Game developer and educator Osama Dorias let out some emotion and passion during his talk on “Muslim Representation in Games.” It was one of those rare moments at the Game Developers Conference this week that I’ll remember for a while.
As I witnessed Dorias cry on stage, I began to wonder if this GDC, perhaps for the first time ever in our new era of inclusiveness, was good for Muslims. It is wonderful to think that the 26,000-plus-person event was good for everyone, because of its inclusiveness, because it allowed someone like Dorias to express such suppressed emotion in public. But that’s a little wishful, on my part. Because the story about Muslims and the state of GDC is pretty heartbreaking.
At that moment on Thursday afternoon, Dorias showed a slide of a future vision of Iraq from Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch, one of the hottest team shooters for PCs and consoles and an esports hit. The Oasis multiplayer map had surprised him, as the only visions of Iraq — his home country — that he had seen previously in video games were images of war-torn combat zones. The first time Dorias saw this beautiful map, it brought him to tears.
“I’m from Iraq, and never once had I projected a bright future for my country,” said Dorias, who lives in Canada now.
He had pointed this Overwatch map out before in previous talks, but this time, words failed him. He paused, and tears welled up. He tried to suppress it and regain his composure, and he stopped talking for more than a minute in a room full of people.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No apology necessary,” a woman yelled out.
People applauded. Then someone went up on stage and gave him a hug. And another person did too.
“I hope you realize how meaningful this is,” Dorias said, recovering his voice.
“Things are getting better, a lot better,” he said. “But we are not where I want to be. And Muslims — all we want — is to be included in this conversation.”
Dorias received a standing ovation. I saw him later in the evening at a party. He gave me a hug, and he recounted what happened to someone else. He was embarrassed at having cried. But his new apology brought tears to my eyes. For him, GDC was an oasis, a place where he could share this emotion. It was a safe space for him to speak his true feelings.
In past years, another Muslim, Rami Ismail, a Dutch man of Egyptian heritage, had run the panel on Muslim representation in games. Ismail has been outspoken about the injustice of depicting Muslims only as enemies in video games and other media.
He, like Dorias, wanted Muslims to be normalized. I remember Ismail pointing out that a Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer map — set in Karachi, Pakistan — used Arabic to identify places in a destroyed city. It was a mistake, as Urdu, not Arabic, is Pakistan’s official language. It is a mistake that a team with Pakistanis on it would not make.
On Wednesday night, Ismail received the Ambassador Award, one of the highest honors that the GDC gives to a person who bridges the culture of gaming with the rest of the world. Among his deeds: Helping to organize the #1ReasonToBe diversity panel at the GDC, at significant financial expense for his company. He travels frequently and often speaks out on issues related to fairness and diversity.
Ismail said he was thankful for all those who enable people to make games, regardless of sex, race, gender, sexuality, ideology, heritage, history, country, culture, disability, socio-economic reality, age, or situation.
“I am thankful to those of you who participate in this medium despite feeling or being treated as different or out of place,” he said. “Being an ambassador can only be a point of pride if you believe that that which you represent is valuable. Throughout my life, I have seen games give people joy, wonder, curiosity, expression, education, friendship, and love through both play and creation.”
Ismail organized the #1ReasonToBe panel, a session that started out as a women’s panel and has now evolved to an existential message about why people from around the world make games. This year, Ismail said that five of his nominated panelists were rejected when they requested visas to come into the U.S. to attend GDC.
This is a direct result of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tight immigration policies, though Ismail didn’t level that charge in his talks. Ismail managed to get six speakers with verified visas, but the process took so long that the cost of getting hotels and flights for everyone was “ridiculous,” Ismail said in a Facebook post. Ismail said each of those rejected asked not to be identified or their countries, out of fear of making them or their countries look bad or suspicious.
“I will respect those wishes to not identify them, but I will tell you that my heart broke every single time when I got the message that one of my speakers had been rejected,” he said. “These developers had stories and passions and perspectives in games that are worth sharing on this stage, but they will not get to now….Instead, they apologized to me for making my job harder. As if they had done something wrong merely by existing.”
She noted she was a fan of the Homeland television show until she saw a scene that depicted a neighborhood that she knew well in Lebanon. It showed terrorists running down a war-ravaged street. By contrast, she knew that street was a peaceful one, full of tourists, restaurants, and bazaars. She was, she said, proud of a thriving game community in the country, even if it is very late in coming.
“I use my passion for gaming to shed a positive light on my passion for my country,” Noujaim said. “Like everyone else in our world, it is a favorite pastime. Unlike most places in the world, gaming was an outlet for when war broke out and we had to stay indoors and had nothing else to do.”
She said this shared feeling brought the team together at Game Cooks, even though, not so long ago, the country had terribly slow internet connections. Funding for game companies, she said, is non-existent. Most game developers in the country are self-taught.
“Constraint really breeds resilience,” she said. “It’s been creative to find ways to overcome these challenges.”
Game Cooks made a game dubbed Run for Peace, as part of its belief that gaming could be the universal language that unites people. It may be wishful thinking, but at least GDC 2018 was a safe enough place to express that thought. At the very least, while the stories of Muslims in gaming at GDC were heartbreaking, they could also inspire the game industry and the world to do better.