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Yemeni protest of Trump immigration executive order

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Game industry counts the human cost of Muslim travel ban

Developers and execs fear travel, and the future

Yemeni-American protesters rally against executive order
| Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Shadie El-Haddad is an animator and artist at a small game studio in North Carolina. He's a U.S citizen. His parents came to America from Kuwait, just before Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion. They came, he says, for "better opportunities, stability and free speech."

His parents were "always so accepting of the culture here, being so vastly different from the Middle East," he recalls. "My sister and I simply grew up as Americans and it wasn't until 9/11 that we were singled out as different."

Shadie loves working in games. "It's a good feeling to find that thing that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning."

Every year of his life, El-Haddad's grandma has visited the family from her home in Jordan. Although Jordan is a key U.S. ally and not one of the countries on President Trump's Muslim travel ban list, at least one Jordanian attempting to come into the country has been detained by customs officials.

This year, El-Haddad’s family has serious doubts about the wisdom of putting her on a long flight to America. "The atmosphere being created by Trump and his immigration ban will complicate things for my family members planning trips to the U.S. with granted visas. Especially my grandma. Her yearly extended visits have been a part of my life as long as I can remember."

“We are all Muslims now” sign from protest Bryan R. Smith/Getty Images

Anger and hurt

El-Haddad’s story is not uncommon among American Muslims, as they struggle to comprehend an executive order signed by Trump, banning people from seven mainly Muslim countries from entering the Unites States. The ban has affected people with visas, green card holders and refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Trump’s ban has drawn significant protests. It has been legally challenged as discriminatory and branded as racist by groups representing refugees.

We spoke to a number of game developers who either immigrated to the U.S. from majority-Muslim countries, or whose parents came here, looking for a better life.

“It’s dehumanizing,” says Ramsey Nasser, a Brooklyn-based game developer and artist. “I mean, the perception of Arabs and Muslims in a racist and negative light is not shocking. But I’ve never seen this codification via executive orders the way we are now. It’s very scary and an awful feeling.”

Nasser is a U.S. citizen who was born in Tennessee. He’s a Lebanese-American who spent some years living in Beirut and has traveled extensively. But he feels it’s necessary to stay put for now.

“Practically speaking, traveling outside the country is not something I want to do for a while. Opportunities that are outside the borders of the United States are things that are off the table for me. I feel like traveling is a roll of the dice at this point. We’re beyond certainty.”

Navid Khonsari is a Canadian-born Iranian with a green card. He lives in New York and runs studio Ink Stories, best known for the acclaimed political game 1979 Revolution. He's also looking at canceling travel abroad, including some family visits and speaking engagements where he can promote his work.

“Development isn’t just limited to the United States,” he says. “It’s unbelievably international. Most likely I shouldn’t have a problem entering the country but as an Iranian national — if I’m not allowed back in — what does that actually mean for somebody who’s been living in this country for 17 years?”

Ahmed Khalifa is a game designer and PhD Student at New York University. Originally from Egypt, he's in the U.S. on a student visa. “I’m afraid to travel outside the U.S. which makes my family super sad,” he says. “Trump is unpredictable and one day he could just say, we ban Egypt too. I’m really angry and scared. It makes me feel I am still in Egypt under military rule.”

“Hey Trump are Jews next?” sign at Trump immigration ban protest Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Uncertain future

Mojdeh Gharbi is vice president of marketing and operations at Certain Affinity, a Texas-based developer best known for its work on the Halo franchise, and for Age of Booty. Born in Iran, she moved to the United States when she was a child.

“I’m a U.S. citizen and people say to me, ‘Oh, well, you don’t have to worry,’” she says. “But it has a ripple effect beyond those seven countries. I have a lot of international friends here — from Italy to Vietnam to Turkey — and this hits home to everyone who is an immigrant. It’s heartbreaking. People are afraid for what the future holds for their families and for their children.”

About 15 percent of Certain Affinity’s employees are originally from outside the United States. “As a business leader I have to protect our employees. I need to be careful about who we send overseas. It’s a shame because this impacts potential opportunities that folks are going to have to miss out on. Even though they have absolute legal rights, we don’t ever want to put them in a situation where they are held up somewhere and can’t get home.

“I'm beyond upset that I have employees who now don’t feel that they are safe here. My 10-year-old niece just asked whether her friends or our family members will be kicked out of this country. No child should ever worry about that. It’s not right. We all want the same things: peace, love and prosperity for all.”

