Iranian game developer Mahdi Bahrami discusses the costs to games of Trump's travel ban
At the Game Developers Conference in 2014, a young Iranian indie developer named Mahdi Bahrami took to the stage during the Experimental Gameplay Workshop to show his game, Engare. A puzzle game inspired by the geometric patterns in Islamic art, it wowed the audience with its beauty and originality.
It was a special moment. Engare directly reflects a culture that doesn't tend to be showcased at GDC. Bahrami's name has been increasingly celebrated by figures such as Jonathan Blow (Braid, The Witness) and Robin Hunicke (MySims, Journey) as one of the most talented up-and-coming game designers in the world, with two of his previous games, the Persian rug-themed puzzler Farsh released in 2013 and puzzler Bo released in 2010, having both been finalists at the Independent Games Festival awards.
But as an Iranian national, Bahrami's ability to visit the US to show his games and meet game developers from the rest of the world at events like GDC has always been uncertain. And now he cannot visit at all. President Trump's ban on nationals of Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Iran entering the US has imposed a profound cost on all video games, cutting off access from emerging talent, new perspectives and sources of inspiration to the center of the international game industry.
"It breaks my heart," he explains on a Skype call. "I feel like everything we were trying so hard for... And things were getting better. Iran having a nuclear deal with the US. For the first time in 40 years the foreign ministers of the US and Iran were directly solving a problem. And now, even if you're a PhD student in the US, just because of this new order, you can't go there. It's like all the hopes we had for the past few years are just gone."
Now 24, Bahrami's love of game making started at the age of 11 when he began using YoYoGames' GameMaker – the same tool credited by the makers of Hotline Miami and Hyper Light Drifter for getting them started in game design. In 2010, he sent the prototype for Engare, then called Everything Can Draw, to the Experimental Gameplay Workshop and was delighted to find it accepted. But the workshop ended up being cancelled, so he sent it to the similarly-themed Sense of Wonder Night at the Tokyo Game Show.
"They liked it and invited me to go there, so I went and showed it to Japanese game developers and it made me feel like maybe I'm good at this and I can make games. I was just 17-years-old, so it was exciting. I wanted to make games. That's what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."
Encouraged by a number of big names in game design knowing his work, including Jonathan Blow, who was curating the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, Bahrami decided to study game design and programming abroad and got a place at NHTV University in Breda, Holland. "I could learn how to make games; for me it was more important to be connected with others," he says.
It also meant it was easier to be able to visit the US. Applying for visas has always been difficult for Bahrami, who currently lives in Isfahan, 200 miles south of Tehran. Iran doesn't have a US embassy, so he has to go to Turkey or Dubai to apply for a visa at the embassies there, then return home to wait and see if it's approved.
The first time he tried to go to GDC was in 2013. His game Farsh, a puzzle game about rolling Persian carpets, was a finalist in the Student Showcase, but his application was denied. Since he was studying in Holland at the time, at least he didn't need to travel to apply. But it still hit him hard. "I really felt like not making games anymore."
Simply being part of the international game industry is hard for Bahrami, too. Farsh's nomination lead him to receive an email from Valve offering to publish it on Steam. "I was living in Iran and I didn't know how to put my games on Steam or how to get the money," he says. "When I went to Tokyo to show my game there I couldn't even book my hotel from Iran because the banks don't work. We don't have credit cards. So I was sure that even if I put my game on Steam there's no way I can get the money because it's a US company and there's no way to send the money to Iran. I didn't know how to answer them, so I never replied to the email from Valve. After a few years I realized I should at least have replied. Maybe to just say something!"
Bahrami had already come away severely disappointed after an attempt to publish his Xbox 360 puzzle-platformer KooChooLoo on Xbox Live Indie Games in 2009. "It was not a good game and I'm not super proud of it, but I wanted to put it on Xbox Live Indie Games to sell my games for the first time," he says. He got an email from Microsoft saying they blocked his account because it was from Iran, and at the time there was a trade embargo between the US and Iran. "So I sent my game to my cousin who was living in Australia and he sent it to Microsoft to put it on Xbox Live Indie Games and they blocked his account too, saying they knew he was in Australia but they knew it was made in Iran. That was really disappointing. It made me feel that maybe this game industry, maybe you should be only from the US if you want to work in it."
Finding the will to continue to create games has become more and more challenging for Bahrami. "I had these moments; I felt that if I wanted to be successful I had to try something else. Everything I do, there's a problem, just because I'm from Iran. This ban is one of those moments. The game industry, everything is related to the US, and it makes it very difficult to work when you're not from there, and especially if you're from Iran."
Bahrami is not planning on visiting the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this March. He's focusing on finally completing Engare for release later this year. He'll face the difficulties of being unable to promote it at PAX, E3 or any other US-based event, but at the moment all his thoughts are simply on completing it.
He's also concerned about friends who are studying in the US and are facing the direct repercussions of Trump's ban. One friend is studying art and making games. In fact, just last week she released a game called Memoranda on Steam, based on bestselling Japanese fantasy author Haruki Murakami's short stories. "If she goes out of the US she will not be able to go back," he says. "There are students I know who have been deported. It's crazy. It's not normal."
He's also bitterly disappointed that Iran's first major game conference, the Tehran Game Convention, which takes place at the end of April, has invited American speakers to give talks. "That was going to be amazing because finally there would be some connection between the US game industry and the community in Iran, but now that's gone.
"What makes me sad is that I hear in the game industry that there are all these diversity programs, but then, if you're looking for diversity, for new perspectives, there are really a lot of new perspectives in those countries the US is blocking. It was never easy to go to the US. You meet a lot of Europeans, but never really hear about Middle Eastern ideas and perspectives."
The personal fallout that Trump's ban is directly causing is tragic enough. But strangling exchanges of ideas and perspectives between the people of Muslim states and those in the US, as well as simply getting to celebrate the beauty of games like Engare, will stands to cause deeper cultural repercussions.