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Sandstorms, Segregation, And Other Challenges Of Running A Women's Video Game Convention In Saudi Arabia

When people talk bustling gaming scenes, Saudi Arabia is not the first place that comes to mind. It does, however, have one, and it’s growing slowly but surely, despite geographical hurdles and cultural stigma. GCON is the first ever women’s video game convention in the country. Running it has been... difficult.

Tasneem Salim is one of the convention’s founders, and I first heard about her, her convention, and her efforts to raise visibility of Saudi Arabia’s gaming scene as a result of her impassioned talk during GDC’s #1reasontobe panel, this year focusing on video games around the world.

As in other places, for the longest time in Saudi Arabia, video games have been viewed as A Manly Thing For Manly Menfolk. But Saudi Arabia is also a place of legalized gender segregation, further compounding the issue. “If you’re a girl living in Saudi Arabia,” Salim said during her talk, “that’s just business as usual.” I spoke with her about the uphill battle of running a video game convention for women in a place with such strict rules, where even the gaming scene for men is itsy bitsy.

Kotaku: First off, how did you get into video games in a country where they’re such a small thing?

Tasneem Salim: They were always around when I grew up. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and other forms of media, like film, which I also really loved, were heavily censored. Video games were sort of cheap and accessible, and they stayed true to their content, at least before localization was a thing, so they were always fun to play. I think my first console was a Super Nintendo, but that was pretty short-lived. As soon as the PlayStation came out, we kind of grew up with it.

Kotaku: From there, how did you end up working in games?

Tasneem Salim: I was studying computer science, and I was looking at potential careers, and game development seemed like something that I could do at the time. I can program, so I can surely make games. Also, it was just a matter of we really wanted to go to gaming conventions, and they were only available to men at the time, so we sort of said, “Why not start our own convention?” So we ended up doing that.

Kotaku: What went into that? Like you said, gaming conventions were only available for men, so where did you even start?

Tasneem Salim: It was really interesting, because when we later asked a certain executive at a certain company why these conventions were only accessible to men, the answer was, “Well, we obviously didn’t think anybody would show up.” That was a really interesting insight into it, so it’s not that they weren’t willing to support us, just that they didn’t have enough insight about the market and were not able to conduct enough research to do that.

For some companies that we reached out to, helping was a matter of just providing them with the right information and having them sponsor us. For others, they’re still not interested in supporting that kind of initiative. It doesn’t really feel on target to them, I would say. That was really the first big hurdle that we had to go through, just finding the right support from the right people.

Kotaku: What was the first event like, especially having not done a convention before? What did you learn from it?

Tasneem Salim: It was a disaster. It was literally a disaster, because there was a sandstorm warning that we had missed. We didn’t actually miss it, but it was just very touch and go; it might hit today, or it might hit tomorrow. It hit today. It hit on our day. The first day we opened the convention, a couple hours into it, I was getting text messages from everybody saying they’ve confirmed the sandstorm’s coming.

It wasn’t just a sandstorm; you can manage a sandstorm. It was a sand, thunder, rain apocalypse kind of storm. We actually had to shut down. At some point, due to the rain and the heavy wind, there was some exposed wiring in the outdoor areas, so they had to cut off electricity. It was inside the university, and they had to cut off electricity of the entire campus. We had some outdoor setups as well, so we had the indoor setup and an outdoor tent-style setup where we had thousands of dollars worth of Sony equipment in there, so it was literally a disaster. We were able to salvage almost everything, thankfully, but that was day one.

Kotaku: Damn. How did you come back from that?

Tasneem Salim: Day two was surprisingly a good day. We actually had decent weather. The university gave us the campus a little earlier, so we were able to come in. We had to do a lot of cleaning and mopping. Thankfully, we had an amazing team of volunteers that were literally willing to clean and mop and set everything up again. It was received very well, despite the disastrous sandstorm.

Kotaku: What was the turnout like that year?

Tasneem Salim: We kind of lost track at some point on day one, but it was about three thousand people.

Kotaku: Year on year, how has the convention grown? How have you evolved it?