Advice and reactions

Mona Ibrahim is an attorney at the Interactive Entertainment Law Group, which works on behalf of games companies. She describes herself as an Arab-American who grew up in West Virginia.

Her advice to anyone affected by the ban is stark. “The single most dangerous thing a person from the seven referenced countries can do right now is travel outside of the United States. People who carry green cards should be OK, but enforcement tells us otherwise, so I would be very hesitant.

“People here on a worker’s visa or any other kind of visa that is not specific to government employment should not leave the country right now because they will not be able to get back in.”

I Need Diverse Games is a nonprofit that campaigns for diversity in the game industry and in video game portrayals. It's just launched a campaign called Game Devs Against Muslim Ban. Apparel is on sale at the INDG site.

“This [Muslim ban] is unfairly targeting people who are living in the U.S. and cannot travel, for fear of not being readmitted,” says organizer Tanya DePass (who has previously written for Polygon). “Or they are overseas and can’t come to GDC or to the U.S. for business. So this is a fundraising thing to donate to folks who are fighting the ban.”

DePass, who is not a Muslim, says many Muslims in the game industry are likely to be low-profile and nervous about drawing attention to themselves. “A lot of people know of a few high-profile Muslim developers but they don’t think about the person they are working with who could be Muslim and is affected by the ban.”

Gaming’s most visible trade bodies have also weighed in on the ban. Both the International Game Developers Association and the Entertainment Software Association released statements about the executive order.

“To restrict immigration on the basis of an individual’s state of origin represents an ignorant knee-jerk that assumes only the worst and wrongly stereotypes the people of an entire culture," said Kate Edwards, head of the IGDA. “We stand in absolute opposition to any policy in any government that would seek to unduly restrict an individual's ability to pursue their creative passion and chosen career path in game development.”

Less forcefully, the ESA, which represents the interests of games publishers, urged the White House to “exercise caution,” adding that “our companies rely on the skilled talent of U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, and immigrants alike.”

The Game Developers Conference, which takes place in San Francisco later this month, has been hit by developers overseas saying they won’t be able to attend because of the ban, including well-known figures like former Sony exec Shahid Kamal Ahmad. Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail — who is Dutch-Egyptian — says he’s weighing whether to attend, taking a “wait and see” approach as events unfold. GDC organizers tweeted: “We're horrified by the #MuslimBan. Of course we’ll refund affected attendees, and keep fighting for inclusivity.”

“We the People” sign with Muslim woman in American flag hijab Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

What next for game industry?

Various games companies have released statements critical of the ban, or their executives have written missives to employees that have found their way out to the media.

Blizzard chief Mike Morhaime’s is typical, in that it pledges support for any employees affected and criticizes the executive order. “It strikes an incredibly sharp contrast with the values on which our company was founded,” he wrote to Blizzard employees of the ban. “We are, and will always be, a company that strives for inclusion, embraces diversity, and treats one another with respect.”

The game industry has a clear interest in freely accessing as wide a pool of international talent as possible. American Muslims working in the game industry believe the executive order will make it more difficult to attract talent — not merely from the affected countries, but from around the world.

“We have to be able to be competitive in that global economy,” says Gharbi. “But also, if you do not include diversity you’re losing important perspectives.”

“It’s going to have a huge impact,” says Khonsari. “The industry is growing in the U.S. but the rest of the world has been exponentially attracting creative development talent.” He cites Finland, other European Union countries and Australia as examples of places that are successfully competing for the best talent.

“How are people going to view the United States when their philosophies might not be in line with this executive order? Are they going to want to do business here?”

Ink Stories is donating all proceeds from 1979 Revolution sales to the American Civil Liberties Union for the first 10 days of February.

“Games in particular attract people from around the world,” says Nasser. “A lot of Silicon Valley companies are freaking out and games are in the exact same situation. If this country wants to put up borders to the global community that’s just going to limit the talent you can get in here.”

“We need to recruit the best talent regardless of origin,” says Ibrahim. “We should be inclusive, but right now it’s a very dangerous environment. I honestly think that the hostility this administration is going to create towards [Muslims] is going to be disadvantageous.”

Problems overseas

Mohamed Alaaeddine Ben Hamza, also known as Aladin Ben, is a former executive at esports company Hitbox, working out of Austria. He's a German citizen with Tunisian heritage.

He says he’s been to the U.S. many times, hiring people, setting up an office and doing deals, but now believes it’s going to be more difficult to visit. His attempts to get a job in the U.S. — where he believes his esports business development skills are most needed right now — are being thwarted by tough visa controls and nervous employers.

