Video game conference may lose attendees due to travel ban

Ahmed Elgoni felt like he’d struck gold. The 24-year-old video game developer from South Africa had in November secured a ticket to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco — a cultural mecca for anyone who wants to make video games.

A sponsor would cover the cost of his round-trip flight from Cape Town. Just two weeks ago, he received his visa to enter the U.S.

Then President Trump signed an executive order banning refugees and travelers from seven countries.

Elgoni grew up in South Africa, but he was born in Sudan — one of the countries listed as part of the travel ban. As a dual citizen, he now doesn’t know if he can attend GDC, which runs from Feb. 27 to March 3.

“No one’s sure of what’s happening,” he said. “There are lots of conflicting accounts — some people say dual citizens are completely barred, some say it applies only to immigration and not visits — I don’t know if I should risk it.”

A federal judge in Seattle temporarily blocked the president’s immigration restrictions on Friday, but given the hasty implementation of the order and the ongoing back and forth between the White House and the courts (the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing arguments from both sides on Tuesday), some international travelers remain wary of their chances of entering the country.

Last year 27,000 people descended on San Francisco for the week-long video game conference. Of the attendees, 32% were not from the U.S. Shortly after Trump’s immigration ban was announced, GDC offered full refunds to those who could no longer attend the conference because of the executive order. Last week, event organizers were still evaluating how many people were affected, and declined to provide a breakdown of attendees by geographic region. 

Many developers — even those already in the U.S. — lamented the effect the travel ban will have not only on this year’s GDC, but on the local video game industry.

“GDC has been able to blossom because it takes place in a part of the world that’s been open to and accepting of people of all races and identities,” said Navid Khonsari, a green-card-holding game developer of Canadian and Iranian citizenship.

“When you start putting up these walls, it sends out a much bigger message, that we’re not inclusive,” said Khonsari, who has worked on video games such as “Resident Evil”, “Grand Theft Auto” and, most recently, “1979: Revolution.”

The United States plays host to at least half a dozen global video game conferences, with some of the largest taking place in California: the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, in Downtown Los Angeles; GDC in Downtown San Francisco. And while GDC has launched a European chapter, the flagship San Francisco conference remains the must-attend event for developers eager to rub shoulders with their peers.

“The biggest value was in meeting other game developers and showing them my work,” said Mahdi Bahrami, an Iranian game designer who attended GDC for the last three years but decided against attending this year after Trump won the election. 

For game developers, who primarily interact via social networks such as Twitter, GDC represents an opportunity to build both professional relationships and intercontinental friendships. In Bahrami’s case, attending GDC helped him get funding for “Engare,” a game inspired by the culture of Iran. But it was also an opportunity to break down cultural barriers, particularly in an industry that is predominantly white and male. “I learned something, and they learned something,” he said.

Fresh out of college, Elgoni also sees GDC as an opportunity to kick-start his game development career. But unless the travel ban is formally dropped, he doubts he’ll attend.

“I feel that it would be better for me to not go,” Elgoni said. “But deep inside, I really want to go.”

tracey.lien@latimes.com

Twitter: @traceylien

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