On Jan. 27, 2017, Donald Trump signed an executive order barring travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, from entering the United States for a period of 90 days and indefinitely suspending entry for Syrian refugees. The so-called travel ban stands in defiance of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which bans all discrimination against immigrants on the basis of national origin and as such has been challenged by Washington state, among others. But in the meantime, thousands of lives have been disrupted, with over 700 detained, 60,000 visas revoked, and a dangerous precedent set as the Western world threatens to escalate further into fascism.
The ban came down just as many games developers and writers were finalizing travel plans for GDC 2017, which was held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco at the end of February. Many were concerned that they’d be detained and denied entry into the U.S. A few companies tried to help, like Devolver Digital, who offered to showcase games from developers affected by the ban. Some developers canceled plans, while others decided to take the risk. Caught in the crossfire was game developer and writer Creatrix Tiara, a Bangladeshi woman and Australian resident with Malaysian citizenship. All her life she has experienced obstacles in the process of immigration and international travel, but for the first time, the red tape would come with a fear of a country she once called home.
In the United States, we often take for granted that citizenship is established by birthright; those who are born on American soil are considered American citizens. In other countries, it’s not always a guarantee. While Tiara was born in Malaysia, her parents are from Bangladesh, having emigrated in the ‘70s, and thus her naturalization issues began immediately at birth. It would be almost three decades before she would be recognized as a Malaysian citizen. Established as a permanent resident of Malaysia with a Bangladesh passport, Tiara says that growing up, it was easier traveling out of Malaysia than it was to be Malaysian. “[My family] all got pretty used to needing a visa for just about everywhere, even Singapore, next door.”
Bangladesh is considered a high-risk country, not just for being predominately Muslim (a more recent consideration) but also due to its economic status and high rates of undocumented immigrants. Tiara’s family usually experienced harsher visa regulations, facing, among other things, longer waiting times and demands for financial records. While they were able to use what class privilege they had to afford the associated cost, it still wasn’t cheap. She also wasn’t allowed access to many of the benefits of Malaysian citizenship, despite having lived there her entire life. As far as Malaysia was concerned, Tiara was Bangladeshi.
A dedicated student, Tiara moved to Australia in 2006 to complete her Bachelor’s. After earning her degree, she decided to apply for permanent residency, gaining a bridging visa that would allow her to work, study and live legally in Australia. “Malaysia didn’t care that I was no longer there, if anything I suspect they liked that I was gone. Bangladeshis are an extremely vilified race in Malaysia,” she says. But Australia wasn’t much easier. Tiara struggled to find work due to the bridging visa. Employers were reluctant to take on a worker whose application might be rejected, and she couldn’t go back to studying, which would still require international student fees that were four times the amount locals paid. The bridging visa even prevented her from relying on Australia’s social security system, despite her status as a taxpayer.
The staggering financial barriers Tiara experienced highlight how easily class divides can be used to reinforce racism and xenophobia, and vice versa. In the U.S., Asians are seen as the “model minority” and a wide cultural belief is held that those of Asian descent are superior in terms of intelligence and work ethic. What is often not understood is that these sentiments are the result of years of selective immigration allowing only the richest and the brightest into the country. The reality is that many countries make immigration difficult and expensive specifically to reinforce an existing class system.
Eventually, the constant logistical barriers to employment wore Tiara down, and she left Australia for San Francisco, a sanctuary city where she would have better healthcare and support resources. There she would make her first games project during GaymerX’s GXDev jam in 2015. Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers is a response to the critically acclaimed Papers, Please based on her own experiences.
“I played Papers, Please some time after I saw rave reviews for it, and I couldn’t finish it,” Tiara says. “I could not deal with the game’s attempts to make me sympathize with immigrations officials, the people that make my life a living hell. While admittedly the player isn’t acting as the character that makes the rules, customs officials are not free from complicity. I resented having to play my oppressor.
“I had tackled immigration in my other creative work, such as performances or writing or short video,” she says, “and thought of games as another medium of expression. Mostly I was just pissed at Papers, Please.”
Here’s Your Fuckin’ Papers was her first game jam. During a pitching round during GXDev, she proposed “Papers, Please from the POV of the person applying for a visa”. She offered no other details. “I’d never made a game before and had no idea what to expect, but two programmers, Charlotte Tan and Patrick Laban, came up to me saying they liked my idea and wanted to help.” While Tan and Laban could not relate to Tiara’s experiences, they were willing to channel her perspective into a game design that could demonstrate the emotional side of immigration.
The game was more successful than they anticipated, winning the Diplomacy Award for best use of non-violence, which Tiara found ironic given the game’s subject matter, as immigration is often a violent process. She says, “We had a lot of comments from players about how the game helped them really grok what it’s like to deal with the immigration process in ways that writing or performance couldn’t quite achieve.