“If I use my full name, I often don’t even get a reply," he says of applications he’s made to major employers. “If I use my shorter name, they are interested in me, right up until we have to get into the detail of visas.”

“I’ve created many jobs in the U.S. but can’t get one for myself. The companies don’t want to start this process under Trump with an Arabic or Muslim person, even though I am German, because they are afraid to lose money and not get approved or that my country will be banned.”

Like many of the people we spoke to for this story, he has experienced difficulties when traveling to the United States, often having to wait for many hours to give interviews to immigration officials. He was once detained for 24 hours over an alleged mix-up with someone who held a similar name.

“I’ve been working with a number of Muslim developers from all over the world, including countries that are part of the ban and some that are not,” says Ismail, who wrote an article for The Guardian on the ban this week. “They are either worried about their ability to enter the U.S. or are worried about the U.S. situation. It’s heartbreaking to hear that people who are in weaker economies are spending a lot of money on flying to the U.S. and now they can’t go and the airfare is lost.”

Gaming hypocrisy

If the game industry is making the right noises about the unfairness of the ban — when its direct interests are being threatened — it hasn’t always been so forthcoming.

“I think it’s a little shameful that it took the actual passing of this executive order for companies to begin speaking up,” says Nasser. “There was previously a sentiment of ‘let’s hear him out and give him a chance’ while at the same time Muslims, people of color and entire communities were screaming that this is a catastrophe. These companies should have been listening to the minority communities who have been saying this for over a year now.”

“When you are one of the most popular mediums in the world, that comes with a responsibility to stand up against things like this,” says Ismail. “Vlambeer is going to keep using our voice, however little in the grand scheme of things. But the tech sector has been somewhat disappointing. I can’t name too many companies that have taken action when people’s constitutional rights are basically ignored. I don’t think words are quite enough.”

Muslims have generally been portrayed negatively in games, compounding stereotypes that have fostered fear, and contributing to the success of politicians who exploit fear.

El-Haddad says that early in his career, he was tasked with creating “terrorists” for a shooting game. “There was an inherent tension in the fact that I was a Muslim creating a game about killing Muslims in the most efficient fashion,” he recalls. “Being early on in my career I didn’t want to make a fuss. But their impression of a terrorist was clear. They all had brown skin and spoke Arabic and wore draped garments with a turban. In reality, when you visit the parts of the world in which the game took place, you almost never see anyone in such attire.”

“[Muslims] are portrayed in games as Arabs who are the guys you get to shoot,” says Khonsari. “There has been a recent attempt to change but it’s too little. I feel as creators as well as supporters, this needs to become also a mandate. If you have these continual enemies that are of brown skin, it’s inevitably leaving people with a way of seeing [people of color]. Games are so immersive. They absolutely have an effect on people.”

“Stereotyping goes on,” says Gharbi. “If you don’t want that, you have to have a diverse workplace. We want to stay competitive in the market. We want to be the best and so we have to have the best and that means everyone contributing.”

Yemeni-Americans pray during their protest against the immigration ban Bryan R. Smith/Getty Images

A turn to the future

Most of the people quoted in this article also expressed hope, based on efforts by Americans and people around the world to protest and to fight the ban.

“I love seeing so many people being vocal and really wanting to give support,” says Gharbi. “That’s why I want to talk openly about this. As a business owner, we have a platform and it’s up to us to give voice to the voiceless. Every one of us can make an impact in a small and big way, not just about this but about the homeless, veterans, education.”

“Many American people are quite an inspiration,” says Ismail. “It’s nice to see that there’s push-back when something like this happens. I just hope that’s enough push-back to stop blaming an entire religion of 1.6 billion people for the actions for a few.”

“I’m continually struggling with sadness and disbelief but also, actually encouragement,” says Khonsari. “I’m encouraged to see people rolling up their sleeves and digging in and talking about this, now it’s been brought it to the forefront. For better or for worse it’s going to get us to a conclusion.”

Khonsari also predicts a rise in political games that protest reactionary, exclusionary policies, a sign that Muslim game-makers may yet have a lot more to say on this executive order.

“We’re definitely planning on it,” says Khonsari, who is working on a game about protest movements in the Nixon era. “But these kind of games need the support of the larger companies. They need the publishers to say that these are just as important [as AAA games].”

“Games are such a wonderful protest medium,” says Nasser. “If Trump does get a four year presidency, I think we’ll have four years of protest games. I didn’t really get into this industry to protest fascism but I think it’s something I’m going to be doing a little bit more of going forward.”