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As ‘Muslim ban’ rattles nation, game developers take action (update)

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Developers aren’t shy about disdain for controversial executive order

Protestors Rally At Chicago's O'Hare Airport Against Muslim Immigration Ban Scott Olson/Getty Images

This weekend saw protests break out across the United States, as citizens gathered to voice their concerns about what’s become known as the “Muslim ban.” Among those speaking out publicly against the highly controversial legislation were game developers, many of whom used their work and stature within the industry to advocate for those affected by the ban.

Dissent first broke out Saturday morning, hours after the president signed an executive order barring nationals and refugees from a group of seven Middle Eastern, heavily Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for a period of time. The timing of the ban meant that those traveling while officials signed the paperwork were detained at airports or, in extreme cases, sent right back to their home countries.

None of this sat well with many Americans and people around the world. Protests broke out in airports and major urban areas, but others went online to decry the new limitations on immigration. That includes a number of game developers and companies, who not only criticized the president’s actions, but encouraged followers to donate to forces combatting them.

“If you fear Muslims: helping others even at risk to yourself is termed ‘heroism,’ & fearing all in a group ‘pre-judging,’ aka ‘prejudice,’” tweeted designer and writer Raph Koster, best known for his work on massively multiplayer games like Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest 2, on Saturday. “This word is not used lightly: these actions are evil, by [dictionary definition]. Morally bankrupt. Cowardly. Shameful.”

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, shared a company-wide email to his LinkedIn page, emphasizing Microsoft’s commitment to supporting employees affected by the immigration ban.

“We believe that immigration laws can and should protect the public without sacrificing people’s freedom of expression or religion,” wrote Microsoft president Brad Smith in the email. “And we believe in the importance of protecting legitimate and law-abiding refugees whose very lives may be at stake in immigration proceedings.”

Nadella concurred with Smith’s points, noting that he is an immigrant himself; he was born in India before moving to the U.S. for graduate school.

Others took a more proactive approach, announcing that proceeds from their game sales would go directly toward the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). These include Cardboard Computer, makers of Kentucky Route Zero. The atmospheric indie adventure game is available for 50 percent off on the itch.io platform, and the developer is giving all proceeds to the organization.

Vlambeer, the indie studio behind Nuclear Throne, also stood in support of the ACLU. All revenue from its games and merchandise went to the organization for a 24-hour period this weekend. The company said it’s raised more than $10,000, but it’s still tabulating donations.

Studio founder Rami Ismail has been especially outspoken about the Muslim ban, tweeting, “Your support of Muslims in the coming time will strengthen community & weaken dangerous organisations based on fear & division. It matters.”

Popular mobile game Dots has also become a platform for its creators to oppose the executive order. Founder Paul Murphy tweeted a screenshot from the game, showing a pop-up that encourages players to “support civil rights.”

“As an American company, we value the diversity of our team and players,” the message reads. “We believe America should be a welcoming place, particularly for those most in need, wherever they come from and whatever their religion. Please join us in standing up for civil rights.”

The message includes a link out to the ACLU’s donation page, where players can lend support through charitable donation. The company said in a press release that more than 500,000 people had clicked through the Dots link to support the organization.

The ACLU played an instrumental part in this weekend’s events, successfully lobbying for a stay of the executive order so that detainees could be let go. The group is continuing to be an important voice in the civilian campaign against the immigration ban.

The long term ramifications of the immigration ban on the gaming industry — and American society as a whole — remain to be seen. Numerous legislators are speaking out against it alongside their constituents. While its proponents remain steadfast, the order has already seen some revisions since it was signed on Friday, due to the efforts of protestors and the ACLU. Games makers’ protests and charitable actions — including those from major organizations like Game Developers Conference and the Entertainment Software Association — show that anyone can participate in the opposition to this ban, even if they’re unable to join the public demonstrations.

Update: Polytron, the studio behind Fez, has also joined in with its own charitable efforts. Fez is available as a “pay-what-you-can” download, with proceeds going right to the ACLU.

Update #2: Ink Stories, the studio behind 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, said on Tuesday that it would donate revenue from the sale of that game to the American Civil Liberties Union between Feb. 1 and Feb. 10. 1979 Revolution is about the Iranian revolution of that year and is up for nominations at February's DICE Awards and the Independent Games Festival in March.

Navid Khonsari, the studio's founder and creator of the game, holds citizenship in Canada and Iran, and this weekend, he told Polygon that the Trump executive order on immigration had curtailed travel plans to speak about the game.

"This is deeply personal," Khonsari said in a statement, "as my family made the hard decision to leave Iran after the revolution, to come to the West, which was the land of inclusion. Today, I feel like I am reliving history. I believe that now more than ever we are confronted with an obligation, where we must dig in, resist and unite."