“It was interesting to see how visceral the response was. You could see the audience wincing whenever they’d hit an obstacle. People who’ve never had to go through the immigration process, whether for a tourist visa or a longer-term visa or to move permanently, have no clue what the process really is like from the inside, not just logistically but also emotionally. They assume it’s like getting a driver’s license, the only tedium being waiting in line. They don’t know how humiliating it can be to have to prove your worthiness, especially if you had the bad luck of being born under circumstances you can’t control. They don’t understand what it’s like to never be able to plan for the future.
“They play Papers, Please and start empathizing with the immigration agent, but don’t stop to really think about the broken laws that power this immigration agent.”
While Tiara thrived in the artistic environment of San Francisco, eventually immigration issues forced her hand. She tried to get a H1B visa, but the various restrictions meant that she was self-selecting out of possible jobs because they didn’t fit visa requirements (which include a 3 year employment contract that pays appropriately, and the employer must sponsor your application). There were other visa options such as the EB-1 and O-visa but she could not afford them. She was getting interviews, but ran out of time and eventually had to go back to Australia.
“Technically I’m now eligible for tons more jobs and funding in Australia, but it’s been half a year since I moved back to Ausland and I’m still underemployed,” she says. “Unlike the US, Australia doesn’t have the same diversity of resources and opportunities, even in supposedly more diverse Melbourne. There is a pretty thriving games community, but I’m still having trouble tapping into it in a sustainable living-wage manner.
“I do theoretically have the freedom to travel: even on a Bangladesh passport, having to deal with onerous visas wasn’t necessarily a barrier, and my Malaysian passport & Aussie PR has made some aspects of that much easier. But it’s not just about visas. It’s about money, and self-sustainability, and community, and resources, and a lot of that is affected by the kind of visa or passport you have.”
Tiara was preparing for the possible trip to GDC when Trump’s travel ban was enacted. She immediately went into crisis mode. Bangladeshi and Malaysian travelers were targeted in the travel restrictions following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, despite the lack of evidence that either country was involved. The chances that she would face trouble getting into the country were high. When she won a spot in the Train Jam diversity program, she applied for a visa and the process was mercifully short. Nonetheless she couldn’t take the stroke of good luck for granted. “I knew full well that things could change even if I made it across the border, and that I was at risk of being attacked because of my gender, sexuality and presumed ethnicity,” she says.
To that end, she designated a Safety Team, setting up a WhatsApp chat of her sister and 11 other close friends from across four countries who would act as crisis management in the event that she was detained. She also chose to fly directly through San Francisco International Airport, knowing they’d be “friendlier” and less likely to deport her.
Still, she was terrified. “I have flown a zillion times since I was literally 40 days old,” she says. “I have been to the US multiple times on two different passports. I had never been as scared as I was flying to [San Francisco] for Train Jam, because suddenly the stakes were higher. Immigration was relatively empty that morning; I clutched my Train Jam invite letter in my hand and tried to stop myself from freaking out because I knew that would just make me look extra suspicious.”
Then, to her surprise, relief and “semi-disappointment”, after a couple of quick questions, she was allowed to pass. The process took less than five minutes. “In some ways it was very anti-climactic,” she says. “I was going to write this big essay about love and conquering fear and dealing with post-Trump America…but nothing happened. It was just like any other day, just further away. It’s not like the US has stopped hassling people they mark as the Other, but somehow I managed to escape all terrible possibilities. No border hassles, no ‘go back to your country,’ no threats to my safety. Somehow it was weirdly safer.”
Once in Chicago, Tiara boarded the train with hundreds of other devs for Train Jam 2017. Together with programmer and artist Malcolm Pierce, audio programmer Charlie McCarron, SFX programmers Reuben Brenner-Adams and Roger Smith II, she created What The Fuck Do They Want Now?, a point and click simulation that depicts the step by step through the process of packing for an international flight.
As the player moves about their surroundings and chooses which items to bring, news updates from the TV and radio alert them to ongoing changes in border restrictions, affecting their stress and suspicion levels and what they select to put in their suitcase. The mechanics were suggested by the team’s Unreal programmer Malcolm Pierce. Tiara says the game is a more literal depiction of her thought process prior to her trip to the U.S., though fictionalized in some respects. “Like Here’s Your Fucking Papers, the game worked on emotions. The actions are pretty simple but its relatively simple structure allowed for the story to be told through news reports and phone calls and other bits of information. We decided to leave the country of the player character ambiguous, because then it would also be possible that the travel ban in the game didn’t affect the player’s country directly but may do so in the future. ”
Originally there were plans to have a second scene where the player is at the airport, navigating the balance of their Anxiety and Suspicion meters while trying to calculate the probability they will be detained. However, as Tiara explains, “Real life doesn’t work like that. You could be the most legit, well-prepared person in the airport and you may still be detained for whatever reason. There’s no real correlation between your level of preparation and your attempts to deal with the border. At some point you can be as informed as you try, and then make a decision that is pretty much tantamount to a coin toss, one that may not be honored on the other side. It’s a good sum up of Immigration, really.”
