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Train Jam participants heading to GDC 2017 anxious about ‘Muslim ban’

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Some heading in for the cross-country game jam are uneasy

train jam
The Sierra Nevada Mountains, seen from the rear of the last car of Train Jam 2016.
Izzy Gramp

Since its inception four years ago, the annual Train Jam event, a 52-hour game jam aboard an Amtrak train, has become one of the hottest tickets in indie game development. The event is known for its diversity, and attracts a remarkable assortment of international attendees all making their way from Chicago’s Union Station to the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. But, thanks to the Trump administration’s ‘Muslim ban,’ there’s a lot of anxiety among some travelers headed into the U.S. for the event.

Ahmed Elgoni, a developer living and working in South Africa, isn’t sure that he’ll be allowed into the country. As a citizen of Sudan, one of the seven countries listed in the ban, he’s hoping that a temporary restraining order will remain in effect a little while longer so that he can attend.

Elgoni tells Polygon that he received his travel visa the day before the travel ban was put in place. Since then, he’s had to sort through lots of conflicting information to make sense of it all.

“I’m waiting for any sign that I can go safely,” Elgoni said, “and then I’ll buy my ticket and be on my way to Train Jam.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for me, and my first time in the States. ... But I tick three boxes. I’m Arab, Muslim and black. There’s a good chance that I still get pulled to the side for a ‘random’ check — and I say that with air quotes.”

Train Jam started in 2014 with only 60 developers; this year it has grown to include more than 300. In fact, it’s so big that rather than having it take place on a regularly scheduled trip by the famous California Zephyr, Train Jam has rented out an entire Amtrak train.

The event has many sponsors within the industry this year. They include PlayStation, Intel and GDC itself as well as Cards Against Humanity, Devolver Digital and Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. But rather than providing perks for attendees, Wallick tells Polygon that much of their money has gone toward bringing in diverse, international participants who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make it on their own.

Elgoni himself applied for and won a $1,500 grant from Train Jam, but he’s worried it won’t be enough to purchase a plane ticket. Now that the restraining order is in place and Sudanese nationals are once more allowed across the border, flights into the U.S. are in demand. That’s pushed the price of a flight up by around 40 percent.

“This isn’t an opportunity that you get every day, especially coming from outside America or Europe,” said Elgoni, who works for 24 Bit Games in South Africa. “I’ll just have to raise some funds from friends and family to cover the extra cost. To me, it is very important to go to GDC.”

train jam
Adriel Wallick on board Train Jam 2016.
Izzy Gramp

Train Jam founder Adriel Wallick tells Polygon that the Train Jam community is coming together around Elgoni and others who are affected, offering support and working to make sure they’re able to attend as planned.

“It means a lot to us to see this happening year after year, and to know that we had a part in making that happen. This year is probably our most global year yet. ... Through this funding, and through our push for a real globalization of this event, we have developers attending from over 25 countries, from every continent (except Antarctica), and from many different cultural backgrounds.

“Many of the developers coming from smaller communities around the world are the first of their local community to go to the U.S. or attend something like Train Jam,” Wallick said, “which means that they're able to bring back invaluable experiences to share and help their communities grow.”

Thanks to the suddenness of the Trump administration’s travel restrictions, Wallick says that attendees are suffering from a “growing sense of uneasiness.” Indie developer Rami Ismail, who has attended every Train Jam to date, recently wrote an op-ed for The Guardian where he stated that he feels like the U.S. is “no longer open for business.”

Wallick tells Polygon that she and other attendees are working hard to put those fears to rest, and offer aid where they can.

“Luckily,” Wallick said, “the group chat was already in place for folks to work through their anxieties, and we have been available for direct communication with those who have concerns with their travel itinerary.”

Wallick says that what truly makes Train Jam special, aside from some of the most amazing scenery in the U.S., is its diversity.

“One of the reasons that we put so much work into this is because, over the years, we've been able to see the amazing games that a diverse set of backgrounds can create,” Wallick said. “A developer from Poland and a developer from Saudi Arabia working together are going to create something uniquely different than two developers from the U.K. working together. That's just the natural byproduct of getting folks who have grown up in entirely different situations, cultures, regions, and religions working together, being creative, and sharing ideas.”

For more on Train Jam, read our features from last year which include a travelogue and a firsthand account of making a VR game on a train. Also, you can listen to our interview with Wallick, which is embedded below.