Tasneem Salim: The first year was sort of proof of concept thing. We wanted to show that there was a community of women players; we wanted to bring development to light as potential career options for women. Despite the lack of industry, we wanted to show that you can be indie or you can start making games. You can self-publish, and you might not necessarily be the next Notch, but you can start doing something and potentially turn that into career. That was the intent of the first event, and when that worked out, it was only just a matter of trying to polish it a little bit. In the next years, we moved out of the campus, it got a little more expensive, let’s just say, having to rent out venues and find more sponsors and so on.

Kotaku: What have subsequent years been like? Have things generally improved?

Tasneem Salim: The second year was very peaceful. We often miss that. It was, I think, our most peaceful year, where everything went exactly according to plan. The third year, we actually had to cancel the third day due to some difficulties that we had. I’d rather not talk about the specifics of that, but it was just a very emotional time, because we had to cancel a year’s worth of work.

The fourth year was actually great. We went to a second city. But we also had some licensing issues, so due to that delay, we were not able to announce the event officially. Everybody knew when the event was, and people were very upset on Twitter, saying “We know it’s happening. We know it’s these coming couple days, why aren’t tickets on sale? Why can’t we buy tickets?” That was an interesting thing to go through, because we only had two days once we got the license to announce the event officially and sell tickets and hope that people would show up. Fortunately, we have a wonderful community. That was the one year we did not sell out, obviously, but we actually did manage to draw a large audience.

Kotaku: How big of an effect do you think you’ve had? Do you feel like there’s greater awareness of games and game development, especially as a career for women, in Saudi Arabia now?

Tasneem Salim: We’d like to think we’ve had a great effect. When we first got started, there were virtually no teams of women or women developers. By the time we had the event last year, we had over six women or women teams showcasing their games. That’s in addition to other independent teams that are made up of men and women who are also showcasing the games, so we’d like to think that’s a great progress. There are definitely a lot more women considering game development as a career option. We do still suffer in the lack of educational resources and places where you can just go and take a course or learn about game design, but it’s definitely a step up from where we were four years ago.

We’ve also changed perception a little bit. When we first came out, there was a lot of anger, I would say, of how dare we step into the male domain of video games, but that disappeared pretty fast once people realized yeah, this was just something that’s going to happen.

Kotaku: What is the general day-to-day structure of the convention? What sort of portions does it have? Is it panels and things like that?

Tasneem Salim: Panels and speakers require a different type of licensing, which we could technically go through, but since it’s too expensive to get speakers from abroad, and we don’t actually have any speakers that would be a good fit locally, so it’s usually a process that we don’t go through. We tried it in the first year, but it was just incredibly complicated and wasn’t feasible in other years. The general structure is game testing, so whatever new games that we have access to through Sony or other partners, people come and try them. We usually have steady larger tournaments, like Call of Duty and FIFA. They have a ridiculously large audience there. We’ve tried to cancel them once and that did not go very well, so they’re sort of always there, always happening.

We’ve also got a lot of other smaller tournaments where we can just give out small rewards and people can compete, local multiplayer and that sort of thing. We’ve usually had a cosplay competition. The cosplayer community in Saudi Arabia is amazing. They put a lot of attention to detail and a lot of work into their costumes, and so we try to have the cosplay competition wherever it’s applicable. That’s usually it.

Kotaku: You mentioned game jams, also. What’s your goal with those?

Tasneem Salim: We’ve always tried to do them with a publishing contract towards the end. That’s sort of been the biggest hurdle that we were facing, or we were putting on ourselves I guess, is that we always wanted the publishing contract towards the end. We’ve had two so far, but both of them have not been very successful in terms of getting a publishing contract. One was with an incubator that shut down, the other one was with a publisher that also shut down. I think from now on, if we’re going to be doing more game jams, we’re going to be doing them just for the fun of jamming.

Kotaku: During GDC’s #1reasontobe panel, you were talking about the legal side of running a game convention for women, too. How does that play into sort of the overall perception, and also your ability to run conventions like this?

Tasneem Salim: There is a strict licensing process, but that applies to most events in Saudi Arabia, and it’s also constantly changing. There’s a new convention program, and naturally the side effect of that, they will try to enhance it every year. Unfortunately, that does end up having to affect or delay some kind of events, but that’s not the main issue. It was things like strict visa requirements for speakers, and the costs that are also a part of that, that make it a little bit difficult for smaller events to have speakers. It’s not that we can’t have speakers. There are big events in Saudi that have speakers from around the world; it’s just that on a smaller scale, it’s a lot harder to accomplish.

