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How closing borders kills understanding, and censors art

As the US closes its borders, we lose out on opportunities for cultural understanding. Because of the border closure, no US citizen can attend the Tehran Game Convention, a huge potential stepping stone in our international game development community.

On January 27, 2017, the American government, my government, banned basically everyone from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from entering the united states for 90 days. Even Iraqi military translators for the US with visas were turned back. People with greencards were turned back from their homes. In response, the government of Iran has banned everyone from the US.

Why am I writing about this on Gamasutra, you ask? Because I was going to attend the Tehran Game Convention, the first big international game conference in Iran, to speak to developers, and also to write about what they're doing there. Now I can't, and neither can anyone else from the United States, unless something changes drastically. Make no mistake, this censors art.

Burning bridges
Art is often a vehicle for peace and understanding. For ages, cross-cultural exchange of art has been a bridge that helps people to understand where they have common ground. Above and beyond that, collaborations across cultures are amazingly able to help people understand each other. Through working with any group, you're going to understand more about their work style, their wants and needs, all of which stems from how they grew up, the environments in which they learned, and cultural mores.

This is true even if you're say, from California, working with someone from Tennessee. Across my life as a game developer, I've worked closely with people from Japan, Poland, Sweden, Ireland, Portugal, Hungary, Brazil, Russia, Thailand, and more. I've understood so much more about these places and where people are coming from, simply by working alongside different kinds of people. What an opportunity for understanding we're missing out on, here!

Cultural art
The game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, created by Iranian Americans, was the first opportunity many people had to understand the past and the present of Iran. Here is a game full of real people with real lives, struggling for their freedom. It's imperfect, but you'll not play another narrative like it. As a piece of art, it's difficult to endure, and also remarkably compelling. It has demonstrably helped people to understand Iran, just a bit more. As one Steam reviewer said, “it tries to approach themes and settings that are never touched on video games, so it's a game that you must play if you see video games as a cultural medium.”

Engare, by Mahdi Bahrami.

Mahdi Bahrami is an award-winning Iranian game maker who uses Iranian themes of mosaic and tapestry in his games. He's been nominated for multiple international awards, and won the IGF Student Showcase in 2014. If he got that award today, he wouldn't be allowed to come pick it up, or to share his game in person with people in the US.

I have met Mahdi three times, in two different continents – First in Austin, then in San Francisco, then in Tokyo, where his game was also chosen for the Sense of Wonder Night. To be honest, he is the first Iranian person I ever got to have a long conversation with, just a few years ago. Because of these conversations, when considering whether I would go to the Tehran Game Convention, my first thought was “Oh, Mahdi lives there,” rather than “Oh, that's dangerous.” Or “why would I want to go there,” as many people said to me after I had made my decision to go.

This is the power of art, and a big appeal of game conferences in general. Conferences like this have the power not only to bring us into new markets, but also to let us understand each other as people, and solidify games as a true international community. What do people in Texas think about your game, versus San Francisco? What about Poland? What about Iran?

1979 Revolution: Black Friday.

In Hyderabad, India, last November, I watched Avinash Kumar talk about integrating the art of South India into his game. It was like nothing I had ever seen, really, this pastiche of various cultural myths, legends, and artistic motifs, while being completely holistic in its approach. Through watching his talk, and seeing how he integrated his mother's hands from a DVD where she instructed in traditional dance, I felt like I understood just a little bit more about where I was.

But it's not just about developers from the US going and understanding people from other countries. It's about helping them to understand and learn about us, as well. Learning that some of us do have compassion. That we also care about our families, and care about making great art. That we don't all see them as the enemy.

International community
As game developers, the ability to share our art with each other, with the world, is our greatest gift. Sure, my games are about things as crass as hitting or avoiding deer with your station wagon. Nobody would call it a culturally important game. At the same time, three out of five sections of that game are modeled after specific regions of California, where I either grew up, or frequently visited. The game starts out in Oakland, California, right next to where I was born. Even if I showed this stupid game to someone at a conference, they could learn something about a real person who is standing right in front of them. They could see my vision and feelings about a place they may only have seen in movies. At the same time, I would be seeing the real Iran, a place I'd only seen in movies, and would be able to help others understand more about the place, its people, and its developers, through my writing.

I am of course primarily heartbroken for the families that are going to be broken apart by this insane closing of our borders. But for the future, I'm also saddened that we are burning this bridge. This opportunity for understanding. This opportunity for taking our art and sharing it with each other. For working together and truly seeing each other as people, rather than points on a map, religious icons, or villains in movies. People abroad already don't trust Americans, as I learned when going to India through Abu Dhabi during trump's election. It would be wonderful to have the opportunity to change a few peoples' minds.

This is a dark day for the America at large, but which also has specific ramifications for our game community. Let's reach out to each other in friendship, and try to bridge these stupid gaps anyway, no matter what any jingoistic law says about it. Let's play Mahdi's games, or 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. Play games from everywhere. Get in touch with our international brothers and sisters. So much of our game development life is virtual. Let's use that to understand each other, even if new laws may keep us physically distant.

Love to you all.

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