal experience of that journey, which is not a person becoming another person. It’s a person being themselves, incandescently so, without discretion. I love my life now, but a part of me wishes that little Jules had this kind of story available growing up. It would have been remarkable to be spoken to instead of about, to be addressed instead of discussed.

It’s no secret that gender and other kinds of representation in our industry get worse as you look at increasingly senior positions. The exit rate is higher for people who aren’t men. Myself, I quit the industry for a year, and I came back not because I felt that the industry had transformed overnight, but because it just didn’t sit right with me personally that I wasn’t getting to tell those stories. For me, myself, that wasn’t acceptable. I decided to keep telling them.

Those of us who are in senior roles find ourselves in positions of visibility, with people looking to us as role models simply because we survived. I have to confess, I don’t know exactly how to be one of those. I feel like I just got here. I didn’t even find my role model yet. I’m not naive. I know my story is different to that of many other women. Before I transitioned, yeah, people treated me a certain way. It was upsetting and invalidating, but they did, and after transition, much different. I know what life is like when people take you seriously, and it’s kind of a weird position to be in, but I also understand what it’s like when they don’t.

The truth is that all of us have different stories and challenges in common. When you brilliant young women in game dev, who I hope are listening, when you do the amazing things that you’re going to do, and you take on experience and suddenly you find yourself in this position with other women, women with their whole careers ahead of them, coming to you for advice that you don’t feel ready to give–they’re asking it of you because the path from where they are to where you are is unclear, and you’re the most and maybe only visible part of it. Navigating that relationship and that experience are things that can be challenging.

I’m certain that you’ll care deeply about those people. You may feel anger for stressful situations that they don’t deserve to be dealing with. You may feel a little embarrassed to admit that you didn’t find a special hack for preventing sexism. You more or less just survived, and it was partially luck, partially putting up with some stuff you shouldn’t have to. You fought some fights, but not as many as you wanted to. How could you have? You may feel torn about what advice to give. Do you give pragmatic, realistic advice that speaks to your experience and is what they’re asking for, but could also be a little demoralizing to hear? Do you give more hopeful advice that is, again, not what they’re asking you for, and more or less what they could get from any of their peers who don’t share as much of their background?

The truth is it’s going to be hard, and there’s no right answer. You’re going to do more right than you do wrong. All of us do wrong sometimes. You’re going to do right more often. The truth is that it’s okay to do some of it or all of it or none of it as your energy and your boundaries permit. The truth is also that you are strong enough to do it, and I so dearly hope you will. When we tell our stories together, we change things. Slowly but surely we change them. You deserve to tell the stories that your younger self would have wanted, and I so dearly want to hear them. Please tell them. I’ll leave it there, and I’ll say thank you so much to Laia, to Rami, and to Brenda for helping bring these panelists together. Thank you to these panelists who are so inspiring to me, and thank you in advance to future panelists, who I know are going to be incredible. I want to hear your stories. Thank you again.

Alhvi Balcarcel

Above: Alhvi Balcarcel of Guatemala speaks on the #1ReasonToBe panel.

Image Credit: GDC

Alhvi Balcarcel: Hello everyone. I’m a programmer from Guatemala, and I’m the co-founder of the studio Selva Interactive. I’m also one of the co-founders of a local game development community in Guatemala, Game Dev GT. First, I want to tell you where Guatemala is located, in case someone doesn’t know. Here’s the United States. Here is Mexico, and here is Guatemala. Today we’ll tell you how I became a game developer, and the story of our game development community.

To start, I want you to imagine you’re a kid growing up in a working class family, and you go to a toy store. You see some big toys with those huge boxes. But you don’t even pay attention to those toys, because you know those toys are not for you. You know that you’re never going to be able to get one of those toys. You go and take the cheaper toys, because maybe you can convince your parents to get you one of those, with some luck. Something similar happens when you grow up in a working class family, or you’re growing up in a country in development like Guatemala, and you need to choose a career. It seems like some careers are just like those expensive toys that you’ll never be able to get.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an astronaut, a paleontologist, or a scientist. But as I grew up I disregarded those ideas, because I thought they were unrealistic. I settled for pursuing something more attainable for my situation, and I decided to study computer science. In my teenage years I fell in love with computers and decided to be a hacker, or make video games. I started computer science with a lot of enthusiasm. This is the very first game I made with my friends. At the beginning of my career I didn’t look at the idea of making video games for a living, though, because I thought that was also impossible. But then one of my friends suggested making an educational video game for kids. He showed me some new tools to try. He convinced me, and I joined the project.

While doing that project I fell in love with games again, and I also fell in love with my friend. He’s now my partner. We finished the project and got our computer science diplomas. One of our teachers advised us to get funding to continue our educational game, and we decided to do so. We found it very difficult, more complicated than we expected. We were unable to secure any funding for the project. A few years passed, and we worked freelance jobs, websites, little projects. Then, in 2014, we met the folks at 502 Studios. We found out that they were making games too. We decided to create a game development community. The community started as a group of friends. We started doing talks, workshops, game jams, showing off our games at conventions and events. This is a picture of the first game jam we had. This one is from Global Game Jam 2019. The community has grown.