That’s one part of it. The other part is the fact that venues are also pretty hard to come by, so we have to find a venue that is accessible to everybody, that also supports accessibility, that is within budget, and that can host as many people as possible. These are all things that seem small to people in America having amazing convention centers like the one we’re sitting in right now, but we do have a lot of limited venues back in Saudi, so that’s always a challenge.

Kotaku: There’s also segregation laws in Saudi Arabia that require women to be kept apart from men who aren’t relatives. How does that play into building and running a convention like this, especially considering that, as you said, video games used to be viewed as a Thing For Men in Saudi Arabia? Does it make things difficult?

Tasneem Salim: Not necessarily. If anything, that’s surprisingly been helpful, because we’ve been able to do the things that women want, instead of having to have some executive from our sponsor saying no, this is the way it should be done. We’re there, we’re on location, we know what our audience likes, and we try to provide them with as many activities that are actually suitable if it was possible.

We’ve had ridiculous requests from a sponsor, like setting up a trampoline in the middle of the venue, because they cannot seem to comprehend the idea of women playing games and what kind of women play games. They always try to push it to some weird extreme because they think that might appeal to the audience, so I think that’s worked in our favor so far, and it’s definitely driven a lot more women to try and enter the industry in terms of development, because they are trying to be equal.

I am not a Saudi national, so I can’t speak about the system of segregation and how that affects the country per se, but despite the segregation, the male community has been very supportive. Maybe not the first year we came out, but I still firmly believe that was just a bunch of angry 12-year-olds. If anything, it does fit with the beliefs of a lot of people and so it allows us to continue to operate and continue to help women over there, so I think we got lucky and it works for the best, as far as we’re concerned.

Again, it’s a very small industry, even for the men. It’s mostly independent developers, and even the word independent is probably out of context here, because there is no industry, so we’re probably just all a bunch of amateurs trying to set up games and set up studios.

Kotaku: How small of a game-making community are we talking? Do you know the actual numbers?

Tasneem Salim: It’s very small, with the exception of one studio in Saudi Arabia that has published a game previously on PlayStation and multiple other platforms, which is also still a very small studio. They’ve actually hired a couple of developers who were part of our game jams recently, and we’re very happy about that. Again, that’s just one studio. Then there are a couple of other smaller studios who specialize in mobile, or the bigger budgets go to things like educational games, for example, where people are still trying to break into that because then again, there is the perception that you can’t work in games, that’s a waste of time. Games are a waste of time, so it’s sort of still building up a little bit. Up until we started, it was predominantly male.

Kotaku: In your opinion, what’s the best way to grow that scene, to increase visibility to the world at large? As is, I feel like game development’s very focused on the West, and people kinda think they know about all the other major game development scenes because the Internet’s given even smaller developers more opportunities than ever. But I don’t think many people know about game development in places like Saudi Arabia or, say, Africa or what have you.

Tasneem Salim: It’s by being here and talking about it, I guess, and events like GDC that I hope I try to get the word out. I will admit, we’re probably not doing enough, and we can be doing more to bring it to light. I have actually been considering sort of an international developer’s event here in the states, but that’s sort of a very early, super, super early production stage type thing.

Also, it’s just that the scene, like I said, is very new, so not a lot of the games are polished enough to make it. Even though, for example, my husband is working as a producer on a couple of games that they are discussing right now where they can be published on several big platforms. There are going to be some big names coming out within the next couple years, and hopefully they’ll shed more light on the developing community in general.

Kotaku: In the meantime, how do you plan to evolve your convention going forward?

Tasneem Salim: We are more focused on sustainability and survival rather than evolution at this point. We have tried to expand and go to other cities, which was an immense success, but unfortunately, it was incredibly expensive as well, so at this time we just want to recollect and basically develop a more sustainable strategy for how we can have the con and how we can increase that, and hopefully reaching out outside of Saudi Arabia to bigger names and try and get more support.

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