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War-torn Developers: Creating Games from the Front Lines

July 25, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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.

Fleeing Syria

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."

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Justin LeGrande
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What can people on other parts of the planet do to genuinely assist these people? As an American, I feel that our militarism is partly responsible for these events...

One of my friends' family is from Guatemala. They have experienced some of these events... His grandfather was robbed at gunpoint less than 10 years ago, and pistol whipped when he tried to run. His stepfather, over 20 years ago, nearly drowned during an intense military training regimen. Trainees were willingly chained and weighted around the ankles, then dunked into a body of water... if they managed to swim back up, they could join. If not... they were not rescued.

On the other hand, they also have excellent agricultural knowledge and farmer's markets! Definitely some of my favorite food... I hope more people in the USA learn about true fair trade of produce, especially for coffee. Most coffee is bought from plantation-linked businesses, such as Starbucks. This includes "Fair Trade USA" and other American certifications, which are actually not truly fair trade, they're just "less unfair trade". Consumers must look for specific labels created by small community cooperatives.

I believe that empathy through truly fair trade of goods with the agricultural and artisan workers of places such as Guatemala could be one good possibility of assisting them, as an outsider.

Carlo Delallana
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Amazing feature Gamasutra/Eric Caoili. I would like to see more of these kinds of perspectives from developers outside the major dev markets.

Babak Kaveh
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Attempting to create cultural products that state definite opinions has always gotten and always will get artists into trouble. When Radwan Kasmiya and Co. created the Game “Under Ash” and “Under Siege”, they were doing it under an implicit (or maybe even explicit) sanction of their government, but also their own culture, now that that sanction has run out its course, they are in trouble. When Zarrar Chishti and Co attempted to make a game based on the plight of Gitmo prisoners he ran into a huge opposition from US army and veteran based organizations. School Shooter: North American Tour, a mod for half-life got pulled from ModDB because it was opposed by the loud voices of Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and others.

Those are just a few out of the hundreds of games that run into monetary problems, censorship by governments or groups with special interests (including religious, military, cultural, and ethnic groups) every year. When you do actually hear about a game being pummeled in the media, it is normally because those interest groups or the censors didn’t act fast enough or were not decisive enough. The problem is not limited to the western or eastern hemisphere, and it is not limited to the north or the south either – censorship is a global problem, and now that games are on the radar, we developers will start to feel the disinformation and exaggerations of the other media as well as attention from governments, special interest groups and censors.

So how do we deal with this issue: Sometimes we make use of the environment, sell out our ideals and unique point of view to these interest groups, and make the games that they ask us to, or expect us to make – that is the way to get rich, for a while.

Alternatively, we can fight the existing cultural taboos and forced beliefs in our society and our governments head-on, and risk having to leave our countries, families and societies behind, or in some cases just end up broke and with no prospects.

Sounds bleak? It isn’t! There is a third path we can take: When you face an unmovable rock, be as the stream of water. The Literary tradition gives us a huge amount of history to work with that we as game developers have decided to ignore to our own peril:

- The use of Allegories to plant seeds of truth where the enemy (censor) might only see the top-soil (See how Firdauwsi used the Shahname to attack the excesses and evil deeds of kings all while getting paid by kings for his poetry)

- Creating a common language such as poets have done, that limits the reach of our message only to those with an open mind and deeper understanding (see the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz)

- Gnawing away at taboos step by step, and trying to understand the roots of the evils that have spawned those taboos

- Training our audience to be more open-minded, not by shock-therapy as the “No Russian” Call of Duty Level, but rather by instilling positive values of inner peace and cooperation (e.g. see “Journey” by Rohrer) in your audience.

To sum up, if we claim to be creators and artists, we need to grow up and act like grown-ups. Our medium is uniquely positioned to play a major role beyond pop-references in the future of our culture, and we cannot afford to be the whining aggressive teenagers who face every problem with anger, disgust, or by running away from it. We need to start solving problems in small steps – we still have a long way to go in learning from writers, poets and painters of the past. Don’t forget, if you decide to oppose your culture, or that of others violently, in body or thought, you will die by the sword.

Ashkan Saeedi Mazdeh
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You seem one of those who understands the artistic and iteligent sides of the game development and being a human in general really well.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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Easily the best thing I've read on this website in a long time. Thank you for getting these people's voices heard.

Ulf Hartelius
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Just want to chip in with the above comments and say that this was a really nice piece, about a subject I'd like to see much more of.

@Babak Kaveh: Good points about learning from literature. I think another traditional way of working around it would be satire, e.g. Jonathan Swift.

Ashkan Saeedi Mazdeh
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Really nice article. In many other countries with special rules or special conditions it might be really mdifferent. In China nad Russia for example gamedev is not like US by no means. In my own hometown Tehran (in Iran), It's different from Canada and US and other advanced countries.
The only problem of the article is that based on personal views of one developer it can be really different. Talking to multiple developers from each country is a better idea. However i know it's not easy to find multiple developers in Syria or ...

Josh Foreman
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Very cool that you're covering this. I hope we can get some more world reporting in the future.

Brandon Van Every
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That was worth a read, belatedly.