A lot of things have changed in Guatemala. Our two universities offer degrees related to games. I happen to teach in one of those. But it makes me sad hearing students say that they didn’t choose the game development path because there’s no future for games in Guatemala. I reflect on those seven years that have passed since we started the community, and I think that maybe we haven’t done enough. I know that there are many things we should be doing, but it’s hard for us growing our studios, making our games, running the community. Most of our community members are students or hobbyists with other responsibilities. It gets very hard for them.

The state of the industry in Guatemala is still very hard now. There are a handful of companies trying to make games. But not many of those companies are sustainable yet. There have been several attempts from different companies and organizations to establish a game development industry here, but unfortunately with no luck. Then I think that maybe the students are right, that game development is one of unattainable careers. It’s one of those expensive toys that we’re never going to get. But then I think about the reality of most people in Guatemala, where 60 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. Regular folks in Guatemala have to deal with hunger, poverty, violence, and more significant problems than being able to make games or not. Some kids cannot even afford to go to a toy store at all. Maybe we shouldn’t be creating games in the first place?

Then I see how privileged we are to have access to an education and technology, to have access to making dreams a reality. Now I believe that dreams shouldn’t be like those big toys. Dreams shouldn’t be a commodity. Dreams should be for everyone. My #1ReasonToBe is to try to fulfill my dreams, and to try to help others achieve theirs too, with their community. We’ll keep looking for opportunities for ourselves and our community members. I’m thankful for being able to speak here today. I want to say thanks to Laia, the organizer of this panel, for this opportunity and her amazing work in the Latin American community.

I’m also thankful because Wings is funding our next game, Illuminaria. Having resources and support to create that game makes a huge difference to us. And I want to give a big shout out to Latinx in Gaming, an organization improving Latinx representation in the game industry. They’ve been doing a fantastic job creating opportunities for Latinx people. I’m very thankful for all the help and opportunities I have, and our community has. We’ll keep trying one step at a time, trying to fulfill our dreams. Wish us luck, and thank you.

Bahiyya Khan

Above: Bahiyya Khan of South Africa speaks on the #1ReasonToBe panel.

Image Credit: GDC

Bahiyya Khan: Hello everyone. My name is Bahiyya Khan, and welcome to my #1ReasonToBe talk. Also known as seven minutes in heaven, because I’m only allowed to speak for seven minutes. If you’re into receiving brain damage you can follow me on Twitter at @BreakinBahiyya.

I’m an Indian Muslim South African designer, writer, and form maker. I’m currently doing my master’s in form, where I’m looking at the way that teenage girls in Hollywood movies are represented. I’m also the first South African woman of color to win an IGF award, and when I heard about that, I got excited when it just happened. But afterward it started pissing me off, because I don’t want that to be a thing, where it’s the first woman, the first person of color to win these awards and stuff. I think that what the IGF awards should do this year is just give every award to women of color. Especially all the prize money. Personally I could use that to pay off my varsity fees and for when my band is allowed to tour again.

I didn’t want to go to university. I wanted to be a rock star and a subsistence farmer. But being a game designer seemed cool, because the people who worked in the department marketed the degree to me in a way that made it seem like I’d be okay. I’d be able to find a job. I never thought that the politics of my existence would be something that held me back if I went into the games industry. In retrospect, all of them were white, and I don’t think they considered my personal circumstances. I was 18, and I didn’t understand why my mother wasn’t happy with me going to university. But as I got older, I realized that she was afraid for me.

My mother spent the majority of her life living under the disgusting laws of apartheid. For those of you who don’t know what apartheid means, it was racial segregation, political, social, and economic discrimination against the non-white majority of South Africa. As a colored woman living through apartheid she was denied several things, and had her identity decided for her. One of the things she was denied was financial safety and education. She never got to finish high school, and she placed a lot of importance on education for my sisters and I. Going to art school and game design is risky for white middle-class people from supposed first world countries. Then imagine how difficult it is for lower income people of color from South Africa.

When I first started university, and this still happens to me now and then, people from my community didn’t understand what I was studying or why I was studying it. I remember one time when I went to the chemist, and my pharmacist is someone who’s known me since I was five. He asked what I was doing now that I was out of high school, and I told him I was studying game design. He said, “What? Our people don’t do stuff like that. Why don’t you do accounting instead?” If I had a dollar for every time someone said I should study accounting, I’d be able to pay for an MRI now.

I also think about what he meant when he said “our people” don’t study stuff like that. Did he mean Lenasians? I come from Lenasia, which is a ghetto formed due to apartheid. Or did he mean Muslim people? Did he mean Indian people? Why weren’t we allowed these things? I know it was coming from a place of concern, but it made me feel like I was kidding myself by being in this industry. The experiences that I had at university just further emphasized these feelings.

