What's it like to create games in a warzone? We're talking about the same kind of environments mimicked in our most violent shooters and open-world adventures, video games that often ignore the real people traumatized by the bloodshed, and the near-constant state of anxiety their lives have become?
Gamasutra talked with several developers in countries torn by war or trying to rebuild after a revolution, seeking to learn about the struggles of trying to make games while there's an insurrection mounting and the cracking sound of gunfire outside.
We wanted to know how the violence around them -- which for some has lasted for decades now -- has affected their local game development community, how they make games, and what kind of games they want to create.
For Syria, the Arab Spring that transformed the Middle East and North Africa last year has stretched into several bloody seasons. The government's attempts to quell an ongoing uprising have left thousands dead, and there's no end to the violence yet in sight.
Following news coming out of Syria, where atrocities by its military and security forces raise the death toll every week, it's difficult to keep track of the horrors: protestors killed on the streets by snipers and tanks, neighborhoods shelled by artillery fire, ceasefire promises ignored, whole families executed, and massacre after massacre after massacre.
Game developer Radwan Kasmiya recently closed his game studio AfkarMedia in the country's capital Damascus, where the fighting is currently at its fiercest as rebels attempt to liberate the city. He's now devoting his time to another company he helped co-found, Falafel Games in Hong Kong, where he's still producing titles for Middle Eastern players.
He started his move to China in early 2011 as protests began to break out across the region, seeing opportunities in Asia and sensing a building tension in his own country. "I knew that something was going to happen," says the developer. "The problem is that my market is in the Middle East, so I have to be near my market, my audience, the gamers."
Syria's troubles gradually made operating a game company there seem impossible -- global sanctions and the country's instability scared away investors, and security forces targeted AfkarMedia, raiding the Damascus studio and arresting one of its workers. Kasmiya ended up having to close the office after a government order to evacuate the area.
Syria's army shelling buildings, battling rebels in Damascus
His team started to work from home, which was fine for a while because their neighborhoods were relatively safe. The escalating conflict and other issues, like the government cutting off online access, became too much, though: "Our internet connections became unstable. We couldn't speak or connect to each other. So, it went from bad to worse."
So Kasmiya made the decision to shut down the studio and focus on Falafel Games. He spent a year and a half traveling back and forth between Hong Kong and Syria for business, but the intensifying violence, which the Red Cross now says has spiraled into an all-out civil war, eventually made visiting there too risky.
Kasmiya says other developers have also fled Syria to escape the conflict, finding work at CG companies in less tumultuous Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, if not in Europe and the United States. It's unclear if they'll return once the country is at peace again.
Despite the distance he's put between himself and his old home, Kasmiya is hesitant to put out a game commenting on the chaos he's left behind. It's surprising, as he's never been accused of shying away from controversial regional topics for his games before -- his most well-known works are Under Ash and Under Siege, locally popular first-person shooters in which players take on the role of Palestinians fighting against Israeli soldiers.
Half-Palestinian and half-Syrian, Kasmiya has always sought to release games that serve as "cultural social tools" (though others prefer to call his works propaganda). He has an idea, a prototype, for a game about the events that have wracked his country and the Middle East, but he isn't willing to do anything with it yet.
"I don't think it's safe," says the developer. "Because I'm still trying to go back and forth to Syria, and I still have family there. I'm not going to jeopardize anything. ... I can't practice my freedom of making art or releasing my own creations. I always have to consider these other things. We are not free. I am not free."