Off the Map: Emerging game industries

One of the greatest benefits of my role as executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is to be able to travel extensively around the world and interact with game developers, both professional and aspiring, as well as academics, government officials and a wide range of other individuals. In fact, my travel schedule is so involved at times that I sometimes wonder why I maintain a permanent residence — in 2015, I was traveling nearly 50% of the time!

My various trips often take me to emerging market countries, where I’m usually invited to visit and speak on a wide range of topics, from the state of the game industry to diversity and inclusion to my own culturalization work on video games. While as a geographer I love traveling literally anywhere, it is these trips to emerging markets that are by far the most interesting and enlightening to me, as I’m given the opportunity to see how game developers are striving to follow their passion and express their art via the games medium. The big difference with these developers is that while they have the same intense passion and desire to create games as anyone in an established technology center, they are dealing with significant challenges, from cultural opinions to political opposition, from the high cost of game development hardware and software to local financial systems that are antiquated.

In late January 2016, I was invited to visit Tunisia and serve as one of the keynote speakers for the Global Game Jam activities taking place in Tunis. The Global Game Jam, a legacy of the IGDA, is an annual event in which thousands of game developers worldwide organize into small teams and spend an entire weekend (Friday evening to Sunday evening) creating an entire game from scratch. The game must be based on a theme that is revealed right as the jam begins, so it’s a great opportunity to fire up imaginations and challenge game creators (both professional and prospective developers) to unleash their skills on a fresh problem within a very constrained time frame. As I have at past game jam activities in other countries, I witnessed a phenomenal amount of talent produce a wide variety of interpretations of the event’s theme, with the end result being over 40 games from numerous small teams.

As I wandered through the large auditorium during the event and talked to several teams of developers, a couple of things were very clear. First and foremost, as we’ve elucidated via the IGDA’s annual Developer Satisfaction Survey and other means, it’s completely evident that game creation is a true artistic passion — no less so than someone who desires to express themselves via writing, painting, filmmaking and so on. And this is a universal fact I’ve observed from continent to continent — game developers are artists, and gender, social class, geographic location, economic opportunities and so on really have no impact on that baseline passion to express themselves through the medium of games.

Secondly, while the passion of these Tunisian game developers was no different from any other game creators around the planet, the challenges they face in terms of overcoming infrastructure and policy issues in their country are very significant, and usually not the kind of barriers game developers even have to think about in more developed markets. For example, in my discussions with several developers during my visit, one pain point was very evident: they cannot transact online payments, due to a finance system in a country that is in serious need of upgrading and modernization. This problem can severely limit not only the game developers’ ability to acquire needed tools and resources but also the consumers from actually purchasing the games (legally).

When I met with the Minister of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy, Noomane Fehri, I brought up the issue of online payments. The issue is so well-known (and sensitive) that he jokingly covered his face. But he went on to explain how fixing such fundamental problems is a key priority of his Ministry; they are fully aware of how the lack of basic logistics such as modern payment systems effectively isolate their country from a global marketplace. Of course it doesn’t stop with just financial transactions, but just as important are resources such as adequately-high speed and cost-effective internet service, and even reliable local electricity.

And indeed, that’s one of the key issues I hear expressed everywhere I go: the perceived isolation of their locale makes local game developers feel that they don’t stand much of a chance in getting noticed, or their opportunities are far less. While the aforementioned infrastructure issues are definitely challenges, the reality of the global marketplace for games is that it’s largely location-agnostic. Game players really don’t care where the game was produced, all they care about is whether or not the game is fun and engaging, and thus worth their money. For example, many people I meet still don’t realize that the famous Angry Birds games are produced in Finland, and this franchise essentially put Finland on the global map of game development centers — and has been followed by the highly successful Clash of Clans franchise from Finland. So because of this location-agnostic nature of games media (or any media, really), all game developers, regardless of geography, are working on a level playing field when it comes to the need to market their game and find an audience.

Because of the success of standout franchises such as Angry Birds, I often encounter in emerging markets a tremendous sense of hope being attached to a single game being produced in a country. That hope is that this one game will prove successful, gain global exposure, and show the world that their country is a viable game development center, very much in the same way that Finland became more widely recognized as such (despite having an active game industry for years prior). While I can completely empathize with this desire and I truly hope the best for them, it’s also a dangerous model to follow because the ultimate success of a locale’s game industry is not and should not be built on a single company or single game franchise. That kind of one-off success can certainly be a great boon for a local industry, especially by raising local awareness of their activities, but predicting a success in the global game market is fraught with risk and uncertainty. We understand what people across many demographics like to play, but consumers are ultimately fickle and success is weirdly random at times. There are a lot of great games that go unnoticed.

A better approach is to consider what the Minister of Information Technology in Colombia related to me during my visit to Bogotá in late 2013. During my discussion with him, he related that from his perspective, the video game industry has the potential to be a “cornerstone” of his country’s future — a pretty bold statement coming from a politician! He went on to explain that the game industry is a genuine hub of innovation that acts as a crossroads for many disciplines such as technology, engineering, business, art and design, writing, music and audio sciences. Thus, he felt that if the Colombian government can help build and sustain a robust local game industry, it gives them a great reason to revise and strengthen an excellent education system to feed these jobs. And being so cross-disciplinary, the efforts put into creating a strong game industry will ultimately benefit nearly every other field. Needless to say, I was somewhat dumbstruck by this very progressive view of the role of games because even in the US political circles, this level of understanding of the empowering aspects of games and the positive local impacts of game development companies is very rare.

As game development becomes more and more universal, including the rise of the “hobbyist” developers worldwide, it’s encouraging to see how games are helping enable many technology-minded men and women into careers that may not be as accessible. There are many free tools and educational options available online, and if their local governments can continue to address the key infrastructure challenges that many face, I believe that over the next decade or so we will witness a major shift in the creative outlet of games from being primarily Western and East Asian (mostly Japan) in origin to being far more global in nature.