This is a photo from me in my last year of high school. As you can tell, I had a problem from a young age of my roots growing out and then me not touching it up. I remember this day. I was really scared to leave the comfort of my high school, but I was also excited to go to university, because I thought, maybe it would be an experience like I was Emma Stone in The House Bunny. I’d end up dating the lead singer from the All-American Rejects. But instead I ended up needing to get hospitalized because I was so depressed. I couldn’t cope with the way I was being treated at university.

These four words that I have on the side are words that I found kept getting repeated in my diary, because I was looking through my diary from when I was 19, 20. I just want to clarify that I don’t use the word “slag.” I don’t know what I was on. I think I was watching a lot of British TV shows, and that changed my entire personality and vocabulary. But the reason these words kept coming up is because these are the things that I was made to feel like I was at university. I was in a class that was majority men, majority white people, like 90 percent. It felt like the only time my classmates, male classmates would pay attention to me was to flirt with me, or to make some really disgusting sexual comment that I wasn’t sure how to respond to.

I also have a colored accent, and coming from Lenasia, where there are so many different races and cultures, even though English is my first language, I don’t speak conventional English. The way I pronounce things or string sentences together, it’s an amalgamation of a lot of the different languages spoken there, such as Zulu and Gujarati and Arabic and stuff like that. When I would speak in my class, they would laugh at me. They would say things like, “I thought you were white until you opened your mouth.” Also, coming from Lenasia and being a colored person–this one white guy would constantly say to me things like, “Oh my God, don’t stare at me.” Just make very hideous racist comments. He also said to me once, when I was playing a game and I blew myself up, he said, “Oh, your people are used to doing that.” Some bullshit reference to suicide bombers and Muslims and terrorism.

I didn’t know how to respond. I already felt so ostracized. I kept feeling like I didn’t belong in this degree, because even though my lecturers said to me that it didn’t matter that I didn’t play any video games, I didn’t know anything about games, I could still become a game designer–their actions in teaching didn’t reinforce that. There were constantly references to games that I knew nothing about and couldn’t contextualize. I’d see other people in my class nodding along about things like Skyrim, and I didn’t know what that was at all.

Everything that happened just made me feel like I didn’t belong in this space. And I just stopped speaking in my class. I wouldn’t talk at all, because I felt like I didn’t have anything of value to say. I was boring. My accent was wrong. Everything about me was wrong. And it was just really, really hard. I wish I knew what this industry looked like when I started university, because I don’t think I would have ever gone through with studying game design. In 2015, there were literally zero women of color employed in the South African games industry. This is a country where white people are the minority, yet 92 percent of the industry were white people.

I made After Hours for several reasons. Just to refresh your memory, After Hours was the game that made us win the IGF award. I made this game, which speaks about borderline personality disorder and sexual abuse, because I wanted to talk about the issues that were going on in my community. South Africa has one of the highest rates of femicide. I wanted to feel like I was doing something about it by allowing our stories to be told. With this game I went on to become the first person from my degree to win an IGF award for this game. It felt like such a fuck you to all the people who were just horrible to me, always. Yeah, I won an IGF award. That’s really cool. It was just very glorious for me.

Although–I feel like because I bulldozed my way through for everything for so many years, I’m so damaged. I’m recovering or stagnating, I’m not sure, from what feels like an eternal burnout. But I get these incredible messages from students of color who are so proud of me and thank me for making them feel like things are possible. As colored girls, as black girls, they can do the things that I’ve done, and they can do more. In many ways there’s never been a better time to be a woman of color from South Africa trying to make video games. But it doesn’t mean that it’s a good time or a safe time, or that it’s sustainable. It means that amongst everything that could go wrong, there’s also the possibility that things could go right.

My mother saved for three years to be able to buy me a laptop, and I got it in my final year of university. I didn’t even know that Thomas Was Alone had audio the first time I played that game, because I didn’t know how video games worked. I didn’t even know that humans made games. I don’t know where I thought they came from. But now I know that girls like me make games, and that those games could help to make other people feel less alone. I don’t know if and when I’ll ever be able to make another game again, but if I do, I know that my #1ReasonToBe, my reason to do it again, will always be for girls like me, and for My Chemical Romance to notice me. Thank you very much.

Laia Bee: In 2014 we ran this same panel. Leigh Alexander said that she hoped that this panel wouldn’t be necessary in the future. Seven years later, I have the same hope. The world has shown us that every space and right that minorities earn must be defended every single day. For all the underrepresented folks around the world out there, please remember that this industry belongs to you, and don’t let these old hate speeches in the form of new movements stop you. This industry belongs to you. I hope that these seven amazing stories might inspire you to ask yourself, what is your #1ReasonToBe?

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