As for the long term impact of the U.S.’s nebulous and reductive travel restrictions on the international games development community, Tiara, who considers herself a newcomer to the scene, isn’t sure. “I have heard rumblings from a lot of people who opted out of GDC or who couldn’t even make it there because of their visa status, whether actual or presumed. There’s the added difficulty of trying to find jobs within the industry if you’re from certain backgrounds, a process that is already difficult even without the ban. US immigration policies influence other countries, and it’s likely that similar travel bans or restrictions will follow around the world, justified or not. Depending on how much resources and patience a games company has, their ability or willingness to support their employees will differ. And then you have people like me who are mostly solo, stuck in the hobbyist role because they struggle to find a job or start a business that’ll help them make money off making games, and part of their difficulty has to do with their visa status.”
Tiara points out that many publishers and developers, while well-meaning in their attempts to compensate or fight the ban, offer impractical solutions or overlook simple logistics, reinforcing the inequalities they sought to address in the first place. “The creators of Zombies Run recently put out a call for writers and said they’d accept applications from anywhere in the world since it’s a remote position,” she says. “However, they required this person to be available for a team meeting in Tel Aviv. This immediately disqualifies anyone with a Muslim-country passport since those passports tend to have ‘not valid for travel into Israel,’ a requirement that’s been around for decades.
“A huge chunk of the world gets disqualified over factors they can’t control, and this game company didn’t take the effort to think about how their supposed attempts at diversity actually backfired. If they’re already fucking up this way, how do you expect them to respond to the travel ban? Preemptively ban people from applying for jobs there? Closing down offices elsewhere? Only taking in super local people? Options that are actually legal and viable get thrown by the wayside.”
For all her frustrations, though, there’s hope. The strength and organized unity of the resistance to Donald Trump’s presidency has resulted in a newfound awareness in American citizens that has made Tiara feel that, in some ways, things will get better. When the travel ban first hit and people from random countries, including Malaysia, were being detained and sent home, she debated if she should cancel her trip. But in the end she decided to go, with the knowledge that there had been a change in the people. “I had deactivated my social media in preparation for this trip (having heard of people having their phones searched), but people were still invested in my safety and ability to pass,” she says. “Besides the Safety Team and my parents, I also had an email thread of 30 people waiting for updates. Everybody cheered the moment I told them I passed through Immigration fine without detainment. I reactivated my social media as soon as I got to my friend’s house and my status updates were some of the most popular ones I’ve posted. My friends were so worried about me, some were even chatting on their own profiles about me to other people. So many people were invested in my safety through my travel, which is something I’d never experienced any other time I’ve had to deal with visa bullshit.
“The protests and lawsuits were actually really heartening because for the first time I could recall people gave a damn about people like me. They actually cared about visa-holders for once! I figured with that kind of support, even if shit went wrong, I’d have backup. In some ways the Travel Ban is status quo; I’d always known I was at risk of deportation or detainment anyway because of my name and passport and existence. But what was different was all the attention given to it, all the awareness, all the people willing to fight back.”
It’s important that as resistance efforts continue against Trump’s immigration policies we remember the toll of human impact. We get so caught up in punitive justice that we start to forget that, generally, laws exist to create order, with the intention of preventing human pain. When a law is enforced with no consideration as to its greater purpose, it becomes arbitrary. We have to ask ourselves, if the laws are designed to prevent suffering, is a blanket ban based on person’s country of origin or residence lawful? Is it moral to withhold life-sustaining resources over some paperwork?
Trump’s order, since the time this article was put in draft, has changed, but not by much. It has been revised to remove Iraq from the list of restricted countries, and green card holders are no longer included. Syrian refugees are also no longer directly targeted, and the exemption for religious minorities has been removed. However it will still bar entry by refugees for 120 days and ban new visa applications from the remaining six countries for 90 days. It went into effect March 16, 2017, and already the state of Hawaii has stepped up to challenge it.
As for Tiara, she’s still having difficulty finding work in Australia, but she’s writing. She’s hoping to find an extra source of income in the tech industry, one that might offer enough stability to eventually come back to San Francisco. Until then she’s on Patreon and looking for collaborators on a game exploring the subculture surrounding urban street performers. At times she still struggles with what could have been.
“In Australia, despite the paranoia, there wasn’t much threat of being deported, but collaboration was difficult because I was shut out from a lot of resources and community,” she says. “In the US I had many resources, but also a much clearer end date and I couldn’t find a way to buy time [to stay]. I’m confident I could have been hired in a decent job in the US right now if I didn’t have to play by H1B rules.”
As Trump continues to tighten restrictions on our borders, the human toll of lost potential will only grow.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.